Late on a Saturday night on 31 August 1997 a Mercedes-Benz entered a tunnel in central Paris travelling at high speed. The resulting collision ended the lives of three of the car’s occupants. One of these passengers had, until a year earlier, been married to the heir to the British throne.
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago next week, was met with an unparalleled outpouring of public grief around the world. It made apparent the personal connection many Australians feel towards the royal family and have continued to demonstrate. It goes beyond those who trace their ancestry back to England. It speaks in part to our interest in status and celebrity, but also the history and institutions that have shaped our country.
Australia is far from isolated in our relationship with the British monarchy. Britain was a major colonial power for centuries with an empire spanning the globe. From India and Hong Kong, Egypt and Malaysia, Jamaica and South Africa, the homelands of many current Australians have ties to British rule. Indigenous Australians are far too familiar with the scars of colonialism.
Yet within her lifetime, Queen Elizabeth has witnessed a wave of independence movements in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands. Those classed as British subjects became the citizens of sovereign nations. Some stayed within the Commonwealth of Nations, some did not. Some shed their formal ties to the monarchy. Here in Australia, the man who is now our Prime Minister led an unsuccessful campaign for an Australian republic just two years after the death of Diana.
Part of the challenge for an Australian Republic is that the legitimacy of the British Crown lies at the very heart of our political and legal institutions. The reigning British monarch is our head of state, with any legislation passed by the Australian parliament requiring the assent of her representative. We carry an imprint of the Queen’s face in our pockets everyday, as the head face of our coinage.
No wonder then that the British royal family remains the subject of so much fascination as they seek to reinvent themselves and remain relevant in a changing world.
They inherit immense power and privilege not due to merit but because of the family they were born or married into. In most circumstances we would treat this with disdain. In the case of the Royals it is seen as a cause for celebration.
Yet despite their status and advantage they are subject to all of the dysfunction, antagonisms and frailties every family experiences, albeit writ large against a backdrop of ferocious media attention.
Whatever your politics, the monarchy continues to matter. And this is why we must continue to scrutinise the House of Windsor in an attempt to decide whether or not they measure up to our needs as a nation.
Ben Nguyen is Channel Manager of SBS Australia. SBS’s Making History: Royals Week is a season of programming (from 27 August) examining the British monarchy and the impact of a century of public scrutiny.