Monarchy?


a dialogue between


Rose Pettengell & James Soderholm

Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
-Denis Diderot

I would rather obey a fine lion, much stronger than myself, than two hundred rats of my own species.
-Voltaire

 

RP: The monarchy is an institution that has been a part of England for hundreds of years; it is ingrained in our culture and only for a brief period of eleven years was England a Republic. I think that there were a number of factors which led to the Restoration but I believe that the consciousness of the people was not ready for such a change. Are the people of Britain ready now and do they want to be?

As a monarchist I believe the monarchy still plays a big part in this country; it is part of our national identity, not to mention the political role the Queen plays and the public duties the rest of the family perform. But am I letting my admiration for one woman cloud my rational judgement?

Does this country still need a monarch and if not, why not?

 

JS: I think of modern monarchy pretty much the same way I think of organized religion: as a crutch for the weak-minded, as a fairy-tale for the imaginatively-needy, and as an excuse to remain in thrall to a paternal or maternal protector who pretends to have power but in fact has almost none. The current royal family is like that Mercedes hood-symbol on a German car that keeps chugging along because most of the English are too shallow—or too bored—to let the old clunker glide to a well-earnt final rest. Cromwell’s Puritanism, his dread of dancing and his ridiculous hatred for any form of Catholic beauty—not to mention his almost regal vanity as he gained stature—also leave me full of contempt, but at least he had the courage to imagine a nation governed by Parliament.  Monarchy is nostalgia and, like mourning too much, nostalgia is an error.

I think Britain is long overdue for modernizing and that means letting the monarchy die out. Prince Charles will be a hugely unpopular king. His ‘reign’ will be a perfect time to let the charade finally die a fairly undistinguished death.  Can you imagine Richard III saying something like this: “Something as curious as the monarchy won't survive unless you take account of people's attitudes. After all, if people don't want it, they won't have it” (Prince Charles). That’s the remark of a Prince nearly buried in the values of democracy and consumerism: the monarchy as ‘what the market will bear.’ When the whole show finally goes pear-shaped only the souvenir shop owners will mourn their loss in profits.  No more Buckingham Palace snow-globes to sell to idiotic Americans, who at least founded a country where kings and queens are obsolete.

 

RP: You are wrong in saying that the monarchy has no power. The Queen may not have political power but she has the power of respect from her people, the crown is there to serve its people not to rule over them. I believe that if we had not had Her Majesty as sovereign after WWII to the present day, the monarchy in Britain might not have been so successful and still exist. It owes its survival to her.

Cromwell's government was more oppressive than most monarchies. Because of his strong Puritan beliefs, England became a lifeless country with no one to look up to. Theatre was banned, most sports were banned, dress code was strict, Christmas and any residual saint's days became a quiet day of fasting where soldiers would roam the streets enforcing such laws. Another purpose of the monarchy was that it gave the common people an image to aspire to, mostly because they believed in the divine right of Kings but also because it gave them a sense of national identity. Cromwell divided the country into eleven areas each of which he gave to his generals to govern, so essentially England fell under a military dictatorship with no debates in Parliament.

You are right in saying that Prince Charles will not be as popular as his mother, but then his son is perfect for the role. Unless the royal family cause serious harm and offence to the people, the monarchy will reside in Britain for many years to come. It would be more expensive to abolish it than to keep it, not to mention the national hurt it would cause. The British monarchy is not silly, it is part of how this country is run and governed and the royal family play a big role in public service, they are a part of its infrastructure. I fear the American fascination of the monarchy is one of nostalgia, indeed why are they so obsessed with it? You do not find British people buying idiotic Buckingham Palace snow-globes. Americans do that. They may not have founded a country with Kings or Queens but maybe that’s their loss and an explanation for the unhealthy obsession with the British royal family. The American image of the royal family is one where they sit all day in their palaces drinking tea while the people pay for them to look nice. However, I am sure most people have had more than four days off since they were 25 years old! Their ignorance is the error.

 

JS: I obviously hit a royal nerve! You won’t mind if I probe it a little more to see what’s going on inside. What you are calling ‘work’ I think I might call a supernaturally-pampered and glamorous set of ritual obligations, with so many compensating luxuries and amenities that even to call it ‘work’ is an insult to the millions of her subjects who really do have to grind their way through the day to collect a heavily-taxed paycheque.

