Commentary | 25 May 2018

Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was glorious. But it’s not ours.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 25 May.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 25 May.

You have to doff your lid to the courtiers at Buckingham Palace.

The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was a great dynastic occasion for the Windsors. It demonstrated again the resilience of this ancient institution and the tenacity of this peculiar family.

Some of the right-on journalists covering the day bought The Firm’s line on the wokeness of the wedding. But the congregation of weak-chinned aristocrats, Sloanies, celebrities and social climbers did not look very subversive to me.

As an historian and a romantic, the royal wedding was good fun.

As a proud Australian, it was a little dispiriting. It was a reminder of our enormous failure of imagination in not demanding our own head of state.

I am an Anglophile. My English father served in the British Army during the Second World War, landing in Normandy a few weeks after D-Day. I studied at Oxford. I have immense respect for British institutions, including the British Parliament and the British civil service.

But I don’t want Australia to borrow the British head of state.

Former prime minister Paul Keating tried to change the constitutional status quo. In an important speech to the Parliament in June 1995, he made the argument for the republic.

“If the plans for our nationhood were being drawn up now, by this generation of Australians and not those of a century ago, it is beyond question that we would make our head of state an Australian. Any suggestion that the British monarch should fill the role would not be entertained.

“Each and every Australian should be able to aspire to be our head of state. Every Australian should know that the office will always be filled by a citizen of high standing who has made an outstanding contribution to Australia and who, in making it, has enlarged our view of what it is to be Australian ...

“We are not a political or cultural appendage to another country’s past. We are simply and unambiguously Australian.”

Keating’s speech was comforting in its sobriety and impressive in its detail. It showed that the republic is neither a dangerous idea nor a revolutionary one.

At the heart of his argument was the simple proposition that the Australian head of state should be an Australian: someone who has chosen to make their life amongst us.

(And no, the two terms that Prince Charles spent at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus do not count.)

Our next prime minister, John Howard, was a life-long, rusted-on monarchist. Howard defended the existing arrangements with lethal effectiveness, manoeuvring the various forces in such a way that in the 1999 referendum, an unholy alliance of maximalist republicans and monarchists outvoted the rest of the republicans.

Since Howard we have had three republican prime ministers: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. Each of them talked a good game. None of them moved us one millimetre closer to a republic.

The royal wedding prompted almost no discussion in Australia about the monarchy, as opposed to the royal family. Perhaps that is because it had nothing to do with our system of government or our national destiny. It was like watching the Oscars, or Eurovision.

Everyone loves a wedding. But it is perfectly possible to take pleasure from the sight of a couple in love, to enjoy the performance of cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and to admire the magnificent stonework in St George’s Chapel – and yet understand that all this royal make-believe has nothing to do with us.

As Malcolm Turnbull said of Prince Harry’s grandmother in 1992: “Whatever the Queen may represent to Australians, she does not represent Australia ... We may have a Queen of Australia, but we do not have an Australian Queen.”

Surely we can find from within our ranks someone worthy to be our next head of state – someone who is at least as wise, well-intentioned and well-qualified as Prince Charles, Prince William or Prince George!

Much play was made of the fact that the train of Ms Markle’s dress featured 53 floral emblems sewn into the fabric to represent the nations of the Commonwealth. But more than half of the member countries of the Commonwealth are republics with their own heads of state. Are we so derivative and hopeless that we cannot join them?

Of all the attendees at the wedding, the one who impressed me most was the mother of the bride, Doria Ragland. She had a quiet dignity that contrasted favourably with all the fancy dress and tiaras.

You might say, in fact, that Ms Ragland carried herself with a simplicity and self-respect that seemed almost republican.