Book extract – The Palace Letters: the Queen, the governor-general, and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam

National Archives of Australia

Jenny Hocking, Monash University

This is an edited extract from The Palace Letters: The Queen, the governor-general, and the plot to dismiss Gough Whitlam by Jenny Hocking.

It was cold, mid-winter in Canberra, when I returned to the National Archives in mid-2019 searching for more documents, scouring through the accession records for Sir John Kerr’s papers, where, I told myself, even the most obscure files might turn up something important, something I had never imagined.

And then, quite suddenly, one of them did.

As I waited for the High Court to consider my application for special leave, a file containing letters between Kerr and the queen’s private secretary after Kerr had left office landed in my inbox.

I had requested this file, with the arresting title “Buckingham Palace”, eight years earlier, after which it had disappeared into the archival limbo of “withheld pending advice”.

It suddenly reappeared in a “decision on access” email, with no explanation for the eight-year delay, with its cache of letters providing a jaw-dropping account of royal intervention in Kerr’s autobiography, Matters for Judgment, which was soon to be released.

The crowd outside Parliament House on November 11 1975.
Museum of Australian Democracy

The supportive exchanges between Kerr, Prince Charles and the queen and [her private secretary, Sir Martin] Charteris, which had been so welcome before the dismissal, soon became a major concern for the palace, which feared losing control of both the increasingly erratic Kerr and their letters.

As the outcry over the dismissal showed no sign of abating even a year later, including demonstrations and angry placards, and paint thrown at the vice-regal Rolls-Royce, pressure was building on Kerr to resign.

Under siege, he began to agitate for the release of the palace letters, which he felt would bolster support for his actions. This began with careless comments about the letters and “the attitude of the Palace” at the time of the dismissal to friends and colleagues.

The Palace Letters.

Word of Kerr’s indiscretion, his boasting of the queen’s approval of “the way that I am going about things”, soon reached the palace itself, to great alarm. It grew to a crescendo soon after Kerr’s resignation as governor-general took effect in December 1977, with his visit to the queen’s new private secretary, Sir Philip Moore, to plead his case for the release of the letters.

Kerr was intent on using the letters to garner support for his action in dismissing Whitlam if he possibly could – and what better place to do it than in his autobiography, which he was finalising in self-imposed exile in England? His book was being eagerly, and in some quarters nervously, awaited, since Kerr was loudly proclaiming that he would now report “the facts of the happenings of 1975 […] in the interests of truth”.

With publication looming, and with it the prospect that Kerr might reveal their secret discussions, the queen’s private secretary contacted Kerr directly and asked for a copy of his draft manuscript.

“Buckingham Palace has evinced an interest in the manuscript and all parts of it which touch directly upon the Queen’s position and the Palace’s position will need to be thought about,” Kerr wrote to his lawyers in Sydney. Kerr dutifully sent his manuscript to the queen’s private secretary, and it was soon “in safe keeping now at Buckingham Palace”.

Sir John Kerr agitated for the release of the palace letters.
National Archives of Australia/AAP

“It will make fascinating reading,” Moore assured him, “I will get into [sic] touch with you again as soon as I have finished it.”

Moore’s brief comment on the book arrived three weeks later, and if you thought the historical dissembling about the dismissal must eventually reach a natural end, think again.

The queen’s private secretary thanked Kerr for excising any references to his discussions with Charteris about “the controversy”:

I am grateful to you for being so scrupulous in omitting any reference to the informal exchanges which you had with Martin Charteris. I know that you have throughout been anxious to keep The Queen out of the controversy and I much appreciate the way in which you have achieved this in the book.

Which shows Kerr to be as unreliable in print as he was in office.

Kerr could scarcely hide his delight at this royal approbation of his expurgated history:

I did my very best of course to omit any reference to the exchanges between Martin Charteris and myself. It is particularly gratifying to me to know that the result is satisfactory.

These letters not only confirm Kerr was in contact with Charteris regarding the dismissal, but they also reveal that the palace and Kerr then agreed to keep these “exchanges” hidden by omitting any mention of them in Kerr’s “autobiography”.

Matters for Judgment duly contained no mention of his “informal exchanges” with Charteris, nor any details of Charteris’s “illuminating observations” and “advice to me on dismissal” that Kerr had noted in his journal.

Despite Kerr’s claims his book would present “the truth” and “facts” about the events of November 1975, it was a tawdry exercise in historical distortion by omission – a royal whitewash of history.

