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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition 14/3/2002

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

14th March 2002

Special Recolonial Recriminations Issue

Upton-on-line reflects on the great history curriculum hullabaloo occasioned by James Belich’s bid to exorcise our recolonial demons, some words of wisdom from Ferdinand Mount on monarchy as a user-friendly source of authority and how the uncrowned but unquestionably aristocratic Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is approaching the task of writing up a constitution for Europe.


Celebrity shock

As someone who only studied history as far as the seventh form, but reads more history today than anything else, upton-on-line has been rather taken by nice little pocket skirmish that has broken out over the teaching of history in New Zealand schools. Since few diasporans (and possibly even resident New Zealanders?) read a publication entitled the Sunday Star Times, it may be necessary to summarise the outbreak of hostilities.

It all started in the edition of 3rd February of the said tabloid in which James Belich, New Zealand’s very own answer to Simon Schama, was reported to be variously ‘alarmed’, ‘shocked’ and ‘at his wits end’ about the state of history teaching. The source of this celebrity anguish was said to be the following history gets in secondary schools. Only 15% of school certificate students took the paper in 1999.

History he claimed (and upton-on-line agrees) should be as important as maths and English in secondary schools. “Most other countries in the western world try to engage its [sic] young people in their past so they can have a concept of how their present emerged … a knowledge of a country’s history is crucial for our capacity to handle a challenging future and accommodate differences.”

Recolonial deconstructionism

It didn’t take long for Professor Belich’s signature tune to break through. The most piquant (and piquing) statistic seemed to be the fact that of the 5198 bursary students who studied history (out of a total cohort of 27,000), 3243 chose the Tudor-Stuart option while only 1955 took the New Zealand history option. Professor Belich’s sardonic response: re-name Waitangi day as Tudor-Stuart day.

Whilst careful to claim that he was not trying to push any particular type of New Zealand history, Professor Belich (whose bushy beard, twinkling eye and Gerald Durrellish sense of mischief make him such a hit) gave us both barrels on the re-colonial bit – his latest contribution to the rich and varied stew of post-colonial deconstructionism that is emerging. The theory is scarcely subtle – which is why it is likely to become overnight wisdom. It is banged away at relentlessly on every page of Paradise Reforged – volume II of his magnificent re-write of New Zealand history.

For years many (pakeha) New Zealanders laboured away at coming to grips with the phenomenon of decolonisation as old European empires dissolved in the solvent of first world war then cold war. Now another generation is being urged to brace itself for a decolonisation of the mind. All those inklings of national independence that people thought they were witnessing (and Keith Sinclair believed he’d sighted) may have been a mirage.

The Belich space telescope, blasted into orbit with the publication of Making Peoples, has now delivered evidence of a sort of colonial Doppler shift in which, from the 1880s onwards, the New Zealand mind was ‘recolonised’ leaving a population unable to stand on its own intellectual, historical and cultural feet. This in Professor Belich’s view has produced a nation scared of difference and uncertain of their identity.

Insufficient sex?

This in turn, Belich alleges, has led New Zealanders to regard their own national story as inferior.

“There’s a notion that there’s something parochial or noble or second-rate about learning New Zealand history but that’s bullshit. New Zealand history makes the ‘wild west’ look like an old people’s tea party. There is sex and violence coming out the ears of New Zealand history.”

Historians, Belich claims, are not teaching an interesting curriculum. He knows, as both intellectual and entertainer, that you don’t win young minds away from their Play-Station 2 consoles with a dreary project on the use of the Prerogative Courts in Carolinian England. Racier fare is needed – a technique applied unstintingly in Paradise Reforged where, amongst other little nuggets, we are informed that Te Papa resembles “an architect’s wet dream”.

