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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The real reason for royal visit

The real reason for royal visit

Aron Paul
March 18, 2011
 
William, like the Queen, is an enigma, but his travels show he wants to stake a claim to the realm beyond Britain.

The British Empire is dead, but it still flies in the corner of our flag, and a royal visit still stirs excitement. Touring disaster zones offering comfort and boosting morale is part of the job of royalty - since ancient times kings have fulfilled the role not just of ruling but of feeling for their people. Today, global celebrities can do the job just as well - imagine the frenzy were Oprah Winfrey to return to our shores and visit flood-ravaged Charlton or Toowoomba.

Yet royals have always had a political role as well, in so far as they claim to represent not just themselves but, as Menzies put it, ''something higher than the everyday''.

Past princely visitors often bore particular political meanings relevant to the times, but what is the meaning of Prince William's visit in 2011?

Prince Alfred, who excited colonial Australia with a six-month tour in 1867-8, was greeted as a bearer of civilisation by colonists building new cities and towns in the ''wilderness''. English, Scots, Germans and even Chinese lined up to present their guest with loyal addresses declaring that ''in changing our skies, we have not changed our minds''. Australians used the visit to demonstrate all too eagerly that they were not, in fact, Australian. Aboriginal people were displayed at missions to show the prince how they had adopted the culture of the colonisers.

In 1901, Prince George's visit transformed the Federation of Australia into a celebration of imperial unity. At a speech to students at Melbourne University, the prince told students that life was made up of loyalty ''to your parents, your country, your King and your God''. It was this chain of loyalty that would lead Australia to sacrifice its men on the altar of the Great War.

In 1920, the dashing and reckless young man who would later abdicate the throne as Edward VIII toured Australia. He was labelled ''the Digger Prince'' for his military background and used by the government to stir anti-communist sentiment. The determinedly ''modern'' prince declared that the empire was not bound by mere tradition, but by race. After the shedding of so much blood in the war, eugenics was at its zenith and population was Australia's chief concern - that it should have more of it and, as the prince declared, ''that it should remain all British''.

Such sentiments lost their relevance in the post-colonial and multicultural postwar world. The symbols struggled to reinvent themselves.

When Prince Charles launched the Australian bicentenary alongside Princess Diana in 1988, he was clearly uncomfortable at the incongruity of being called to preside over the birthday of so ''young'' a nation. Australia, after all, was cutting loose its imperial past. Without history, and without empire, the prince was left standing at the podium making idle chit-chat rather than the grand political statements of his forebears. One of his hosts in 1977, the entertainment mogul Harry Miller, claimed in his autobiography that the prince said ''he couldn't understand why Australia bothered with us [the royals] - we really are yesterday's news''.

The history that had underpinned the legitimacy of the monarchy had been demolished, but the royal family still cringed in its shadow.

Prince William, however, represents the first generation free of that shadow. His history is not that of the empire. His history is declared in his choice of engagement ring - the story of his mother, Princess Diana, the embodiment of global celebrity. Diana was a rebel to tradition, an opposite of her stoic and history-conscious husband.

William's recent itinerary, including visits to Northern Ireland and Australasia and impending honeymoon in Canada, shows the prince may not be as ready as his father to surrender the kingdom beyond Great Britain. William has also distinguished himself from his father in another way. Like his grandmother the Queen, William is an enigma. By contrast, Prince Charles has been vocal about his political views. We know Charles condemns Modernist architecture as ''carbuncles'', that he promotes organic farming, has been outspoken about Tibet, Palestine and environmental sustainability. Of William's views on all these things, we know as little as we do about the Queen's.

In Britain, the traditions and history of the country can more easily sustain an enigma on the throne. For ''the sceptred isle'', the imperial adventure is just one episode in a longer history. In the old ''overseas dominions'', particularly a self-professedly ''young'' Australia, a new history must be created. That is the most obvious reason behind William's visit. His presence at the sites of our national traumas weaves royalty into their history. At his ascent to the throne, which grows more likely the more time passes without a republic, we will doubtless be reminded that, as a young man, the king was with us.

What ''higher things'' beyond his personality and celebrity the prince and future king represents this time, however, remain mysteries to his future subjects. Perhaps, in a world where history and politics have been left behind, there are no higher things than fame itself.

Dr Aron Paul is a writer and historian. He wrote his PhD in history at the University of Melbourne on royalty and the Australian nation, 1867-1997.

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