Queen Elizabeth: A Bradman Among the Royals

Greg Sheridan, in The Australian, 20 September 2022, where the title runs thus “Queen was the Bradman among the Royals

I once stood up Prince Charles, as he then was, for a social occasion. I may be the only Australian ever guilty of such a solecism. Forty-odd years ago I was working for the now defunct Bulletin magazine. A friend in the state government sent me an invitation to a morning tea with the visiting prince. I was a republican, but not remotely hostile to the prince. Nor did I have any interest in him. He seemed a bit lame and daffy – listening to his plants and all that – but really he just had no claim on my mind.

I didn’t boycott the event, I just forgot to attend.

Here is a paradox of the new King’s situation. If he is to be a successful head of state for Australia, he must become just as boring as he was then, but in an entirely new way.

People often say to politicians: don’t just stand there, do something! For Charles, good advice is the exact reverse: Don’t do something, just stand there.

King Charles III and Britain's Camilla, Queen Consort look at members of the Bearer Party transferring the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II after the State Funeral Service. Picture: AFP
King Charles III and Britain’s Camilla, Queen Consort look at members of the Bearer Party transferring the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II after the State Funeral Service…. Picture: AFP

Occasionally I’m asked for an assessment of Queen Elizabeth’s contribution to foreign policy. The truth is the Queen, whose self-discipline across an epic career was magnificent, never gave us the faintest idea what views she had on any foreign policy issue.

You can say she was supportive of the Commonwealth, but that’s like saying she was supportive of the UK. She was the head of the Commonwealth, just as she was monarch of the UK. She was “in favour” of both.

The Queen was nonetheless a superb monarch. She richly deserves all the tributes. I came to admire her after growing up without one speck of subjective affection for the British monarchy. My ancestors came from Ireland after the Great Famine of the 1840s. A quarter of Ireland’s population died or emigrated.

The British government was not responsible for the potato blight but it wanted to clear Irish peasants from inefficiently cultivated land. Potato crops failed in several areas of Europe. But only Ireland starved. British relief efforts were not remotely adequate. Ireland was forced to export food to Britain as its people starved. Tim Pat Coogan in The Famine Plot joins other historians in pronouncing this a deliberate act of British policy and a crime against humanity.

Talk of all this was the stuff of my childhood. But no one alive in today’s Britain, including the royal family, bears any responsibility for something that happened almost 200 years ago.

Britain's Prince William and Prince George attend the Queen’s State Funeral Service. Picture: AFP
Britain’s Prince William and Prince George attend the Queen’s State Funeral Service…. Picture: AFP

I’m not planning to sue the British government for compensation. My ancestors probably would not have come to Australia without the potato famine so, individually, I could even be seen as a beneficiary of this historic crime. When Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s behaviour in the potato famine, I didn’t see it as righting a historic wrong, I just thought it another absurd bit of nonsense where a politician sounds magnanimous by apologising for someone else’s actions. You cannot be responsible for, nor meaningfully apologise for, something somebody else did 200 years ago.

I recount all this just to say it was perfectly natural to grow up fully patriotic towards Australia, with no attachment to the British royal family.

Despite my Irish prejudices, I think overall – in net terms as it were – Britain has been a hugely positive contributor to human welfare. British institutions, ideas and literature are essential to Western modernity, and Western modernity is still the freest, most beneficial social organisation the human race has devised. An elusive, complex, fluid part of this is the monarchy.

Princess Charlotte of Wales looks out of the car window as she arrives at Windsor Castle the Committal Service for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Picture: AFP
Princess Charlotte of Wales looks out of the car window as she arrives at Windsor Castle the Committal Service for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II….. Picture: AFP

I’ve been a republican all my life and voted Yes in the 1999 referendum. I am still a theoretical republican but now find myself in that paradoxical category: republicans for a constitutional monarchy. I would vote No to any republican referendum now. It’s inconceivable, in this time of peak woke madness, that any change to the Constitution could produce something as stable and good as we have now. My monarchism is entirely pragmatic.

Witnessing what a good head of state Queen Elizabeth has been was important. She was careful, willing to change incrementally, dignified, unfailingly courteous, generous and supremely disciplined, never expressing a political view.

Her family was a little like a high class, Kardashian-style celebrity train wreck, but that’s not her fault.

She never interfered in our politics. When Paul Keating was prime minister we were given to understand the royals were quite relaxed about our becoming a republic, even positive as it would lead to a better relationship between with Britain.

When John Howard was PM we were given to understand the Queen was overwhelmingly happy we voted No.

The Queen never expressed a preference in public at all. She always considered it a matter entirely for Australians.

The royal family and the monarchy are quite different in the UK from in Australia, different constitutionally, culturally and emotionally. Tony Abbott once shrewdly observed that our version of monarchy was superior to the Brits’. We invariably had a good monarch and a good governor-general to act as the final guarantee of our Constitution. As the notional embodiments of state sovereignty, they ensured that no mere politician, or even cause, could ever elevate themselves to personalised sovereignty. The constitutional role for Charles now is to be the still, silent, immovable centre of our stable constitutional order.

It also helped that the Queen was such a good person.

Not only is there the evidence of 70 years of exemplary public conduct, the private testimony is overwhelming.

In 1979 Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was, with several others, murdered in a despicable IRA bombing. It was a terrible day for the Queen. John Dauth, who went on to a stellar career in Australian diplomacy, was working in Buckingham Palace as one of three press secretaries, under a scheme where bright young Canadians and Australians were temporarily seconded to the palace. He was the press duty officer that day.

He received a call from the Foreign Office telling him about Mountbatten. He rang the Queen’s private secretary to make sure she knew. And then for 12 hours, without a second’s break, the palace patched every media inquiry through to Dauth. He took hundreds of calls. Well after midnight, the Queen herself rang him: “You’ve had a very trying day, John. I suggest you go to bed and get some rest.”

Here is kindness, solidarity, consideration and appreciation you cannot fake.

It’s as though the royal family has lost its Don Bradman. Kerry O’Keeffe is the next man in to bat. Play a dead bat, prolong the innings.

* cricketcountry.com/articles/don-bradman-15-lesser-known-facts-about-the-99-94-dude-322623

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