Most shocking in this latest revelation of ongoing royal intrigue was the clear example it provided of the mechanism through which the secrecy that drove the dismissal – the collusion of Kerr with others, and his deception of the prime minister – continued in the construction of its history. It shows the involvement of the palace in the construction of a flawed and filtered history about one of the most contentious episodes in Australia’s history.

It was a shameful episode in that shared history, the details of which were still emerging.

Read more:
‘Palace letters’ reveal the palace’s fingerprints on the dismissal of the Whitlam government

The Conversation

Jenny Hocking, Emeritus Professor, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Literary prizes and the problem with the UK publishing industry


Jamie Harris, Aberystwyth University

This year’s Booker prize shortlist offers the most diverse lineup ever with four female and two male writers, four of who are people of colour. But while the diversity of the 2020 shortlist for the best original novel is to be commended, the majority of the publishers of Booker-winning novels are still based in London.

This reflects that the concentration of power in UK publishing is still in the English capital. As such, non-English British writers published outside London are perennially disadvantaged by the Booker’s selection criteria.

And as it stands, of the 30 times the prize has been awarded to UK-based authors, it has only once gone to a Scottish author: James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late, in 1994. It went once to a Welsh author – Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member in 1970 – while Anna Burns became the first winner from Northern Ireland in 2018 for Milkman. Three non-English, but UK-based winners, all of which were published by London presses.

The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history, having originally been set up as an award for British and Commonwealth writers writing in the English language and published in the UK and Ireland.

The literary prize opened up its entry criteria in 2013 to allow submissions from writers born outside of Britain, its Commonwealth and its former colonies. This is a move that continues to rankle some prominent British authors with concerns US writers are dominating the line-up. All but one of the writers on the 2020 shortlist, are from the US or hold joint US citizenship.

Prior to this, the makeup of Booker winners was overwhelmingly male (67%), privately-educated (62%), and one-third of winners had attended Oxford or Cambridge University. No wonder, then, that Julian Barnes, former judge and winner of the prize, described it as “posh bingo”.

A publishers’ prize?

As with any literary prize, the Booker’s submission criteria has always influenced the kind of novels that are shortlisted. Its submission guidelines, which don’t allow entries from publishers who don’t publish at least two literary fiction titles a year, have created an unbalanced system.

And since a rule change in 2013, the prize is now weighted even more towards publishers with a history of having books longlisted for the prize – who are able to submit up to four entries. This change was said to be in the interest of fairness and to better “represent the levels of publishing the different sized houses do”. But many feel the changes work in favour of the bigger publishers.

Anna Burns on stage after she was awarded the Booker prize for Fiction.
Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Booker prize for Fiction for her novel Milkman.
Frank Augstein/PA Archive/PA Images

In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller. And for non-English UK novelists published by small presses (self-published works are ineligible for the Booker), the Booker is simply not a plausible option.

As Leigh Wilson, professor of English literature, has argued on this site: “Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves.” This is compounded by the fact that: “The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist”.

Absence of small presses

The prize also often illustrates a disconnect between the publishing industry and the reading public. This gulf could be behind the surging popularity of the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, a reader-nominated, deliberately tongue-in-cheek, rejoinder to the Booker’s perceived pomposity.

Indeed, Welsh writer Richard Owain Roberts’ debut, Hello Friend We Missed You – touted as the favourite for this year’s Not the Booker – would simply never have been considered for entry to the Booker. This is because the submission criteria makes it near impossible for small presses – like Parthian, Roberts’ Cardigan-based publisher – to even afford to enter.

This absence or marginalisation of writers in Wales, Scotland and Ireland seems not to relate to sales successes. Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful Normal People, for example, didn’t make the step from longlist to shortlist for the Booker. This is despite it having a cult following, achieving substantial sales and being touted as the favourite when the longlist was announced.

But the Booker is far from alone in not reflecting bestseller lists. In his analysis of the Pulitzer prize for fiction (broadly the US equivalent of the Booker), author and academic, James F. English notes the number of shortlisted novels that also appear on that year’s top ten bestseller lists have been in steady decline – from a high point in the 1960s of 60% to under 5% in the 1990s.

That said, winning might not be all it’s cracked up to be, given a 2014 study found that literary prizes make books less popular.The Conversation

Jamie Harris, Lecturer in Literature and Place, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.