Belich was quickly joined in the field of battle by the Chief Bursary Examiner who pronounced the curriculum out of date. (Readers of the Sunday Star Times were solemnly informed that the identity of the said examiner was, in accordance with protocol, shrouded in secret given the risk that teachers might seek to pressure him/her. One has visions of a diminishing band of ageing secondary school teachers trying to divine where this powerful personage stood on the great 1960s battles over which social classes were in the ascendancy at the outbreak of Civil War in 1642…)

Without cover of anonymity (but, one suspects, serious risk of a good professional pillorying), some less celebrated members of the profession hit back. The head of history at Belich’s alma mater, Onslow College’s Margaret Pointer, politely pointed out that the same students reading Tudor and Stuart history (“a different context for the teaching of history skills [which] is also part of their heritage”) were also nicely immersed in such scrumptious topics as ‘isolation versus community in settler society’. Brent Costley, a former teacher, evenly noted that “many students at bursary level like the Tudor-Stuart course because it is different in time and place from what they have ever done” before going on to note that many teenagers felt the need to escape the concentration on New Zealand for the exotic world made real for them in movies like Shakespeare in Love.

Whose story is our history?

Upton-on-line inclines to the view that young kiwis probably treat sex as a contemporary matter and need little in the way of historical reassurance. He is more inclined to the verdict of Mr Costley and Ms Pointer. But before venturing his own views on the matter he has to make a clean breast of his own inescapable prejudices. Not only did upton-on-line attend schools that, on the Belich view, were the steel reinforcing of New Zealand’s recolonial concrete. He relished the Tudor-Stuart option, especially the Stuart bit.

Upton-on-line’s special line in recolonial irrelevance was the religious topic – the Elizabethan settlement of the question of the English Church and the marvellous wreckage of the Laudian project on the rocks of fanatical Puritanism. Arminianism, millenarianism and all those stubborn Scots Calvinists were deliciously exotic. (What it lacked in sex, it certainly made up in intolerance). It probably helped having a school chaplain who celebrated Holy Communion on the feast day of King Charles Martyr. But Milton on the one hand and Rubens on the other were quite seductive enough if you needed worldly enticements.

Now one would have to remark that Inigo Jones’ Banqueting Hall (where Charles I lost his head) was as far away from the realities of the War Memorial Hall in Ngaruawahia as it is possible to get – a tick for Mr Costley’s point about the exotic. But in another sense, the Reformation encompasses one of the great watershed periods in the history of western thinking, philosophy, and governance. The cleavage between secular and ecclesiastical authority has left its scars, in different ways, across the entire (unconsciously imbibed) heritage of any country with a European strand to its history – a tick for Ms Pointer.

It seems to upton-on-line blindingly obvious that it is impossible to live in New Zealand today and have a proper understanding of how the present emerged without coming to grips with the huge constitutional and religious battles that shaped the modern age in Britain. And if Professor Belich diagnoses irrelevance here, he has succumbed to terminal parochialism.

How about a spot of romanticism?

That said, there’s a bit of a gap between the Stuarts and the early Victorian age into which New Zealand was born – 126 years to be precise, between the death of the last Stuart, Queen Anne in 1714, and the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. And if one had choose, there’s a strong case for putting together a really interesting course on what was going on in European (and in particular British) minds in the period between Cook’s voyages of discovery, and the formal beginnings of colonisation.

When Cook first arrived in New Zealand waters making astronomical observations while botanists and naturalists swarmed ashore to classify the strange new biota, the first blast of scientific imperialism was underway as the Enlightenment project sought to dissolve the shadows of superstition in the spotlight of rational scientific enquiry (soon to be harnessed in the cause of industrial production). By the time the Treaty was signed, 70 odd years later, Europe had gone through the convulsion of the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the foundations of modern, technologically integrated societies were being laid. Britain lost her American colonies at the beginning of the period; by the end of it she had constructed a vast new array of imperial entanglements as far away as China.

Over the same period, the authoritarian rational symmetries of the Enlightenment were overthrown by romanticism, individualistic introspection and a host of imagined or embroidered nationalisms. This was a period of revolt on every front – intellectual, cultural as well as political. It was an age in which Europe was consumed by the exotic and by cultural difference. It is the world of the Counter-Enlightenment.

