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How to be British in the 21st Century

By Dennis Altman - posted Friday, 15 June 2012

It may seem strange that Australian honours are awarded on a public holiday to honour the Queen's birthday, which actually took place two months earlier. No odder, however, to the strange situation where Australia has in effect two heads of state, one of whom resides on the other side of the world and is represented not only by a Governor General but by six state governors.

Just how Gilbertian is our relationship to the monarchy was brought home by the events surrounding the Queen's diamond jubilee. At no time were the events portrayed as if we were celebrating our own sovereign, but rather as a grand spectacle taking place for the people of Britain. At the same time polls show that republican sentiment has declined in Australia, and a majority of people feel no contradiction between national identity and the retention of the monarchy.

In practice this is a harmless piece of flummery, that might, at least, protect us from too grovelling an attitude towards the American President. [It is not uncommon to read accounts of President Obama as if he too were in some unspecified way our head of state]. In part it is probably a reflection of the current distrust of politicians, and a lack of interest in larger civic questions. But it reminds us that despite massive post-war migration and forty years of multiculturalism, Australia remains to some extent a British society.


Some years ago David Malouf wrote a Quarterly Essay called Made in England, in which he reminded us that: "We may remove the Union Jack from our flag if it seems useful to do so, and the Queen from our political life. What we cannot remove is the language we speak, and all that is inherent in it: a way of laying out experience, of seeing, that comes with the syntax, a body of half-forgotten customs, and events, fables, insights, jokes, that makes up its idioms, a literature that belongs, since there is nothing that ties it mystically to one patch of soil, as much to the English-speaking reader in Perth, Australia as in Perth Scotland."

Traditionally Liberal Prime ministers-Menzies; Howard-have represented the British link, while Labor ones have stood for independence and, at least in the case of Keating, republicanism. But our current Prime Minister, while in theory a republican, is herself born in Britain and could not resist flying to London for the wedding of William & Kate, even though the Governor General was also on hand to represent Australia.

The real role of the monarchy is to bolster the illusion that Britain remains a great power, an illusion made easier by the current troubles of the European Union, of which Britain is both a member and a disgruntled critic. Britain maintains a permanent seat on the Security Council, and a small nuclear arsenal. And London remains a centre for global financial transactions, and an important seat for international diplomacy.

In the year of the Jubilee, the Olympics and a troubled euro, it is possible to still believe that a country of 60 million matters. Certainly its shadow still hangs over Australia, and our perceptions of the world, which are largely shaped by either American or British influences. On the Queen's birthday evening Four Corners broadcast a superficial and condescending view of the current European crisis bought from the BBC. I am not sure if the timing was accidental, but it underlined the extent to which we remain dependent on Britain for much of how we see the world.

While our popular culture is heavily influenced by the United States, Britain remains a source for much of what we read and watch. British television programs still occupy a certain amount of screen time-think of the current popularity of Downton Abbey-and British novels remain amongst our best sellers. Our Universities still look to Britain, although the tradition of importing our Vice Chancellors from there has largely disappeared.

Despite the shifting of trade and investment to the Asia/Pacific, Australian business still is disproportionately bound up with Britain [our two biggest mining companies are after all joint British-Australian ventures]. It is perhaps symbolic that Qantas's closest partnership remains with British Air, and that other than Frankfurt, London is the only European destination it serves. Of course it is competition on the kangaroo route-and the inability of Qantas to fly its passengers to other parts of Europe-that is partly responsible for its current problems.


If many of the links to Britain are a product of history and personal ties [for most Australians are still of British ancestry], the drawbacks are that there is a laziness in our continued reliance on British perceptions of the world. Other than the reports from al Jazeera on SBS News, media coverage of the rest of the world comes to us largely from British and American journalists

Like many Australians I have no British ancestry, and when I am in Britain I am conscious that it is in many ways an amalgam of the foreign and the familiar. There are some advantages to this, most significantly the kinship we have with the fifty or so countries, once also British colonies, who make up the Commonwealth. In Africa, in the Caribbean, in south Asia, even in Malta and Belize, we share something of the commonality Malouf points to.

Australians have been remarkably disinterested in the Commonwealth, except for the quadrennial Games where we follow any sport in which we might win a gold medal, and ignore everything else. When the Commonwealth heads of government met in Perth last year the presence of fifty heads was overshadowed by the Queen's visit. Yet for a country isolated by its history and geography the Commonwealth is a remarkable opportunity to build both official and unofficial links to countries as diverse-and significant--as India, South Africa, Nigeria and Malaysia.

It is true that our history is fundamentally different to all but a few of the "old dominions", and that non-indigenous Australians relish in our imperial roots in a way not possible for those who had to fight for independence. But my own experience is that the links of the Commonwealth are both gossamer thin and potentially strong, and we miss a great deal by ignoring them.

We are more British than we like to imagine and less British than our conservative pro-monarchist Establishment wants us to be. Perhaps it is time to rethink how we might take advantage of the ways in which our Britishness links us to hundreds of millions of people across the world who have no problem in asserting their own sense of national identity even while recognising the historical connections to the once imperial power.

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Dennis Altman has recently written for Griffith Review on the same theme in "Paradox of Identity".

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Dennis Altman is professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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