Birds Of A Feather: If Edward VIII had been a less enamoured sex-slave to Wallis Simpson and a more convinced fascist, it is entirely possible that he could have completely upended the British constitution. Royal words, and deeds, still matter - as the political impact of the Maori King's, Tuheitia Paki's, intervention earlier this week attests.
IT’S AN INTRIGUING COUNTERFACTUAL to contemplate. What if Edward VIII had been a less enamoured sex-slave to Wallis Simpson and a more convinced fascist? It is entirely possible that a highly politicised King, ably assisted by Winston Churchill (who, in real life, fought right up until Edward’s abdication speech to keep him on the throne) David Lloyd-George (Britain’s Prime Minister during World War I) and Sir Oswald Mosley (leader of the British Union of Fascists) could have completely upended the British constitution.
Early in 1936 Edward had given hope to millions of unemployed workers, and heart palpitations to the Conservative Government of Stanley Baldwin, by declaring that “something must be done” about the appalling poverty he had just witnessed on a royal visit to South Wales.
British monarchs were not supposed to say such things. But, let us suppose that Edward had continued to speak out against poverty and mass unemployment. Let us further suppose that his younger brother, George, the Duke of Kent, had used his contacts with Nazi-sympathising German aristocrats to forge an alliance with like-minded members of the British upper-classes? With the additional assistance of the brilliant outcast politicians mentioned above – all of them desperate to restore their dwindling political fortunes – a more intelligent and dynamic Edward VIII would have had every chance of successfully carrying-off a royal coup d’état.
Even today there are elements within the British establishment who dread the ascension of the Prince of Wales. Unlike his remarkable mother, who has maintained the constitutional proprieties impeccably for the whole of her 64-year reign, it is feared that King Charles III may not be content to remain above the political fray. Imagine a King who tweeted? A King who to read his own Speech from the Throne? In the throes of another economic crisis, and unwilling to be ‘rescued’ by a political class they both despise and distrust, what might Charles III’s subjects not do?
What has prompted these musings on the residual power of the monarchy? Obviously, it was the extraordinary, and apparently impromptu, political observations of Tuheitia Paki, the Maori King. The latter’s disparaging remarks about the Labour Party, coupled with his de facto endorsement of the Maori and Mana parties, have garnered the Kingitanga movement considerable media coverage. It is a matter of some significance that, to date, media coverage has offered little in the way of criticism of the King’s actions. Maori and Pakeha journalists, alike, have not thought it necessary to condemn Tuheitia for stepping into the fraught arena of electoral politics.
The NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, has had no such qualms. “It is disappointing the Maori King has been used in such a sad way,” said Mr Peters. “There is no way his predecessor, the Maori Queen, would ever have done that.”
Perhaps not. But was his predecessor’s reticence born of what she perceived to be her purely ceremonial status? Or, was her silence on electoral matters merely a concession to the prevailing political realities of her reign. For the past 153 years, the Kingitanga has maintained a respectful distance from the Settler State. This is hardly surprising: military invasion and land confiscation tends to dampen even the most courageous people’s political ardour.
The Kingitanga’s long-standing recognition of the Settler State’s power to do it harm, indicated by its dignified silence, has been misinterpreted by Pakeha politicians as indigenous acceptance of the rules of constitutional monarchy. Like his British counterpart’s, the Maori monarch’s status is regarded as purely symbolic and ceremonial. That he or she might aspire to being an independent political actor, wielding real political power, is not something Pakeha New Zealand has seriously contemplated since 1863.
Much has changed since that violent period of our history. The Settler State is no longer the predatory beast that assailed the earthworks at Rangiriri. The need for Kingitanga reticence is not so great now as it was during the reign of Dame Te Atairangikaahu, King Tuheitia’s predecessor. In his keynote speech to mark the tenth anniversary of his ascension, the Maori King spoke of Maori exercising dual sovereignty over Aotearoa-New Zealand by 2025. This is less constitutional monarchy than it is constitutional revolution.
Royal words matter. If you doubt it, then just imagine the effect on Jeremy Corbyn’s fortunes if Queen Elizabeth II declared herself a life-long Labour supporter.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 August 2016.