Thoughts on the Monarchy

For a unionist to admit to being less than a wholehearted monarchist is often difficult, especially so during the 60th jubilee. Alex Kane, a unionist and open republican, has a very good analysis during which he almost becomes a pragmatic monarchist. It is worth reading in totality but his main argument centres around the stability the monarchy under the present Queen has helped provide.

I have mentioned before that not all unionists are wholly supportive of the monarchy. Personally I am a moderately reluctant pragmatic monarchist.

From a properly fundamentalist Christian position a monarch is inappropriate. Cromwell refused the crown and on his tomb was written “Christ not Man is King”. That said Cromwell did have most of the powers of a king, his position of Lord Protector did pass to his son and his puritanism would probably be less than popular with most current British republicans – as would his record in Ireland be with Irish republicans. One preacher I remember from my childhood who was definitely the maddest I heard (he counselled that if left behind after The Rapture one should join the Israeli army and that there was no doubt the world would end before 2000) did say that democracy was unbiblical. Equally though monarchy was condemned in the Bible and the children of Israel condemned for demanding a king. It is slightly unclear how judges were selected in the Old Testament and the levels of fundamentalist lunacy required to try to re-establish a pre monarchical Israelite society in the UK are such that anyone proposing it should probably receive medication.

Turing away from fundamentalist to more mainstream religious objections to monarchy there is the fact that the Queen is head of the Church of England and must be a Protestant: indeed a member of the established church. This counts out very large numbers of us as either as dissenters (the one time that odd Irish republican obsession with the differences between Protestant denominations is relevant), non Christian or even non religious. However, the objection that one must be a member of the Church of England to be monarch is less relevant than the objection that one must be born into the House of Windsor to be head of state.

There is the fundamental fact (to give the word another outing) that the monarchy is undemocratic (though ironically of course ending it in the teeth of public support for the institution would itself be highly undemocratic). However, the lack of democracy is not actually an enormously big deal in a politically impotent head of state: clearly if the head of state is the Prime Minister or if the President has significant political power democratic election is essential.

Theoretically in a republic any of us could become the head of state. However, the reality is that if one has a head of state separate to politics it usually ends up being a former politician or other supposed worthy. In the UK we could end up with President Blair or previously President Thatcher both of which are prospects which would fill most with horror: even a President Major would be pretty dreadful. This being the UK and the hypothetical president’s job being above politics there is the danger some sort of joke candidate could become our head of state: President Clarkson is a further horror to contemplate. Alternatively we could combine both former politician with celebrity and add complete national joke to the mix by having Lembit Opik as president (provided he recovers from his wrestling match).

As Alex Kane (and many others) have pointed out the Queen has rarely put a foot wrong for the last 60 years. Cynics may say that she has done this by having an army of advisers and never saying anything of substance. That said Princes Charles and Philip have managed to say nothing of substance and still be controversial at times.

In a positive sense the Queen manages to embody a Britain that many hark back to: a kinder, gentler country yet one with a more important place in the world. She seems to manage this, however, without becoming mired in the inappropriate deferentialism, socially constrained and class ridden society which the fifties at times seemed to represent. Somehow the Queen manages to represent the best parts of the old order to those who want hark back to them yet also a caring and progressive face.

The reality of course is that we know nothing about her private views and what we know of her day to day life is choreographed and released in the most controlled fashion. Our image of the Queen is often a construct of the nicest parts of our own and our relatives characters which we then project onto her whilst leaving aside the less noble parts of our ourselves and others. For conservatives she is a conservative: for progressives a progressive. For some she is a fairly big C conservative for others a Social Democrat. For a few she represents “The Fascist regime” but as Jeremy Paxman (a former republican turned pragmatic monarchist) points out that is simply absurd.

Republicans have admitted that this is a poor year for them. Their time might come but that still seems fairly unlikely. One day Charles will probably be King and he has during his long tenure as heir to the throne said and done some fairly foolish things. He is most unlikely ever to be held in the state of near worship the Queen is, but equally as he has aged into being a man who’s public utterances are increasingly pleasant, harmless and anodyne – the perfect ones for a constitutional monarch. Charles is also now complete with a wife who whatever of the past has managed, since joining the royal family, to avoid saying or doing anything remotely out of place (though her husband was probably better at reading the weather). Following Charles is William, again another construct both of the media and the public’s own mind, yet one who manages to embody much of the Queen’s popularity and add to it some of his late mother’s star dust. He is complete with a fairy tale romance and marriage to an ordinary girl (though of course Kate Middleton’s is no rags to riches tale: rather a riches to vast riches one).

Some amongst the intelligentsia have suggested that despite all the riches, education and privilege the royals are actually somewhat unsophisticated even slightly boorish with little real appreciation of the finery around them. In reality that tends to rebound on those who make such suggestions marking them out as intellectual snobs with little understanding of normal people: ironically making the royals more accessible by the appearance that their tastes are more normal.

The British monarchy is then a farcical and daft institution, a bastion of inherited privilege and hereditary idleness saved only by an octogenarian who apart from the ability to fix Second World War vintage truck engines has no relevant skills. Her family is dysfunctional and at times seems committed to self destruction. Despite all that, however, the Queen is adored and the institution of the monarchy is supported by the vast majority. Clearly no one would propose a constitutional settlement so daft in the current world. However, the constitutional monarchy we have is actually a common position within Europe and is one which has served this country well. In its present and likely future it seems to be working and is better than any alternative could realistically achieve. For those reasons as well as its overwhelming popularity it seems that the UK is likely to stay as a Kingdom and not a United Republic.