Vive La Republique?
These are difficult times for republicans. The widespread support for the Jubilee celebrations in Hastings as elsewhere in the UK shows just how revered is Elizabeth Windsor. As a person. But as for the institution she represents and embodies, that may be a different matter.
Don’t run away with the idea that the British monarchy has universal – or even overwhelming – support. Opinion polls show it generally hovers at somewhere between 50% and 60%. It is true that support for a British republic is rather lower – almost invariably below 30%. But around one in five of us is undecided on the issue – quite possibly because no one has really worked out what to put in its place.
Picture elements courtesy of Wiki Commons; Princeofwales.gov.uk; Royal.uk; Ranald Mackechnie
But most democracies in the world have found an alternative. Out of almost 200 sovereign states, just 22% (43) have a monarch as head of state. Some, it is true, are autocracies, but more than half are defined as democratic. So Britain is certainly in a global minority believing in an unelected, hereditary head of state. And it’s in a minority of the world’s wealthiest (G7) nations, most of whom are republics – France, Germany, Italy and the United States – with Canadian public opinion also favoring separation from the Crown and the European Union being predominantly republican.
France, of course, set a bad example in 1789 by executing its king and queen. But no one I think is today suggesting such a bloody solution for Britain. Indeed we wouldn’t even have to remove members of the Windsor family from ceremonial duties if they really wanted to continue them. What we would need to do is to end the monarch as our constitutional head of state.
This, surely, is the most anomalous aspect of the current position. Why should someone, merely by dint of an accident of birth, be the head of our government? And don’t be fooled into thinking that the crown has NO power. It’s the sovereign who appoints the government an opens and dissolves Parliament. No bill can become law without royal assent.
Accepted, it’s pretty unlikely that any British monarch would try to exercise those powers without the agreement of parliament. But the point is that technically they can do so. And there is no guarantee that a monarch will be in his or her right mind (viz George III) or old enough – Henry VI was 8 months old and neither Edward VI nor Henry III had reached their 10th birthday when crowned. Indeed since 1066 seven English kings were under 18 when they ascended, and Queen Victoria had only just reached that age. Meanwhile the 1701 Act of Settlement still prevents Catholics from succeeding to the throne and, given the monarch is also head of the Church of England (a ludicrous anachronism in itself surely), it would be hard to imagine any Muslim or Hindu or Sikh – or even Jewish – person from ever being crowned.
If you are not convinced by the undemocratic, inegalitarian, and discriminatory nature of the role, then bear a thought for the poor people who are effectively forced to accept life in the gilded cage – just because they were born ‘royal’.
The present Queen’s father, George VI, never wanted to be King and was forced into it when his brother, Edward VIII, had to abdicate. Elizabeth herself was living a carefree existence as a naval wife in Malta when her life was changed forever as the crown was thrust upon her at the age of 25.
As much a poisoned chalice as a gilded cage – being a royal is a rotten job. The pressures led to marital break-up for three out of four of the Queen’s children. And, arguably, to the death of Princess Diana. Certainly, the British (and foreign) press ruthlessly exploit their ‘celebrity’ status, printing any salacious gossip however untrue.
Yes, the Royals (or at any rate the Queen) are exceedingly wealthy and live extraordinarily privileged lives. But that is part of the problem. Not just the shocking disparity compared to a minimum wage earner or benefit claimant on the South Coast, but the sense of entitlement. It did Andrew no favours, and has caused massive problems for the likes of Harry and Megan the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Appalled by the unending tide of racist and sexist press coverage they moved to America and found themselves cut off, virtually without a penny (well, according to Harry anyway!).
The point is that, like the Hotel California, you can never leave if you are to royalty born. Only if you absolutely refuse to play by the rules can you be effectively forced out. The unmarried Edward VIII was ‘told’ by the Government and the Church of England he could not marry an American divorcee and remain king. So, he abdicated, married her, and had to spend the rest of his life in virtual exile, angry and resentful that the woman he loved was never allowed to share his title – Royal Highness.
And speaking of ludicrous anachronistic titles, His Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Merioneth, Baron of Renfrew, Baron Greenwich, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, KG, KT, GCB, OM, AK, QSO, CC, CMM, PC, ADC, has spent 73 years waiting to fulfil his destiny. In the meantime, he has opined on any number of matters including (negatively) on architecture and (perhaps more positively) on the environment. But as arch-environmentalist George Monbiot wrote recently in the Guardian: “His intervention in the political affairs of the nation – even though it is often one with which I sympathise – is an abuse of privilege, an exploitation of his unearned, pre-existing position in the public mind, which grants undue weight to his views. As (the architect) Richard Rogers has been arguing, it is undemocratic and unfair to his opponents.”
The so called ‘spider letters’ from Prince Charles to government ministers showed he was happy to lobby the government on any number of personal hobby-horses including farming, genetic modification, global warming, social deprivation, planning and architecture. Most people believed the letters highly inappropriate and an attempt to meddle in public affairs from someone who is supposed to be wholly neutral. Commentators argue there is nothing to suggest that, as King Charles III, he would show any more restraint, being determined to ‘lead as monarch, not just follow’. Just examine his book Harmony: A new way of looking at our world and
some of the reaction to it – “deeply reactionary”, “a manifesto for this anti-modernist hermeticism” – and you can begin to see why people worry that the constitutional impartiality of the crown may be reduced to ashes after Elizabeth.
Some may argue this would be a good thing and that it will hasten the end of the monarchy. After all Britain’s only (brief) period of republicanism occurred once the first King Charles was deposed. But others may feel that we will simply continue clinging to our outdated traditions as part of a backward-looking, isolationist, sceptered isle mentality.
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