There are times in the life of a Republican when it feels as if one is eternally damned to serve as a member of the opposition. Towards the end of 2012, we were reminded all too often of the family that rules over us. It felt that with the Diamond Jubilee and the royal wedding – and royal conception – unthinking and immodest adoration for the Royal Family had reached an apex. During these events, anyone uttering any dissent towards monarchy’s orthodoxy was asked incredulously how they could say such a thing during such great events and instances of powerful nationalism. This idea forms the primary point of my critique concerning the monarchy: it enjoys extreme adulation wherever it goes, and for whatever it does.
Most irritating of all is the effect monarchy has upon the media. In parallel to the views espoused within Walter Bagehot’s essay ‘The English Constitution,’ the media is happy to perpetuate the belief that the royal family is a mystical entity which should be placed on a plinth above all else within society. Bagehot makes the point that ‘our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.’
There exists a disproportionate amount of hysteria and adulation within the press concerning the royal family; any story concerning them is assumed to be a ‘lead’ story. Consider the day the news broke that Kate Middleton had conceived, and the way that every newspaper saw fit to publish this as first page material. Also consider the recent ‘controversy’ surrounding Hillary Mantel’s eloquent and humorous points about the way the royals are distorted in the media. Perhaps ironically, many tabloids saw fit to distort her words, leading to public outcry and swift condemnation of Mantel from both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Or contemplate the outburst that resulted from Jack Whitehall and James Cordon’s ‘crude’ joke about the royals. It is also infuriating to discover that royalty is exempt from the Freedom of Information act, halting any investigative journalist, and making any investigation into their finances and earnings almost impossible.
To many, the idea of life without the monarchy is unthinkable. We have long been convinced that we are admired as a nation for our royal family. Even the title of our nation – The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – accentuates the view that we define our own country and our society as a monarchy first and democracy second. The royal family’s role in our life is often understated and unrealised. To view the grasp they have, one needs only to look under one’s nose. In our own government, the ruling party forms ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ whilst the opposition makes up ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’. Those who talk without the inflections of The North brag that they speak ‘The Queen’s English’. Our country is protected and defended by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. We cannot even send our post without first attaching the Queen’s head to our letters.
When arguing against the monarchy, a point is often made about the amount of land they possess, which encompasses historical buildings, much of the UK’s farmland, and even Britain’s seabed and coast line (including, apparently, all of Britain’s whales and dolphins!). However, it must be stated that, by definition, the crown posses our entire country, in addition to presiding over both religious and secular occurrences. The Queen is head of the state church and labels herself ‘Defender of the Faith’, making any notion of separation between Church and State impossible. This demeans the British people to rank amongst the least modern in the world; we are still subject to authentic forms of monarchy that many other countries shrugged off long ago. Until we refuse to acknowledge the hereditary power at the top of our political, military and religious institutions, we have little chance of escape from the mentality of a society defined by class. Not only that, but we seem proud and reverential of our position as subjects. Praise and attachment to the monarchy has the slight stench of religious devotion about it; the monarchy is praised for all the wondrous and celebrated aspects of the country it symbolises, while avoiding the blame for any instances of fault. This is an enticing, yet dangerous double standard. The question people should, and must, consider, is as follows: do we even need a monarchy?
It is absolutely incredulous that in the 21st century, when we should be celebrating the notion that any child born in Britain should have the opportunity to become anything they desire, they are withheld from attaining the job of head of state, no matter how intelligent or talented they may be. Instead, this position is given to the sons and daughters of royals as a birthright. We are forced to accept the rule of a single family that was initially imposed upon us in 1688. In essence, the monarchy that was elected at the time, and which we still live under, is governing by right of assumption, with the possibility of doing so indefinitely. In perhaps the most astute indictment of monarchy, Thomas Paine outlines this argument perfectly in ‘The Rights of Man’. He asserts that ‘the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man.’
The monarchy perpetuates the class system of Britain, allowing a person born into the right family (by sheer coincidence!) to become not only Head of State, but Governor of the Church of England, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and head of all Judiciary. It is no wonder that Britain suffers amongst the countries with the lowest social mobility in the Western world. Thomas Paine furthers this point, stating that a hereditary head of state is as absurd a proposition as a hereditary physician or a hereditary astronomer.
It is often asserted that the monarchy has no real power (if it were so, the case for ridding ourselves of them would be simpler). This could not be more false, and the supporter will often switch from this to talk about all the good things the monarchy is an ‘influencing force’ for, such as stability, unity or national cohesion, which often turn out to be related to the power they hold. Through exercise of the Royal Prerogative, the monarchy proves both that they do have real power and that they are an impeding force to any sense of democracy this country may claim. The Royal Prerogative allows the government to do many things without making themselves accountable to the Commons or voters, such as powers to: appoint and dismiss minsters, declare war, sign and ratify treaties, deport foreign nationals, confer honours and establish commissions. It is clear that the role the monarchy plays is not purely decorative or ceremonial. This realisation also serves to put down any argument for the monarchy being a force against unchecked political power, in fact, the very opposite is the case.
The Prerogative of the Crown and the enthronement of ‘The Crown In Parliament’ is a potent symbol of our status as subjects rather than citizens. The monarchy diminishes the gains we have made as a country, and consigns us to admiration of a single family. The result is that the British public are deferent to a head of state they did not elect. We are consigned to limp along as a country with neither a serious monarchy nor a self-respecting democracy. It is unfortunate that the people of Britain are too quick to blindly accept what is forced upon them by those in authority. This demeaning reign should not exist in a modern society such as ours.
Thus the case against monarchy stands. They exist to encourage unthinking admiration and puerile servility. They have a retarding effect upon our national intelligence, demeaning and degrading our press. They encourage a system of social distinction and hierarchy. The very principle of monarchy entrenches the insolent notion of hereditary principle. The monarchy truly fails to attain the roles set down by Walter Bagehot by being neither dignified, nor efficient. The case could be made that there are more important issues that than of the existence of monarchy, but those of us who are concerned about our politics and society should take an active role in calling for its replacement with a modern and democratic alternative. Many other developed societies no longer live under a monarch, and we would do well to embrace these ideals. Whilst this is an argument for abolition, it is also a plea to encourage people to think critically about the role the monarchy plays within our society.