John Collinge: Long may the Queen reign over us

The New Zealand High Commission in London has many functions - with Government, the Foreign Office, the City of London, the Commonwealth and so on - but, happily, there is also the relationship with the head of state.

When I had occasion once to propose a toast to Her Majesty, I toasted her as the "Queen of New Zealand" rather than as the more usual "Queen of United Kingdom and other Realms". Immediately, I saw the Duke raise his eyebrows and I thought that I may have unwittingly put my foot in it.

But we were after all in the New Zealand Residence in London (ie on New Zealand soil) at a New Zealand occasion. The Queen is separately the Queen of New Zealand by virtue of the will of the New Zealand Government and its people - not just because she is also the Queen of Great Britain.

The Queen obtains her status from the will of the New Zealand people.

She has always said in her famous phrase that "if the monarchy is not wanted we will go quietly", and the Duke said early on that "the monarchy does not exist for the monarch - it exists for the people".

The sentiment that it is for the people of New Zealand alone was also pointedly and quite deliberately expressed to me by the British Government through the Secretary of State.

Make no mistake, I do not believe that the British Government or the monarchy would ever seek to influence that decision by the New Zealand people.

Further, it is the absolute right of any Prime Minister of New Zealand to express a personal view in favour of New Zealand becoming a republic.

However, it is a convention that in such circumstances the monarch is advised first. That did not happen in the case of one Prime Minister and, although the Queen did not say so, I became aware of disappointment through her aides.

How are such matters communicated by the palace? Not by diplomatic note in the case of the Foreign Office, but by gentle aside in a low-key way. But the meaning is clear.

If there were to be a New Zealand republic, the Queen would, I believe, be disappointed to lose the role as head of state. That is because it is plain that she takes it so seriously and clearly has great affection for this country.

As to communications with the head of state, in view of the nature of the Queen's position, this is not done on a hotline phone-call basis. Rather, with due deference, one usually awaits for the palace to take the initiative.

There was no shortage of that initiative and the palace went out of its way to ensure that the New Zealand High Commissioner participated in anything at all appropriate - not to him personally but as a representative of New Zealand.

That starts, on arrival, by way of an informal chat with the Queen. Ambassadors are received with carriages, motorcades, pomp and ceremony but High Commissioners (ie those from the Commonwealth) get nothing but a personal chat. Although it may seem strange, it is a compliment - a chat among friends rather than a formal reception.

It is a recognition of the fact that a High Commissioner arrives from a country of which the Queen is head of state to a country of which she is also head of state. In a way, a High Commissioner is her emissary to herself. This informal chat in an extended family context is meant as a compliment. For the British, life is not meant to be straightforward but abounds with nuances.

The first thing you notice about the Queen is her personal dignity and professionalism in the job - the purpose and the constancy she brings to the role. That is, of course, so well known and acknowledged by all that I am not telling you anything new in that.

But after the first impression, you begin quickly to realise how well informed she is about New Zealand. Not only the black-letter knowledge or hard news but also the soft news, ie the awareness of what is going on here and the personalities involved in it.

I had come from being president of the National Party and at the time was an insider on most things that were happening. I remember thinking, on meeting the Queen for the first time, that the Prime Minister would be mortified if he knew what she knew about the inner workings and personalities of Government in New Zealand.

Where does she get that knowledge? I can assure you that she is not briefed through the New Zealand High Commission to that level. She may get input from the British diplomatic service or the Governor-General but it could not be as detailed as that. The fact is that, in my view, the palace takes its own steps to be independently informed and advised from New Zealand itself. The process is no doubt helped by the fact that at the time three of her staff at the palace were New Zealanders.

When I had my initial audience with the Queen it was the time of the fall of communism in Russia and the discussion turned at her suggestion to whether that would also affect China. Would it be the next to fall?

I had been on a state visit to the People's Republic and had read a little Chinese history. I ventured that over the millennia the Chinese had extraordinary success with the longevity of their dynasties - much longer than ours. Immediately, I said this I knew it could be interpreted as being in comparison with the Windsor dynasty. She politely moved on to the next subject - and saved me.

I spoke about the professionalism of the Queen in performing the formal duties. There is another side also. I experienced this when invited to Windsor Castle to dine with about 20 people, about half of whom were clearly close friends of the Queen and Duke. In that environment, Her Majesty was very down to earth in a natural and homely way and one might have been forgiven from thinking that she was just like anyone else might be in their own home relaxing among friends. That was an eye-opener to me.

Yes, there were some 14 corgis running free around the reception room - around the feet of the guests. It was noticeable that there were more than two members of staff making sure that everything was toward and that if the dogs disgraced themselves it was readily amended. And they did. I remember thinking at the time - although not quite expecting this and thinking it a little unusual - that if the sovereign did not have special privileges of this kind there was little point in being one.

Another impression which you hear is that the monarchy is unreceptive to change. Frankly, I think that there are dangers in being too progressive in that context but my experience is that the monarchy is responsive to change. The Queen has herself noted that change is a constant and she has eased the monarchy out of aloofness but not so far as familiarity breeds contempt.

We have constitutional monarchy and this is sometimes equated with the absence of power and a minor role. But the role of monarch can have special significance.

For example, an IRA bomb planted in the Grand Hotel in Brighton at a Conservative Conference, aimed at killing Margaret Thatcher, killed five others. The Queen, who was in Wyoming at the time, declined for many hours to take a call from Ronald Reagan until she had spoken to the Prime Minister first. It was a matter of recognising the security of her Government and emphasising the will to go forward. Symbolic gestures can result in powerful and important messages.

Back in New Zealand, I am aghast at the republican agenda based solely on some philosophical position, upon some remembrance that distant forebears were in 1798 engaged in the Wexford Uprising, upon some false idea that it is to New Zealand's advantage to stand alone in the world, and so on. That agenda is having significant success - the honours system, the Privy Council, and so on. The agenda appears to be that, one day, ultimately the monarchy in New Zealand will look anachronistic.

I am a monarchist myself not because of philosophy, or history, or tradition, or the home of my forebears, or an emotional attachments, or even respect for the magnificent service of the Queen. The issue is for me institutional and not personality driven. I am a monarchist because I believe that we part from an established order only when a substantial case is made that departure is in New Zealand's self interest.

We are not so different from Britain that we need to express it by having a separate head of state. In fact, in the world we are a natural complement to Britain - the big guy and the little guy working in tandem to the mutual benefit of both. Like it or not, we are and are still seen as closely linked to Britain in the world. When you think about it, there are few countries so close. The monarchy helps provide international theatre and image for New Zealand. It is in our interests to look outwards and not inwards. There is not in my view at the present time any reason of moment to change or advantage to secure.

To date, of course, the opinion polls tell us that the monarchy is still favoured by a considerable majority here - by some 65-70 per cent. In fact, by a majority which narrowly exceeds that in Britain on one opinion poll at least. We may be even more loyal to the monarchy than the people of Britain.

That is so notwithstanding the seemingly massive agitation to the contrary. It is a classic case of the media not being able to impose its own views on the people by the power of the press.

Queen Elizabeth's contribution has been that she has sustained the monarchy for 50 years to date in years of great change and aggressive attacks. She has also gradually redefined it to a lower key and to be a more integral part of our society. Long may it last.


* John Collinge, a former NZ High Commissioner to London, gave this speech to the Monarchist League on the 50th anniversary of the Queen's coronation.

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