Dinner with Roman and Sandy Whitelaw. Sandy says he has made a list of the countries where it is possible to live a free and liberal life. There are five of them: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Britain. And what (he asks) do they have in common? Answer: they are all monarchies. This worries him, since he is a convinced republican.
Kenneth Tynan, Diaries
Being a republican in Britain is a thankless business. It is like being a Labour voter stuck in a perpetual 1980s: you are sure your principled stance against the status quo is widely shared, yet the moment this opposition has a chance to show itself, it mysteriously fails to materialise. You are convinced, moreover, that almost everyone can see, as plainly as can you, the absurdity and injustice of the present system. But then they go and vote for it anyway. Most of the time the British people seem to me largely indifferent to the fate of our ‘first family’. If they occupy our thoughts at all, it is usually for negative rather than positive reasons, as another financial scandal or sexual indiscretion befalls one or more of its extended members. I rarely meet anyone I could label a ‘royalist’ in any meaningful sense. Short of scandal, they just seem to be there, in the background somewhere, doing whatever it is unelected sovereign symbols do nowadays. It is fair to say that in any normal year, were the royal family to suddenly become invisible, it would be Christmas before many people noticed. But, of course, 2011 is not a normal year.
A few days ago I found myself in a city centre bulging with so much royal wedding paraphernalia it was like walking through a Martin Parr exhibition. Flags, tea towels, plates, mugs, spoons, bunting, posters, banners, hats – I’ve seen the grinning face of “Kate and Wills” so many times their features are now more familiar to me than those of my own parents. It may well be said that much of the time the Crown remains distant from the mind of its subjects, an object of mild interest, occasional derision or humour, rather than uncritical reverence. This is largely true, I tend to think, but gift the nation a wedding, a jubilee, or a death, and we suddenly seem to remember we were rabid monarchists all along. People may bitch and moan about the way they behave, but put on some pomp, make it a bank holiday, and all is quietly (or rather noisily) forgiven. Prince Andrew can hang around with as many paedophiles as he likes, as long as it’s a wedding year.
On these occasional forays into monarchy mania the republican must get used to finding himself or herself in an alien land where the sentimental and the kitsch combine to ramp up a vague and undifferentiated sense of national ‘feeling’ to frighteningly lurid levels. He or she must get used to the media offering up a tsunami of mawk insisting the flag-waving and face-painting is proof positive how much “we” all “love” our royal family. In a marvellous piece of internally contradictory reasoning we will be told that this is because the royal family are simultaneously both special and just like us really. The only consolation available to the republican the thought that it will all soon pass, equilibrium restored as we go back to not caring again.
These irregular fits of latent monarchical fervour do seem to refute the notion that – for all its everyday indifference – Britain has given up on or outgrown its royal family. What explains the disparity? I am constantly surprised that anyone can be bothered to even feign interest in what the Windsor Mafia gets up to any more. Even if I wasn’t against hereditary power in principle, I don’t think it would change the fact that to me they seem such crushingly boring people. Perhaps therein lies the secret of their longevity: the sheer tedium of these people makes it impossible to care enough to oppose them.
The more unpalatable truth, I rather fear, is that the monarchy as an institution still means something to large numbers of people, even if their attitude to the House of Windsor is mixed. Quite what that meaning consists of is rather more difficult to say. But it seems plain to me that the republican must face the awkward fact that, warts and all, the royal family provides an atomised post-Christian nation starved of national unity a symbolic sense of oneness. Outside of the sporting arena, royal weddings and jubilees are among the few occasions where an unabashed celebration of ‘Britishness’ is both tolerated and encouraged. By ‘Britishness’ I think I mean that sense – however vaguely defined – of what binds us in the present to the us of the past; that sense, as George Orwell wrote, of the nation being, “an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of all recognition and yet remain the same.”
For those who lack the gene sequence for such symbolic thinking, or indeed find such demonstrations of uniformity unnerving, it is tempting to sneer at these outbreaks of popular royalist sentiment. I can’t help thinking that would be a mistake. If there is an ambiguity to be pursued between our day-to-day apathy with monarchy, and our sudden outbursts of monarchical fervour, its source surely lies in the distinction between the intelligentsia and what used to be called the average man. When I hear the unfailingly irritating Yasmin Alibhai-Brown calling the monarchy “like a dummy for a child” I can’t help but wince. Anti-royalist coverage often takes this tone. In his fascinating if flawed book on class, Ferdinand Mount complained: “For the past 50 years – the whole of the present Queen’s reign in fact – a stream of commentators has exhorted the masses to grow up. Kingsley Martin said that ‘with the growth of science and democracy, people begin to realise that monarchy is a survival, surrounded by superstitions which must be outgrown.’ Malcolm Muggeridge complained that ‘true religion is in danger of being driven out by the royal soap opera’. The masses were hypnotised by fairy-tales about beautiful princesses in glass coaches. In the late 1980s, Tom Nairn in his sparkling polemic The Enchanted Garden was still lamenting that ‘people enjoy the monarchical twaddle and show very little sign of being robotised or “brainwashed”.’” Mount may be part of the aristocratic establishment most republicans would rather see the back of, but he has a point.
Not only is such criticism attacking what is populist rather than elitist about monarchy, it also has the analogy precisely backward. It is not, as is often said, that monarchy enshrines us in political infancy – quite the opposite. Monarchy as practised in Britain is a fossilised remnant of an ancient feudal system whose best days are, thankfully, far behind it. It is political decrepitude, rather than infancy, we are being enjoined to celebrate with this wedding. The urge to chide the flag-wavers must therefore be resisted, not least because the sentiment seems to me for the most part genuine – somebody must be buying all that kitsch. That the sentimental aspects of the royal wedding palaver are not really the problem can more clearly seen by the way successful republics like France and America still go in for all manner of orgiastic nationalist ritual, and quite unashamedly too. Even if we republicans were to get our wish, I find it hard to believe Britain would instantly abandon its need for organised mass celebrations of this kind.
