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Opinion

Why the monarchy needs saving – from its admirers

14 Sep 2022 6 minute read
King Charles III leaving Clarence House, London. Picture by Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire.

Patrick McGuinness

One of the arguments to which republicans are most susceptible when it comes to defending the existence of the royal family is the claim that they are above politics. This, along with claims about the unifying power of royalty and the alleged billions they bring in tourist money, is part of the arsenal of clichés with which royalists block any sensible debate about the future of the monarchy.

Every republican knows these moves: by the end of the debate, the monarchist will typically reach for their ‘gotcha’ moment and say something along the lines of ‘Well, OK, then you’re suggesting we vote for a head of state?’, then suggest a range of more or less implausible candidates designed to make voting sound like an absurd and dangerous practice.

In the dentist’s waiting room this week, as I waited for my appointment (crowns seemed to be the order of the day, not to say the week, not to say the month), I watched – having no alternative – a few minutes of the wall-to-wall, channel-to-channel coverage. Gyles Brandreth (we get the ‘national treasures’ we deserve) was being interviewed about matters of protocol, and someone whose name I didn’t catch was giving a history of the palatial room in which some ceremonial stuff would take place. The cameras cut to various scenes and vox pops, and then to more details of who would be where, what they’d wear, the significance of this or that medal, symbol, title, etc.

This blanket rolling coverage – day after day of genuflecting chatter, coercive sentimentality and carefully-choreographed grieving – extends across the airwaves as the queen’s coffin, like some sombre Deliveroo, makes its way across the country. With royalty, symbolism is power – not some apolitical fairyland where day-to-day politics doesn’t go. It is mired in it. See, in this context, the under-reported sacking, by Charles’s office, of 100 staff at Clarence House, or the way in which – for a royal family so invested in heritage and inheritance – he pays no inheritance tax.

Hard power

National mourning is normal and necessary, but there is simply no point in pretending that any element of this ongoing performance of real and symbolic power is anything other than profoundly political. From the monarch’s death in Scotland, ensuring that Scotland would be front and centre of the ‘national’ drama at the most constitutionally threatening time for the British State, to the immediate announcement, by Charles, that he was conferring the title of Prince of Wales on his son, everything about the death of Elizabeth and the proclamation of the new king is political. It has direct political ends, and immediate political effects.

Not only is it political, but it is a chance for the state to flex its muscle, to remind us that the ‘soft’ power of the monarchy is, in reality, and in the hands of an authoritarian government, hard power. From the arrest of protestors, the closing of foodbanks and the cancellation of cancer appointments, to the comical Carry On Grieving antics of Wetherspoons switching off its condom machines (and calling them ‘sheaths’), Center Parcs booting people out mid-holiday, and the British Cycling Federation advising people not to cycle on the day of the funeral, we are witnessing political power exerting itself at every level.

The best symbol of the ‘hard’ edge of ‘soft’ power is the clip I overheard, in the dentist’s waiting-room, in which the staff at the royal parks asked people to stop leaving Paddington teddies and marmalade sandwiches outside royal residences: soft toys in a hard climate, food for the dead while the living have their foodbanks closed. The paradox of the monarchy is that it claims to connect us with our history while requiring infantilism and immaturity from people and institutions.

The BBC, so keen to show us ‘both sides’ of the debate that it let Farage lie about Europe during the Brexit referendum and pitted Nigel Lawson, a chancellor of the exchequer who didn’t understand money, let alone climate change, against scientists, seems reluctant to show us both sides of this one.

Time for debate

Queen Elizabeth was 96. If, as a republican, I feel for her as a royal, it is because she began her reign with Churchill and ended it with the barefaced liar Boris Johnson. She believed in something to which she was bound, having, in her own way, no choice. She carried out her work (the word ‘duty’ is the preferred one, the mysticism and abstraction of having more of of a regal ring) as well as she could, and better than most. She attended her husband’s funeral with dignity while the politicians who lied to her held parties.

In her final years, she watched the UK being torn out of Europe and lose its place in the world, her parliament degraded, and the public sphere poisoned by shameless corruption. The Conservative party heaped more indignity on the poor woman than any republicans ever have: in her final days, she had to meet an outgoing prime minister who lied to her face, and an incoming one who wanted, once upon a time, to abolish her.

The late queen had no choice but to stand by while a substantial section of the media hounded a black princess for the apparent crime of taking her distance from a toxic pantomime in which that very same media caused the death of her husband’s mother. It’s going on now: anyone looking at Twitter or the tabloids will see that, far from showing ‘respect’ for the queen, her death is being used to fuel culture wars, promote racism and imperial amnesia, and to continue going after Meghan Markle.

The monarchy has of course been at the mercy of the media and politicians since George V changed the family’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in 1917, fearing anti-German feeling. But when this charade ends, which it will, there will be time to have the debate about whether Britain needs a monarchy. In this debate, republicans must be able to give their views without fear of abuse or arrest, of being trolled and harassed by newspapers which, in the 1930s, ran headlines like ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’.

Republicans and royalists should start marshalling their arguments, but what is clear from the last few days is that the monarchy is not above politics. For now, both sides, as well as the undecided, should be able to agree on one thing: if this country is to grow up, the royals need to be saved from their admirers.


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Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
21 days ago

Rare that I come away from a piece of writing on the internet believing that what I have read was absolutely essential.

