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The Queen's birthday.



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Perspective

Monday 9 June 2003

Patrick Buckridge, Head, School of Humanities, Griffith University

 

The Queen's Birthday  

 

Today, Australians in every state except Western Australia observe the Queen's Birthday; in WA, it's observed on the last Monday in September. In Canada it's in mid-May, in New Zealand it's the first Monday in June, and in England the first Saturday - so it’s not really a holiday there at all. 

 

Of all Australia's public holidays, this one must surely be the emptiest of any national significance. It doesn't have the solemnity of Anzac Day, or the political clout of Labor Day, or the commercial rationale of the various Show holidays. It doesn't even seem to offend people as much as you'd think it might, not in the way Australia Day does, with its reminders of European invasion. Eventually, it will no doubt go the way of Empire Day, but it's interesting that it hasn't gone yet. 

 

I suppose one reason why it survives here is that it provides a mid-year occasion for the award of 'honours' - now national rather than imperial, but still approved by the Queen. Another reason, clearly, is that whatever may have happened to the Empire, the Queen is still with us, and she does have a birthday. The problem is, it's the 21st of April.  

 

Separating the official birthday from the natural one has an origin as foolish as any republican could wish: about a century ago, King Edward VII, whose birthday fell in November, decided that it would be jollier for everyone if he celebrated it in summer (and to hell with the Antipodes!) 

 

In the 1950s we always noted the Queen's natural birthday as it went by, and were always reminded that the official one, the one with the holiday attached, would not be along for another seven weeks. I remember being very puzzled by the double nativity, but can't remember what explanation, if any, I was given. Perhaps it was something equivalent to saying that the official birthday is not about the person, but about the institution. But if so, why not call it Monarchy Day or Crown Day or Royalty Day and be done with it? No, there was, and is, something irreducibly individual and human about a birthday, even an official birthday. Institutions don't have birthdays; people do. Something deeper and more interesting is going on here than simple institutional reinforcement, deeper even than the hedonism of Edward VII. 

 

The institutions of rational modern states often have deep roots in older, more mystical and even magical conceptions of sovereignty and community, and the Queen's two birthdays might well be connected - by a subterranean route - to the notion of 'the king's two bodies', a medieval political doctrine expressing the transcendent continuity of the sovereign power above and beyond its individual representatives. It was essentially a legal fiction, with pagan and Christian origins, in which the ruler possesses both a 'body natural' and a 'body politic'. In the former capacity, as a Body natural, the sovereign is subject to passions and death like any other human being. In the latter capacity, however, as a Body politic, the ruler is not subject to passions, and never dies.  

 

The doctrine received its fullest elaborations in France and England in the early modern period - and not just as an abstruse legal distinction, but as a visible feature of public rituals and ceremonies such as royal funerals and coronations. In paintings, the King, in his Body politic, was often depicted with a halo.  

 

Strictly speaking, of course, if the Queen, as sovereign, never dies, she was never born either, and can't have a birthday; so the two Bodies do not map neatly onto the two birthdays. But the notion of a royal bodily duality does seem to have persisted into modern times: the 'royal plural' - 'We are not amused' - is one symptom of it, and I suspect the plurality of birthdays is another. 

 

Why is any of this relevant to us in Australia today? The Queen's official birthday is merely a social fossil, but like most fossils it's harmless and interesting, something to remind us of much older mentalities and social orders. But perhaps it also has a more serious value in our current context, because it points to some of the inherent contradictions in the creaking viceregal structure of the not-so-old British Commonwealth, and reminds us that certain aspects of monarchy are indivisible, and that Governors-General, unlike Kings and Queens, have only one body and no haloes.  

 

Guests on this program:

 

Associate Professor Patrick Buckridge  

Head of the School of Humanities 

Griffith University 

Queensland