In How to Rule Your Own Country, Harry Hobbs and George Williams consider the phenomenon of micronations, which is to say territorial entities whose members claim independence or sovereignty but which lack diplomatic recognition. It’s an excellent subject for a work of non-fiction. Involving as it does many cranks and eccentrics, the human angle takes care of itself, while the legal and philosophical question of how states and nations are constituted is (or should be) salient. Unfortunately, Hobbs and Williams, both of whom are legal scholars who have written at length on these issues elsewhere, rather skimp on the analysis in this book, preferring to let the implicit comedy of micronationalism speak for itself. Though I enjoyed their book on a number of levels, I wonder if they have underestimated the readers’ appetite for something more substantial.
The book is based around a series of portraits of individual micronations. The first chapter looks at the Hutt River Province in the Mid West region of Western Australia, whose founder and self-anointed monarch Prince Leonard Casley declared independence in 1970, after a falling-out with the Australian Wheat Board on the issue of production quotas. There are portraits, too, of the Principality of Sealand, whose ruler (an enterprising thug called Roy Bates) took over a decommissioned naval installation in the River Thames estuary in 1967 in order to escape the UK’s broadcasting restrictions; of Michael Oliver’s Republic of Minerva, an artificial island in the South Pacific Ocean conceived as a libertarian ‘paradise’; of the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia, where London squatters transformed empty properties into an independent community (ingeniously adopting the same surname in the process, so that the council would be obliged to rehouse them collectively); and of the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, established in 2004 in protest at the Commonwealth Government’s refusal to recognise same-sex marriage. Mention is made also of purely notional states, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Nutopia, which was conjured in 1973 in an effort to avoid deportation from the US by claiming diplomatic immunity.
On this level, as I say, the book is a hoot. It’s fascinating to read of Prince Leonard’s attempts to acquire ‘legal personality’ for his province, which involve writing to other heads of state in the hope that they will respond officially (and thus confer respectability on his project) and declaring war on Australia on the basis that governments must show full respect to nations undefeated in war. (The latter tactic appears to be based on a tendentious reading of the Geneva Convention, though the authors note that it is also a plot point in the 1959 movie The Mouse that Roared.) As for Michael Oliver and his band of dim libertarians – the thought of them being booted from their atoll by a Tongan expeditionary force is one I will relish for many years to come, especially given Oliver’s vision of an army of brown-skinned labourers doing all the real work, presumably while he and his white compatriots lounge around reading Atlas Shrugged.
It’s in scenarios such as this, however, that one senses history bubbling to the surface, and where the authors could have been a little more generous with their academic expertise. For what we have in the case of Minerva, and in many other cases besides, is a latent essay on the nature of the state and the historical realities underlying its formation. In their introduction, Hobbs and Williams declare that micronations have no legal validity. But it is clear from their attendant comments that the question of what constitutes a state is contested, and so the argument feels slightly circular. At any rate, one thing micronations do is to draw that discussion out into the open, and I think it would have been interesting and instructive to dig down into those questions of power and legitimacy.
That’s not to say that we need to indulge every nut who falls out with his local council and turns his dining-room drapes into a mantle. But living as we do in a settler society, we should be more aware than most of the rather ad hoc nature of statehood. Aboriginal assertions of sovereignty are barely mentioned in How to Rule Your Own Country – this despite the authors’ observation that Australia is ‘micronation central’, and despite the fact that they are both involved in discussions around constitutional recognition, Indigenous state-treaty-making and the like. The single exception (which gets less than a paragraph) is the Murrawarri Republic in New South Wales, which claims sovereignty on the basis that the Murrawarri Nation never ceded its territory to the Crown. As I’m sure Hobbs and Williams would be the first to agree, that claim is of a different moral order than Prince Leonard’s.
‘Statehood is a question of fact’ write the authors in their introduction to How to Rule Your Own Country. The question is: what kind of fact is it? A legal one, yes, but also a historical, political and philosophical one. As entertaining and interesting as Hobbs’ and Williams’ book is, I would have liked a little more on those issues.
Harry Hobbs and George Williams
How to Rule Your Own Country: The Weird and Wonderful World of Micronations
NewSouth Books; $34.99; 320pp
This review was first published in The Weekend Australian