Somewhere out there is a vaguely Left-wing Aussie professor who owes me a hundred bucks. The only trouble is that I can’t remember his name, so I am shamelessly using this column to jog his memory.
Come on, cobber. Cough up. You remember the bet. It must have been about 20 years ago that we were all sitting in a bar in Melbourne, drinking prodigious quantities of Victoria Bitter. I was then a visiting professor of European Thought at Monash University. (I know, I know: I want to thank the academic who invited me for his excellent sense of humour, and I continue to regret that he was mysteriously deprived of his post shortly after my last lecture, a frenzied dithyramb of unreconstructed Euro-scepticism).
On that particular evening, I was teasing some of my colleagues about their ever-so-slightly correct way of thinking. There was a scholar of gender studies and a theorist of animal rights, and there was some tut-tutting when I suggested that Aboriginal art could not really be compared in quality with, say, the masterpieces of the Florentine Renaissance. But what really got them going was when we moved on to the constitution. Tell you what, I said: I bet you the Queen is still the Australian head of state in – and I paused, trying to think of a date so far in the future as to make the bet seem fair – the year 2000! A throaty cackle went up from the group. “No way, mate,” they said, republicans to a person.
I shook hands on the wager with one of them – an expert on Saussure, I think – and we even wrote it down. The wretched thing is that I lost the bit of paper, and by the time 2000 rolled round, with the Queen still firmly on her throne as the constitutional monarch of Australia, I had forgotten all about it. In fact, I might never have remembered at all, had I not been sitting yesterday in a crowded Putney Odeon, watching the afternoon showing of The King’s Speech. At one stage Logue, the voice coach, reminds the future king that he is about to reign over Australia, and I thought, strewth – it’s still true. We are now some way into 2011, and Her Maj occupies the same position in Oz (and Canada and New Zealand) as her father. That’s incredible, I thought – and where’s my $100?
There are all sorts of reasons why the film is so gripping, and why it deserves to win every Oscar going. Director Tom Hooper has done a quite brilliant job. Colin Firth is wonderfully plausible in conveying the tortured duty of George VI. Geoffrey Rush gives a Shakespearean quality to the voice coach – a Fool-in-Lear who is both impertinent and achingly loyal. As the king’s coquettish wife, Helena Bonham-Carter reminds us of the key political role once played by the woman most of us remember as the beaming old Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The whole thing is a triumph, and you will find tears pricking your eyes if not pouring down your cheeks when we get to the climax, and the King manages more or less without a hitch or a stammer to read his first wartime broadcast to the nation. We see him walking out of the Palace studio to the acclaim of his staff; we see them clapping at the BBC; we see huge crowds cheering in the Mall, and for a second you are invited to ask yourself, why? Why do we feel so proud and so moved? For heaven’s sake, the fellow has only succeeded in semi-competently reading a few pages of typescript into a microphone. He didn’t even write it. Why is it so important to us that he should overcome his b-b-b-blinking stammer and discharge this routine task? The answer, of course, is that he is the King, and at the outbreak of a terrifying war he incarnates the nation, its hopes and fears, in a way that no one else can.
My old chum Jonny Freedland of The Guardian wrote a lovely piece the other day, in which he brooded on the success of The King’s Speech, and the fascination with royalty that still exists – as he was forced to concede – in the hearts of the people. Many years ago, Freedland wrote a first-rate polemic called Bring Home The Revolution, in which he called for Britain to adopt the republicanism of her American progeny. It hasn’t happened. It won’t happen. There isn’t a cat’s chance in hell of it happening. In a way that is both irrational and astonishing, human beings still seem to respond to, and respect, the concept of hereditary transfer of authority. I don’t just mean in African tribal systems. Look at the supposedly socialist and egalitarian systems of Korea (father to son) or Cuba (brother to brother).
Look at Syria (father to son). Look at Egypt, where the crowds have just woken – under the influence of Tunisia – to interrupt what would have otherwise been the narcotic transition from Mubarak the elder to Mubarak the younger. Look at America – revolutionary, republican America – where for the last 20 years politics has been dominated by two families, the Bushes and the Clintons, and where there is now talk of Jeb Bush succeeding his father and brother.
In many of these cases, the family transitions are, of course, outrageous to democracy, but they reflect a weird superstition, a prehistoric yearning that still exists in our species. That is why the dualism of the British system is so cunning and so effective. The kings and queens of Britain are no longer called upon to do, but to be.
Prince William will not take any executive decisions about emptying dustbins, let alone war and peace, and that is frankly a thoroughly good thing. But people all over the country will recognise that his wedding is an event in the life of the nation; and in spite of all their cynicism, Jonny Freedland’s legions of Guardian readers will be unable to stop themselves buying royal wedding mugs and dishcloths and watching the whole thing on TV with an inexplicable sense of pleasure. As for whether William will be King of Australia – I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.
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Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.