A lively grasp of what romanticism, imperialism, nationalism and economic liberalism meant in the first decades of the 19th century would do more to help young New Zealanders understand why their country is as it is today than (God help us) extending New Zealand studies to embrace ‘Think Big’ as some academics rushing to Belich’s side have advocated. Why? Because one of the fascinating – and wholly unresolved - debates of huge current relevance seems to turn on what was or wasn’t in the minds of those who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

There is no shortage of interpretations busily inserting fashionable – or politically expedient – glosses. But shouldn’t we be trying to delve into the attitudes, the education, and the cultural universe of those military, diplomatic, missionary and political actors who were running a global – and increasingly unchallenged – empire from the Colonial Office and the Admiralty. In other words, the London that Hongi Hika encountered when he visited England in 1820. (I’d send every bright young 16 year old off for the summer holidays with a copy of Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 – it sets the stage with great élan).

In upton-on-line’s respectful view, modern New Zealand’s history didn’t start in New Zealand. It started in Europe. And understanding that part of our cultural, political and economic heritage as ‘ours’ (rather than something alien that occurred almost on another planet) is the sine qua non of understanding ourselves in the modern world. Understanding what romanticism did to the 19th century mind might help us get to grips with the curious mirage of utopia that has afflicted New Zealand. Understanding that there’s “sex and violence coming out of the ears of New Zealand history” simply confirms the dystopia we all know about!

[If anyone wants to get inside the 18th century backdrop to all this, try Barbarism & Religion: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon by J G A Pocock – probably New Zealand’s most distinguished historian although marked for life for having been born in London and educated at Canterbury thereby making him a near-super-saturated recolonial.]


A quintessentially conservative position

All of this was fresh in mind when upton-on-line chanced upon a book review by the TLS’s editor, Ferdinand Mount, (Issue of Feb 1st 2002). Mount occasionally allows himself an essay or a review in which to spell out some unfailingly intelligent and invariably sceptical truths about the state of the Realm back in the Imperial homeland. The review, in this case, was of a book whose subject matter must seem unimaginable to confirmed republicans: God Save the Queen – The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy by Ian Bradley. It is, as the title literally asserts, an essay on the sacral elements of monarchy.

Even upton-on-line thought this was a slightly improbable line to be running in the early twenty first century, but Mount’s review makes some points that are too easily swept under the kilim by progressive types. If recolonial rigor mortis has not yet set in, subscribers may find these Oakeshottian musings interesting – if only to underscore how banal our own debate on constitutional issues has been to date:

“Since [1992] public opinion has revived somewhat in favour of the monarchy, and the royal family approaches the Queen’s Golden Jubilee chastened but not nearly as apprehensive as they would have been if it had come five years earlier. All the same, you can feel the undertow among the intelligentsia, especially in newspapers such as The Guardian and the Independent, in favour of either an immediate republic or a monarchy so deconsecrated and deprived of all institutional support and political relevance as to represent only a mournful little halt on the line to a republic.

Yet one man’s mumbo jumbo is another man’s epiphany. And the introduction of a republic in Britain faces many more obstacles than its proponents like to contemplate. The first is that nations are always reluctant to change their fundamental constitutional arrangements without an overwhelming reason to do so, such as catastrophic military defeat, an economic collapse or a change in the national territory or population. The result in the recent Australian referendum on the monarchy was a neat little example of popular scepticism defeating fashionable enthusiasm for change.

This reluctance to disturb stable arrangements has behind it a deeper anxiety. Reformers are congenitally insensitive to the appalling difficulty of achieving effective and lasting authority in a territory. This task must logically come before all the more enthralling business of establishing liberty, democracy, justice, equality and anything else you fancy.

Three quarters of the world’s recent horrors derive from the absence of such agreed and accepted authority: Afghanistan, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Rwanda. That is why the oath of allegiance to the Monarch (or the Constitution or the Flag or the Republic) is not simply a piece of antiquated flummery but the precondition of politics. Speaker Boothroyd’s revulsion against allowing Sinn Fein members to use the Palace of Westminster without taking the oath was soundly based…

The dangers of undermining the basis of authority are not merely political. If you bleach out the numinous element, you leave a materialist, secularized nation in rather bleak surroundings. Princess Diana’s funeral – both a royal and an anti-royal occasion, as Bradley points out – provoked an outpouring of grief that made many observers uncomfortable, because it so clearly signalled the desolation in which millions of their fellow citizens lived.

