We called her Betty Windsor in the 1960s, thinking to be smartly sniffy and disavow 1950s childhood awe at the imperial pageantry of the film “A Queen is Crowned”. But Elizabeth II finessed us: the “bourgeois monarchy” is still in business, respected more now than for decades.
She is a relic of hereditary royalty in a democratic age. But she is less a misfit now than when we basked in empire. Her grandson and his wife are knockout hits with the media and much of the population.
Our Prime Minister snubbed Samoa’s commemoration last Friday of 50 years of independence in “friendship” with its former colonial master in favour of the weekend celebrations in London of Elizabeth’s 60 glorious years. He restored royal titles. Even most Labour honours-holders, deprived by Helen Clark of Sir and Dame, queued for the medieval monikers.
We are not exactly straining to be a republic. The Queen’s official birthday is still a holiday. We last year re-elected the most royalist Prime Minister since Sir Sidney Holland, who famously said: “I have been proud to belong to what I am happy to call the British Empire, the greatest power for good that the world has ever known … our dear old Empire.”
The empire has gone. What else has gone?
First, a complacent mediocrity. After depression and war New Zealanders wanted predictability and order, in a stuffy Anglo social code (man earning wages, wife at home with kids, Maori almost all invisible) and in policy settings (ordered wages, protected industries, strictures on alcohol and what you could look at in films, legal bans on abortion and homosexuality, state housing, wartime-like state powers to crush bolshie wharfies).
We had the world’s best social security system, didn’t we? Australia’s money was worth only four-fifths of ours. This was a classless godzone of “she’ll be right” and “No 8 wire”.
Little of that is left: the economy is wide open (so we can buy stuff easily from round the world), manufacturing has shrivelled (but what’s left is high-end), our money is worth four-fifths of Australia’s, jobs are a market risk and the social code is one of the world’s most liberal. There is high inequality and an embedded underclass. “Welfare” has replaced “security” and has come to mean indigence. In the 1990s and 2000s we tanked up on debt and material indulgence.
We have much more crime, as befits a less ordered and less equal society. But that is partly because we count it more honestly. In 1952 beating a wife or child was a household matter into which police, courts and media didn’t inquire.
Also gone is British homogeneity. Maoris were banned when All Blacks toured South Africa. Now we are bicultural and iwi have political and commercial weight — demonstrated last month in sorting out the Talleys’ Affco dispute, which has set employment lawyers a-buzz and impressed some senior ministers.
And our own tiny empire came here to live: in total more Samoans, Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans are here than there. In 1952 Chinese kept to themselves on market gardens. Now they, plus Indians, Koreans and other Asians, are a fifth of Auckland’s population and an eighth of the country’s.
They are here partly because now many of us can’t wait to get out — and can afford it far more easily than in 1952. Most go to Australia, toward which our politicians were standoffish 60 years back. Now our economies and societies are deeply meshed.
In Elizabeth’s youth damming rivers and lakes were unmitigated pluses. Nearly all lakes and rivers were swimmable, even drinkable. Now most aren’t and the hydro brigade has all but given up.
In the 1950s we warred in Korea and Malaysia. From the mid-1960s enthusiasm for war and alliance waned and in 2003 we didn’t go into Iraq. We cuddled up with Uncle Sam when the empire fell shy of Holland’s panegyric. Now we run a (mostly) independent foreign policy and (most of us) know we have to get on with China, India and south-east Asia.
In 1952 we thought the state our friend: to protect, enable, regulate and guarantee. Since the 1980s we have grown doubtful. Some even think it our enemy. We trust politicians and bureaucrats much less and far fewer of us vote and we spread our votes around (99.8 per cent voted National or Labour in 1951).
But now you can get a good coffee, drink great home-grown wine and eat fine food and read, watch and listen to the products of a self-confident culture — all absent or tentative in 1952. We are grown up now.
Royalist John Key, however, harks to the 1950s: the “reality of history”, he said last month, is our kinship with the old Anglo four. The “reality of the future” is very different. David Shearer, though chronologically older than Key, has a younger person’s sense of that shift.
Shearer plans to speak soon on “identity”. As part of that some MPs are urging him to canvass constitutional reform, including an entrenched Bill of Rights — and a respectful end to the monarchy.
After 60 glorious years how we have changed.