The royals put in appearances and do all sorts of lovely and charitable things, most of those things in front of fawning cameras and adoring tourists, before retreating into opulent accommodations that, if rented out as venues, could pull the six million living in poverty in Britain out of their wretchedness. I note in passing that monarchs of long ago richly supported the arts and especially music, as David Starkey amply demonstrates in his superb BBC programme, Music and MonarchyI think Starkey's main point about the contemporary monarchy is that its sacredness is only to be found in the musical traditions that nourished it. Few believe in the sacredness of anything in our age and the current royals don't do or say much to rise above the temporal realm in which we all move and live. A sense of the ceremonial will live on in the great music of England's past, but the pomp and circumstance of today's monarchy appears increasingly pompous and circumstantial, glamourous and superficial, media-driven and nostalgic.   My biggest problem with the monarchy, all monarchies, is that they are a denial of meritocracy. I think being born with platinum spoons sticking out of every orifice is a disgusting capitulation to the idea of privilege, the apogee of which is of course the utterly fictional and disastrously arrogant ‘divine right of kings’, an idea inimical to anyone who has to work for a living and rise by merit, not by the fabulous trick of birth. Can you really be in favour of the ‘divine right of kings’? Do you how kings, earls, barons got their titles, wealth and power? By being, long ago, more ruthless, rapacious and clever than their neighbours, whose lands and resources they graspingly arrogated to themselves (i.e., stole).

As for your remark, “Cromwell's government was more oppressive than most monarchies,” much hinges on how we define the word ‘oppressive’, but even a cursory glance at the reign of Charles I suggests that he was hardly a wise, fair-minded and judicious ruler who loved all of his people. Thousands of his subjects did not mount an insurrection that finally occasioned a regicide because Charles I was a kind and reasonable monarch. For all of Cromwell’s annoying Puritanism, at least after the interregnum the reconstituted Parliament during the Restoration significantly clipped the wings of royal prerogative. The monarchy has—thank Parliament—been losing power ever since. The Queen’s power of ‘royal assent’ is a mere formality and we must recall that the last time a monarch stood against parliament was in 1708 when Queen Anne withheld her support for a bill to restore the Scottish militia. I do admire the Queen for trying to stay away from the grief orgy in London after Princess Diana’s death, but I do not admire her for her eventual capitulation to Tony Blair’s self-serving remonstrations and to the British peoples’ diseased sense of their importance and their pathetic desire to have ‘their Queen’ shed a regal tear next to all the shiny balloons littering the gates at Buckingham Palace. Monarchy keeps kitsch alive and kitsch represents the evil of banality.

Finally—I apologize for the length of the rattles on this snaky reply—I am vaguely gratified that Prince William married a commoner (although she doesn’t act it) and that Prince Harry will marry a mixed-race American woman with a career of her own. The media will make a big, lucrative fuss over them, but it is clear that the ‘royal line’ is thinning out. I am wondering why you think the British people still need to believe in an institution that is based on a thousand years of privilege passed down through one of the flakiest genealogies on the planet (how many ‘royals’ have been passed over since Elizabeth I to make certain only a Protestant could sit on the throne?).

 

RP: I am not sure that I would have wanted to be born into fame that cannot be escaped, even if you have platinum spoons sticking out of every orifice, I would describe that as more of a curse than a blessing.

I don't think it is just the monarchy that is denial of meritocracy. I think it is the whole government and political system too. You may not have been born a prime minister but how many prime ministers came from working-class families, how many political parties actually care about the people they govern. Do they sympathise with the poor, homeless, sick and disadvantaged and how many represent the majority of the population? The monarchy has become more invested by the people with by being the head of many big charities, their celebrity status helping with fundraising and recognition. So I think it is unfair to say that the work the Queen does is an insult to her subjects because the sort of work politicians in the government do is insulting. Your critique should be of the entire political system by which the country is governed and not just the monarchy.

While you are most likely right in saying that all the palaces and castles that they live in could raise people from poverty, those buildings are historic examples of medieval to Victorian architecture and if they were not lived in by the monarchy they would become English heritage sites because of their significant historical value. Some of the royal residences are available for rented hire and the opening of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral and many others to the public, now pays for their upkeep.

The Queen holds the power to dissolve parliament, appoint and dismiss prime ministers, the power to make war, command the armed forces, appoint bishops and archbishops and to create peers. In times of crisis, as with a hung Parliament, the lack of an automatic choice of Prime Minister, or an unjustifiable and unnecessary request for a dissolution of parliament, the Monarchy provides an impartial and non-political official body and the Queen has intervened and appointed a Prime Minister three times during her reign. As Margaret Thatcher put in her memoirs, "[a]nyone who imagines that [these meetings] are a formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly business-like and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience". Her job as Queen is to encourage certain courses of action, to warn against others and the right to be consulted by the Prime Minister weekly. She acts as a third party to any decision that goes through parliament and while she cannot refuse them, she is able to advise and be consulted on; surely having a third party with very little power but extensive knowledge of government is a good thing when putting forward new legislation?