In a world already so disenchanted, is it desirable to remove any lingering social experience of the transcendent, leaving what Bradley calls “the metaphysical imagination” confined to the private realm? And isn’t it odd that so many of those who claim they want to promote a sense of community should be so keen to dismantle the one focus of national community that indisputably exists? There is, of course, an alternative to intense monarchism, readily available but not discussed by Ian Bradley, nor, come to that, by any of those who argue for a republic or for a stripped-down secular monarchy. The alternative is nationalism, raw and unrestrained by any higher authority.

Nationalism is not simply a dangerous possibility when customary loyalties have broken up. It is virtually inevitable. Infant republics often aren’t quiet at all. On the contrary, they tend to be noisy, querulous, paranoid. Even Scotland – a long established political entity … - has its disagreeable, xenophobic side. All those advantages of constitutional monarchy that constitutionalists rightly point to – its ability to accommodate different races and religions, its assistance in securing smooth and peaceful handovers of political power, its customary restraints on the abuse of power – all these derive from its deep-rooted hold on the hearts of the people. Loosen that hold, and you may loosen a lot of other things as well.”

Needless to say, New Zealand’s debate starts from different premises. But neither, obviously, are they wholly divergent. Mount’s warnings about the difficulties of securing a durable source of authority and the corrosive solvent of nationalism are every bit as valid in the New Zealand context (as they are just about anywhere). Upton-on-line finds himself increasingly exasperated by the inability of many republicans to get beyond trivial explanations of why New Zealand should discard its current arrangements. As one who has no sentimental attachment to monarchy or its personalities, he is stunned that critics can dwell on the place of residence of the head of state or the ‘democratic deficit’ in her incumbency. (The Privy Council is entirely another matter).

The Crown in the case of New Zealand is a (literally living) metaphor for an unbroken and seamless source of authority. I happen to think an (effectively) powerless human is a rather nice way of enshrining the idea of ultimate – but carefully constrained – authority which, as Mount says, is the precondition for politics. It’s quite humane and ‘green’ (without having to get into Prince Charles’ gardening pursuits). As a metaphor of continuity it’s unbeatable. All the alternatives can offer is an anaemic, abstract principle which citizens are expected to ritually re-endorse in the context of sordid ballot-box politicking. What progressives risk is a neat dose of very unprogressive – and unconstrained – populism.

This is commonly dismissed in the name of ‘growing up’, having ‘confidence’ in ourselves and exorcising recolonial demons. Ever the conservative sceptic, upton-on-line thinks there’s already enough that’s at risk in New Zealand’s constitutional underpinnings to warrant to let sleeping dogs lie. Currently, we have one fixed – and completely benign – point of reference to try to work our way over some very rocky terrain occasioned by the new science of treatyology. Without it, we’ve lost our compass.

Just in case you still thought it was easy

Lacking military or economic catastrophes (the German budget deficit doesn’t quite count) but facing significant enlargement, Europe (after December’s Laeken Summit) is busily trying to concoct a constitution. Euro-statesmen love to allege a ‘leadership role’ for Europe in all they do. And this is no exception. It must be the first time in history that a vast continent has embarked on the risky business of constitution building spurred on in no small part by bureaucratic and governmental paralysis. What could be more European than trying to ignite the excitement and recklessness normally reserved for moments of high drama by appointing a 105 person Convention?

There is rather a lot at stake. Despite bold pronouncements on the need for harmonisation of everything from air traffic control to taxes and the desire to play a big role on the world stage, the rate of progress seems to have ground to snail’s pace. The prospect of a wave of new entrants from eastern Europe coupled with growing public distaste for some of the more federalist visions of Europe’s future has made the case for reform – and some new element of popular legitimacy – increasingly urgent.

Which makes the appointment of a former French President to chair the Convention, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a little surprising on the face of it. No spring chicken at 75, M. d’Estaing has spent much of the last 15 years getting over his defeat at the hands of Francois Mitterand. How the French people could have been so ungrateful to such a distinguished and aristocratic personage is beyond upton-on-line. But after so long on the sidelines one might have thought Europe had moved beyond the messy years of the 1970s when he was last in harness.

But one look at the urbane but slightly foxy way he dispensed with questioners on Christine Ockrent’s France Trois Sunday night current affairs panel left upton-on-line in little doubt that Europe has appointed a man whose condign smile will see him face down armies of milling eurocrats and platoons of national politicians intent on extracting national advantages.