Good stuff.

DR MENNA ELFYN
21 days ago
Reply to  Cathy Jones

diolch am ychydig o ddoethineb. Thanks for some wisdom at last. what a necessary piece this was in the midst of so much dros ben llestri/ over the top.

notimejeff
notimejeff
18 days ago
Reply to  DR MENNA ELFYN

I’m a Welsh learner and a republican and I’ve put the fiddle in the roof over the monarchy.

john
john
21 days ago

Yn dawel, yn gynnil a disglair. Balm i’r enaid’

THOMAS William Glyn
THOMAS William Glyn
21 days ago

I can understand these events being broadcast BUT not all the time and every day. There are other events to cover

hdavies15
hdavies15
21 days ago

Media equivalent of saturation bombing! They may have liked giving individual members of the Royal Family a bit of hard time occasionally but on the whole they are serving that function of rounding up the conforming herd and spotting and scorning dissenters.

Andy Williams
17 days ago

I haven’t seen the weather forecast for days, as soon as the royal stuff comes on, I switch off.

Eifion
Eifion
17 days ago

Ie yn hollol “gormod o bwdin dagith gorgi” yndefe?

Steve George
Steve George
21 days ago

Greay article. I loved “as the queen’s coffin, like some sombre Deliveroo, makes its way across the country.”

Steve George
Steve George
21 days ago
Reply to  Steve George

Great article.

Frank
Frank
21 days ago

I see on another news website, that seems to forbid any comments being left on royal reports, that council pressure washers are out in force cleaning around Llandaf Cathedral in preparation for the king’s visit on Friday. Please correct me if I am wrong in thinking there was a hosepipe ban still in force.

John Davies
John Davies
21 days ago

Excellent article. Thank you. Dissent is being suppressed on the grounds that republicans should show “respect” at this time. But if respect means anything, it must be mutual. It must be two-way. Respect that only works in one direction is not true respect. It is just another tool of domination.

So just as monarchists demand that republicans respect their beliefs. so republicans are entitled to demand that monarchists respect theirs. Anything else is perverse.

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
21 days ago

The monarchy makes Wales no money. Actually it’s we who make the monarchy & English state money with the billions extracted out of Wales from our water & energy resources into England’s Treasury which then goes towards their priveraged. lifestyle. And we have the situation where we have millions mourning the Queen, with some actually physically assaulting Republican supporters, as seen where one protester called offender Prince Andrew, ” a sick old man” only to be dragged to the ground. And it turns out he gets arrested & charged where the ones who physically assaulted him on camera receive no… Read more »

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
21 days ago

I am in the middle of reading Jan Morris’s “Pax Britannica” and the parallels between how the English establishment is handling this funeral/coronation are freakishly like the great Victorian Jubilee of 1897 though this time it is all even more Jingoistic.

Like Trump’s USA, England is harking back to daysof white supremacy and the “othering” of everyone who isn’t “one of us”. Scary stuff.

Linda
Linda
20 days ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

Thanks Kerry – sounds really interesting. I will put that on my reading list.

Richard
Richard
20 days ago

If our friends and families to the east of Offas Dyke wish a monarchy then that’s up to them and we must respect that choice as they need to
respect the views of our own nation on the best for us and our people

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
20 days ago

Quiet respect for QE2, a brief pause, say one month, then back to the struggle.

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
15 days ago
Reply to  I.Humphrys

Oh, so no respect, then? You will not win, if you are not sophisticated enough.

David Smith
David Smith
20 days ago

Those particular Sex Pistols and Smiths songs were mysteriously absent from the pub jukebox last night. When I thought my opinion of this rotten state couldn’t get any lower, they’ve found a way to prove me wrong.

Dean Thomas
Dean Thomas
20 days ago

Excellent piece that says everything about how deeply political the monarchy is. Always recall, in the middle of the Pit Dispute of 1984-85, seeing Thatcher at some event with the Queen – lots of smiles and smirks on display that day. If we’d had a President as Head of State they would have calmed Thatcher’s enthusiasm for community desecration and they would have helped to bring the dispute to an agreeable conclusion.

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
15 days ago
Reply to  Dean Thomas

If you get a President, prepare to be disappointed, as one who has lived in such a republic can tell you.

Shân Morgain
18 days ago

It’s called ‘forced mourning’ and it’s been imposed for 1,000s of years on slave peoples. Three days would be ample, and not saturation media, just enough so those who want it can have it. No closure of NHS services (my husband can’t have his cancer appointment on Monday) No ban on others funerals. No closed foodbanks or supermarkets. I doubt very much if Queen Liz would approve of any of this.Nor should Charles be tortured to exhaustion and beyond, no one who has just lost his mother should be put through all this. Finally don’t fall for the lie it’s… Read more »

notimejeff
notimejeff
18 days ago

Just one comment: there is no evidence that BJ lied to her about the legality of prorogueing Parliament. Nobody has confirmed it. What we do know is that she has plenty of advisors she could have consulted. Her aim was always to protect the monarchy, and she knew that refusing to sign would have provoked a crisis, so she signed. The ‘lie’ is a cover story put out by the Palace..

Andy Williams
17 days ago

What gets me is that the year is 2022, and we still can’t vote for our Head of State. British democracy, don’t make me laugh. An unelected upper chamber, an unelected PM and an unelected Head of State.

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