Would you not rather have someone who has been brought up to do their job since birth or someone who knows absolutely nothing about how a country should be governed as head of state and nation? I am of course thinking about the current president of the United States. Should someone with no knowledge of politics be able to hold such power, to make decisions based on a whole country and represent the people? The Queen was brought up to be Queen, she was educated on the constitution, how the political system worked, what exactly her role was and what was expected of her, on these matters she is the most educated person in the country. Surely having someone who knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing is far more stable and reliable as Head of State and Nation, rather than someone who acts for only four years and may know nothing about how to govern a country?

I would agree with you that Charles I was not a "wise, fair-minded and judicious ruler" hence the Civil War, and his reign was a part of the oppressive category I alluded to. By supporting the monarchy I am in no way supporting the 'Divine Right of Kings' as it is an outdated idea that no longer applies to the modern day. The monarchy today does not swear by such an ethos. As for your comment about how kings and barons got their titles, I am afraid you have just stated a simple, sad fact of evolution.

I think the monarchy is just a part of how the British identify themselves and it is not harming anyone by being there, so why should we aim to harm it?


JS: I think being born into fabulous wealth, position, fame and the spotlight is far more of a blessing than a curse but that is a calculus that two commoners such as ourselves can never perform.

I think you make many fair arguments in your last set of vehement remarks defending royal prerogative and outlining the Queen’s capabilities and responsibilities. I know one fine old lady in Canterbury who is partly sustained by a Queen’s Pension and she is justly grateful to and proud of the monarchy. And I do think far too much cronyism and smug elitism goes on in government and business but, on the whole, the system of education leading to government posts and business success is based on hard work and merit and, for every one story of obnoxious privilege you can tell me, I can tell you five stories of merit and accrued credentials leading to financial solvency and social mobility. Education, for all its prickly problems—and there are many in the UK and the US—remains the great leveller, and it tends to level up.

I think you will find if you talk to your peers that fewer and fewer of them identify in any way with the Queen or the monarchy as part of their ‘British identity’. I have taught over a thousand British students in the last fourteen years, and most of them have almost no knowledge of royal history or any interest in making strong arguments to defend the behaviour or indeed the continued existence of ‘royalty’. I believe that it remains a profoundly anachronistic and increasingly-decorative ‘institution’ that will fade away over time, especially when the current Queen dies. The monarchy will enjoy a kind of celebrity afterlife when Prince William and his obligingly-telegenic wife climb into their inherited splendour to continue the game of thrones, but over time the British people will move on and outgrow this fascination with antiquated glamour—and so they should.

If I have stated a ‘simple, sad fact of evolution’, then I take it you do not disagree with it. All the fancy titles over which we are trained to fawn if not salivate are based on greed and rapacious audacity that have been forgotten or prettified over time. The royals are so rich, moreover, that they need not participate in Darwinian evolution, except perhaps to show that genetic inbreeding is a fact of life. It turns out that William and Kate are 15th cousins, connected by the Fairfax family in the 16th-century that descended from Edward III. I note with morose satisfaction that jumped-up Kate’s ancestors include plasterers, butchers, and a jailbird, as well as an honest road sweeper whose genetic material Kate’s children might draw upon as they help shift the remnants of the royal family into the patient dustbin of history.


RP: I think most of your problem with the monarchy lies in an engrained dislike for anyone who is born into wealth who therefore in your eyes does not seem worthy of it; and I agree, the idea that our hard work is paying for the upkeep of their 'not so hard work' should be a disturbing one, but to me they earn their keep, whether that is statistically correct or not. You talk about the royals being "so rich" when in fact the Queen is (by far) not the richest person in the country, let alone the world. People make more money on arms deals, killing people and in business than by being the Queen of England. Most business owners have more money than the monarchy and most of the richest people in the world are all heirs and heiresses to land, property and inherited power

You are right in saying that almost all of my peers disagree with the monarchy but I think that might be because they are also uneducated about the role of the constitutional monarchy. A more educated approach to how the monarchy works would change that statistic slightly. I was very surprised to find that on the Politics A-level syllabus there is nothing on how the monarchy acts in its role as head of state and nation or what relationship the Queen has with the government.  

