Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
This is a column that I originally posted on the moodspins
website. Why they have been so foolish as to let me have a little space, I am not sure, but my column appears there every Tuesday.
Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker-Bowles are to be married in a civil ceremony at Windsor Guildhall on the 8th April. It has been amusing to watch two factions of monarchists argue over the merits of this wedding and the constitutional implications. This basically boils down to those who see the monarchy embodied in the individuals, who support the marriage of Charles and Camilla, and those who see the monarchy as an institution, and see the marriage of two divorcees as fundamentally undermining some of the central values of this institution. But I am not here to discuss that. I am, after all, a republican – not in the George Bush sense, please, but the anti-monarchy sense – so I want to discuss two common defences of the monarchy that surface and circulate when public opinion is on the Royal Family.
The first argument levelled against the republicans is: if we got rid of the Royal Family then we would have to have a president. This claim is often made with the suggestion that an person regarded as unsavoury by the audience in question might become president (commonly, Cherie Blair), and/or comparisons are drawn with currently unpopular foreign presidents (whether George Bush or Jacque Chirac) and the cost of their upkeep (massaged to make a presidential system appear to be more expensive that the maintenance of everyone on the Civil List).
Now, dealing with the latter points first, a president, democratically elected, would surely not be an unsavoury character for a good number of the people in the electorate. If it did turn out this way then it the electoral system that needs to be addressed, not the concept of democratic election of the head of state. Furthermore, if an unsavoury character comes to the throne, we have no method of removing him from office within the confines of a monarchical system. One the other hand, a president can be required to serve a limited period in office and can be removed by election. On the question of expense, well, even if this is true, it is a contingent fact that can be controlled in the design of the office of president. There is no necessary reason why a president should cost more than the Queen and her family. But these are mere practical points. There is a larger ideological point that should chime with everyone who holds a commitment to democracy, and it is this: if the Royal Family must be replaced by a presidential office, then surely they hold a degree of power that is at odds with claims that the state is a democracy.
Of course, in response to claims that the Royal family does hold some power by virtue of their constitutional position, out of proportion with the power they would hold as private citizens, monarchists reply with this: the Royal Family has no power, and there is therefore no democratic imperative to replace them. It should be clear that this is incompatible with the ‘presidential’ defence of the Royal Family described above. This does not mean that I have not heard monarchists deploy both these claims in the same discussion. What we must say, however, is that if the Royal Family has no power, then there is no reason why we cannot remove or replace them. If the head of state need hold no power whatsoever, then I see no reason why we cannot have an entirely apolitical head of state for Britain to look up to. Of course, as no person can reasonably be described as apolitical, this ought to be a statue, preferably quite amorphous so as to not exclude anyone from its binding power.
To which a monarchist will fall back on their argument of last refuge: the Royal Family are symbols of Britain, and they draw in tourists from around the world. Well, I quite agree. The principal purpose of the Royal Family is to act as a symbol; a symbol of a society governed, even now, by class and privilege. They are the figureheads of a national character that has men, equal in all important respects but class, show deference, doff caps and know their place. As a Yorkshireman with a Yorkshireman’s accent, I can tell you that class perceptions still exist, as does preferential and privileged treatment. This is not the way that I want Britain to be, and it is not the way a democracy ought to be. We can consign the Royal Family to the history books, which necessarily means that we will not forget that they are part of the story that has brought us to where we are today.
But as for their value as a tourist attraction? Well, no doubt many people come for a peek at Buckingham Palace. But they do not see the Queen. And if we pensioned off the Queen, then these tourists could have more than a peek at Buckingham Palace. Hell, they could sleep there! And let us consider the money poured into private pockets via the Civil List. We could use that money to build innumerable tourist attractions, to boost art culture, sport, and, if all else fails at keeping tourism high, we could build a themepark celebrating a time that cannot be ‘bygone’ soon enough: The Family Kingdom.