No "referees above politics"!

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2020 - 6:51 Author: Dan Rawnsley
Gough Whitlam

A piece of recent history made its way into the British press on 14 July. On 11 November 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, John Kerr, dismissed the elected Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and installed Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser in his place.

The Governor-General acts as representative for the monarch and is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. In the run up to the coup Kerr was in frequent written communication with the Queen’s personal secretary, Baron Charteris. The letters were released on 14 July after a long campaign and legal challenge by Professor Jenny Hocking of Monash University.

Kerr didn’t inform the Queen about his coup before carrying it out. However, Charteris seems to have encouraged the idea, for instance sending Kerr a clipping from the Canberra Times that discussed dismissing Whitlam.

This is not a story of a powerful monarch dissolving a reforming Labour government, but rather a more familiar story about a member of the ruling class, Baron Charteris, placing the economic needs of that class above normal democratic functioning.

Then as today the powers of the monarchy are generally exercised not directly, but through other state actors. Formally in the UK the monarch has the power to deploy troops and make treaties and gives royal assent to laws, but these things happen on the say-so of the Prime Minister. In September 2019 Boris Johnson attempted to prorogue (suspend) parliament using power formally held by the monarch.

Abolishing the monarchy in and of itself is no guarantee that the sort of powers that dismissed the Kerr government will disappear. The mainstream republican campaign in the UK, Republic, limits itself to calls for a head of state who can be an impartial referee above politics – exactly the sort of function the Governor-General of Australia is supposed to carry out!

It is impossible to have a referee “above politics” because to do so places certain political functions outside of political discussion. The advocates of a referee are in fact saying that right of capital to overrule democracy and dominate labour is “just business”, or just a matter of making sure the state avoids economic disruption.

The bourgeoisie need safeguards to protect their rule from an excess of democracy. As Charteris put it in one of his letters to Kerr, “good government… especially at a time of grave economic disruption, is the only thing that counts and the most extreme steps to ensure this must be taken if there is no other way.”

Socialists in the UK must call for the abolition of the monarchy, and do so as part of a raft of demands for deep and thoroughgoing democratic reform.

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