I like your point that they will eventually fade away over time because the royal 'blood line' is thinning out, but I am more inclined to liking that natural extinction as oppose to really believing it. You will find that even under ten years ago, the British public was approximately 80% in favour of the monarchy; that figure was less in parliament but parliament cannot act unless a vote is given by the people and that decision for a vote must first be run by the Queen. So I am not convinced about the fading away argument. Until they do something disastrous the British people are too worried about themselves to care much about trying to get rid of the monarchy.

I will not argue for the monarchy remaining because of how much money they bring into the economy in regard to paying for their upkeep, for I think that reducing a family to how much money they are worth  is rude and disrespectful. I think the economic argument for the preservation of the monarchy keeps the ‘nostalgic dream alive’. Many argue that more money is brought into the economy than is it put into maintaining artefacts such as the golden state carriage, which encourages the tourism and therefore keeps the dream alive.

So while the monarchy still holds a purposeful role in matters of state and nation, I continue to argue that the family still have a place in modern Britain.

 

JS: You say ‘a purposeful role’ and I say ‘a largely ceremonial role’. The Fix-Term Act of Parliament in 2011 ended the Queen’s power both to dissolve Parliament and to call for a general election. At present, a two-thirds vote in the Commons is required to dissolve Parliament before a five-year fixed-term is up. You have, much to your credit, forced me to do some homework so I no longer write things that reflect the views of an ignorant American. Just look at all the bits and pieces I have taken on board. I did not know, for example, that:

*All information about the royal family is exempt from Freedom of Information requests. The Queen is technically above the law and incapable of committing a crime. All prosecutions are carried out in the name of the Sovereign, and she is both immune from prosecution and cannot be compelled to give evidence in court. [Now that’s royal privilege.] *The Queen owns all the swans in the Thames and all dolphins until they swim out for than five miles from the coast of the UK. * The Queen holds the ability to fire the entire Australian government. [One can only hope.]

I think we will never know just how much the Queen influences world events or British politics, but it is chastening to think of all the Prime Ministers and US Presidents she has seen off, from Churchill and Truman to May and Obama.  

As far as the British public, it is also probably 80% in favour of roaring at football matches, being riveted to Coronation Street and inhaling greasy, carcinogenic chips, so I am not moved by that vox populi statistic. I would add that when I was teaching at the oldest public school in England for eight years, there was very little appetite for monarchy, even amongst the ultra-privileged.

I see nothing wrong with having a dislike for those who did not earn their wealth. Riches are power and poverty is slavery since the beginning of recorded history. Being born into fabulous wealth is nothing to be proud of. The trick of birth is nothing to celebrate or honour, to my mind.

Having complained with some pungency about your monarchy, I would be delighted to meet the Queen or Prince Charles to discuss any number of issues and ideas. I do find it odd, if not amusing, that whenever Charles tries to dip his political oar in the water, the press comes down on him as if he were Charles I on a particularly despotic day. In fact, there is a connection between the regicide and the inability of the current Prince to have much political traction in the modern world. A few years ago I sent Prince Charles two books that I published and received a lovely note of thanks from his private secretary. It was printed on the prettiest stationery I have ever seen and I have kept it as a kind of epistolary treasure. Perhaps I have a soft spot after all?

 

RP: I have learnt a lot from writing this dialogue with you, not only were my views challenged to the utmost limit but they were also educated in a way that was most eye-opening.

I am still a monarchist but maybe with a slight republican twist as some of your arguments were impossible to disagree with. I think if the mirror of one’s opinion is cracked, one cannot help but see a different side to any story.

You are allowed to have a soft spot and still be a republican.

As a monarchist I hold no obsessive fan-based connection to the Queen or her family, nor do I go and buy stupid souvenirs or any such products that display a weakness of imagination. It is pure respect that encourages me to support the existence of the current monarchy.


JS: In all generous dialogues, the mirror of one’s opinion reticulates into a cobweb. You have made me re-consider my views and adjust them. You have moved me from what my old mentor and friend Richard Rorty called a ‘final vocabulary’ (an ossified set of terms and categories for judging the world) into that far more interesting and supple thing, ‘a provisional vocabulary,’ which is in the habit of weaving and re-weaving itself as it tingles at its fringes with new arguments, new evidence, new thoughts. I will never have a strong admiration for any monarchy but you have altered the way I think.  You have teased out a bit of my residual admiration for the traditionalism of monarchy.  I do not think there are particularly rational reasons to maintain the royal family and to worship the ground on which they walk, but there are both sentimental and ceremonial elements associated with the British monarchy that I had not properly weighed.