For New Zealanders who think they could walk into peace time constitution-building and inspire the masses, here’s a sample of the sort of things Giscard tried out in his introductory speech to the Convention (made up of assorted representatives from member states, candidate states, national parliaments, the European parliament and the Commission).

“Your very presence together in this room would have appeared unimaginable, would have seemed like a dream to the British, the Germans, the French and the Dutch less than sixty years ago, and to the Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians less than fifteen years ago. Europe has moved forward step by step, from Treaty to Treaty. The road has been lined with partial agreements and with crises which have quickly been overcome. The most striking feature is that Europe may have appeared at certain periods to be blocked, but it has never taken a step backwards…

At the same time, we must admit that these measures are reaching their limits. The process of European union is showing signs of flagging, as the Laeken Declaration makes clear. The decision-making machinery has become more complex, to the point of being unintelligible to the general public. Since Maastricht, the latest Treaties have been difficult to negotiate and have not met their original aims: discussion within the Institutions have often given precedence to national interests over consideration of the common European good. Finally, the abstention rate at European elections has reached a worrying level: in 1999 it exceeded the highly symbolic 50% threshold for the first time!

The shortcomings affect Europe in its present configuration. They will be even more critical in an enlarged Europe. We must remedy them in the interests of Europe, but also in the interests of the world. Today’s world lacks a strong, united and peaceful Europe. The world would fel better if it could count on Europe, a Europe which spoke with a single voice to affirm respect for its alliances, but also to proclaim, whenever necessary, a message of tolerance and moderation, of openness towards difference, and of respect for human rights.

Let us not forget that from the ancient world of Greece and Rome until the Age of Enlightenment, our continent has made three fundamental contributions to humanity: reason, humanism and freedom…

If we succeed, in 25 years or 50 years – the distance separating us from the Treaty of Rome – Europe’s role in the world will have changed. It will be respected and listened to, not only as the economic power it already is, but as a political power which will talk on equal terms to the greatest powers on our planet, either existing or future, and will have the means to act to affirm its values, ensure its security and play an active role in international peace-keeping.”

Inspiring? Hardly – but it’s hard to know how you do the ‘vision thing’ in this context. Giscard explained that the Convention’s work centred on answering questions under six broad headings:

- Europe’s role
- The division of competence between the EU and member states
- How to simplify the EU’s instruments of governance
- How to give the EU’s institutions some democratic legitimacy
- How to give the EU a single voice in international affairs
- How to go about writing a constitution

It’s vitally important stuff – and exactly the sort of thing laundromat proprietors in Lille or upholsterers in Umbria leave to other people. But Giscard remains undeterred:

“Let me conclude by calling on your enthusiasm. A word which comes from the Greek “en-thousia”, meaning “inspired by a god”. In our case, you might say “inspired by a goddess” – the goddess Europa! We are often upbraided for neglecting the European dream, for contenting ourselves with building a complicated and opaque structure which is the preserve of economic and financial cognoscneti. So let us dream of Europe!

Let us imagine a continent at peace, freed of its barriers and obstacles, where history and geography are finally reconciled, allowing all the states of Europe to build their future together…a space of freedom and opportunity where individuals can move as they wish to study, work, show enterprise or broaden their cultural horizons…

Europe has brought the world reason, humanism and freedom. It has the authority to send forth a message of moderation, preaching the quest for mutually acceptable solutions and a passionate attachment to peace…”

As noted above, it must be the first time constitutional reformers have been asked to respond to the intoxicating call of ‘mutually acceptable solutions’. And if they fail? Then the former President’s prognosis is grim indeed:

“If we were to fail, each country would return to the free trade system. None of us – not even the largest of us – would have the power to take on the giants of this world. We would then remain locked in on ourselves, grimly analysing the causes of our decline and fall.”

Musing on Europe’s attachment to agricultural subsidies and trade barriers, skies that are congested by the lack of a single European airspace and so on, upton-on-line is not so sure returning to “the free trade system” would be such a bad fate. After all, it has never existed in Europe so it would be hard to return to it. Certainly, New Zealand Ministers should be getting their minds around just what M. Giscard d’Estaing means by success should Europe become the giant of its dreams.

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