Defenders of the monarchy are apt to emphasise these intangible aspects: history and tradition are said to bind people to monarch, in a pact that goes back centuries and is worth both maintaining and abiding by, even respecting. They tend to stress the sense of continuity these living symbols of British heritage give us, and how occasions like royal weddings give us a chance to “renew” this (unwritten) contract. You needn’t be a monarchist to appreciate this. Jonathan Freedland recently wrote of, “the mysterious alchemy that somehow converts love of country into affection for the House of Windsor.” Heady stuff, I think you’ll agree, and correspondingly hard to get at by mere reasoning. Even for a writer as radical as Orwell, writing in the depths of the war, such notions were seductive:
The function of the King in promoting stability and acting as a sort of keystone in a non-democratic society is, of course, obvious. But he also has, or can have, the function of acting as an escape-valve for dangerous emotions [I can’t help but think of the death of Diana Spencer here]. A French journalist said to me once that the monarchy was one of the things that have saved Britain from Fascism. What he meant was that modern people can’t get along without drums, flags and loyalty parades, and that it is better that they should tie their leader-worship on to some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship the power and the glory belong to the same person.
The republican, then, must grapple with such intangibles as ‘history’, ‘tradition’, and ‘continuity’, before attempting to shift the argument onto more concrete (read: constitutional) ground. Such a task might be considered a fool’s errand at a time like this, but to my mind the fact that we are in danger of being swamped by nearly universally fawning coverage of the “happy couple” makes the need for a restatement of republican principles only more urgent.
Tradition can be dispensed with right away, as it has never seemed to me to be a good argument for the maintenance of anything. The continuity and stability argument is more interesting. It is perhaps easy to contemplate such notions during the reign of a long-standing monarch like a Victoria or an Elizabeth II, but pull back from that close-up and the picture becomes a lot more discontinuous and hardly less stable. Even ignoring the Interregnum, the history of monarchy is largely characterised by usurpation, assassination, conquest, and civil war. The line joining the absolute rule of the past with the constitutional monarchy of today is hardly the smooth upward curve of the more Whiggish historical imagination; rather, it is a sawtooth whose peaks may include Magna Carta and 1688, but whose troughs include oppressions and inequities too numerous to mention. Getting our monarch into the position whereby they hold prerogative powers they dare not exercise has hardly been the pain-free evolution many claim for it – the doors to constitutional reform do not open from the inside.
As for history, I answer this way. While British history must obviously take account of our Kings & Queens, it also has other things to offer the world. The most important of these being our language and our literature, a significant proportion of which – Locke, Milton, Blake, Shelly – has been republican and democratic in spirit. Foremost among this lineage is, of course, Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense turned the present writer from royal agnostic to committed republican, just as it did for millions before me. It is Paine’s influence that makes the American constitution the greatest triumph of English republicanism. Our desire to be free of monarchy is therefore now at least as firmly embedded in our history as our need to genuflect before it. (British republicanism as a tradition now goes back much further, it is worth noting, than the tradition of royal weddings as public event.)
In a country where patriotism is axiomatically wrapped up with monarchy, it is a challenge getting people to notice just how arbitrary, just how odd, is our unwritten constitution. A hereditary monarch, as Paine pointed out in The Rights of Man, is as absurd as a hereditary mathematician. Dividing the nation into the titled and commoners enshrines inequality at the heart of our system and maximises all that is arbitrary about power and sovereignty: why this family, and not another? The republican’s wish is a simple one: I would like – not a novel idea this – to be able to choose my head of state by vote rather than by birth-canal. As such, I do not recognise the right of this family to rule over me.
The royally inclined might, at this juncture, point out that the constitutional powers invested in the monarch are symbolic. They are right, of course, but fail to realise that for the republican this is precisely the problem: we have the symbolic, if not the actual, status of slaves. Who is being more patriotic in the light of this? Those who insist we must forever hand sovereignty to the Windsor blood-line? Or those, such as myself, who believe that we are a sovereign people, and should start acting like one?
I realise that in a country where only one-in-five want to abolish the monarchy we republicans are fighting an uphill battle of Sisyphean proportions. With the country still basking in the warm glow of Friday’s wedding, such an appeal seems especially futile. As the historian Dominic Sandbrook pointed out in Sunday’s Observer, republicans have been predicting the imminent demise of the British monarchy at least once a decade for centuries, only to have the institution stumble on into the 21st century, showing a resilience that defies logic. While I am not about to join those soothsayers who claim the end is nigh for the Windsors, I would like to end on an optimistic note.
All the regal pomp in the world could not disguise a deep anxiety at the heart of Friday’s nuptials; an anxiety that is an inherent and unavoidable part of monarchy as a political system. This is the anxiety of succession. As if the pressure on this young married couple wasn’t already enough, the monarchy is counting on their popularity to carry the institution forth into the next generation. The reasons for this are obvious. Aside from William and (now) Catherine, about the only member of the royal family to garner near-universal respect is the Queen. I imagine most royalists would prefer it if her Majesty really was as immortal as she sometimes seems. Alas, she will die, leaving the keys to sovereignty in the hands of her eldest son, a man whose unpopularity is only matched by his politics, which, as Nick Cohen (among others) has pointed out, goes steaming past conservative, straight through reactionary, and off into the downright weird. If ever there was a chance for the “strange alchemy” of monarchy to be revealed as pseudo-science, it surely comes with Charles’ succession. In Common Sense, Tom Paine wrote: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an Ass for a Lion.”
Am I the only one who thinks of King Charles III when I read that?