The monarchy is a fundamental part of public life. But why, in the 21st century, is this still considered appropriate? Why shouldn’t we have a national debate about the place of the Royal Family in modern society?
Prince Philip has retired. Fair enough, the man’s 96 after all. The Royal Family has never been blessed with the luxury of a long, well-earned early retirement; they have no choice but to dedicate their whole lives in service to the nation. As a result, they are subjected to extreme public interest that vacillates between intense scrutiny and unsettling celebrity worship. Prince Philip, therefore, has probably earned a break from the cameras and admirers in what is, let’s be honest, the final years of his life.
In fact, it might just be time to give the whole Mountbatten-Windsor family some respite. As Princes William and Harry prepare to have their mother’s last moments unnecessarily broadcast on national television, perhaps we ought to recognise their right to peace and privacy, and give them a long break from all the attention. Perhaps a permanent one. Given that Prince Harry has himself publicly asserted that nobody really wants to be king, I would even argue that it would be in the best interests of the whole family if the monarchy were abolished.
I concede that it’s not a popular position to take (even if man of the moment Jeremy “Hugo Chavez did nothing wrong” Corbyn has long been an advocate). The Queen is obviously widely beloved, and even the most die-hard of republicans would hesitate to remove the venerable old woman from office. Her heir-apparent – the future King Charles III – does not command such respect, however. YouGov records his net popularity as an uninspiring +4, compared to the Queen’s impressive +58. His accession to the throne might – and should – prompt a national re-evaluation of the monarchy’s place in modern society.
And what is that place? Is there any room in the 21st century for an unelected, unaccountable head of state whose position relies not on the consent of the people, but on birthright, privilege, and the grace of God? Indeed, it seems inappropriate in our secular, multi-denominational society that the head of state should still be so indelibly linked to the Church of England, and that Catholics should be constitutionally barred from the role. It is a profound irony that 52% of the British public chose to break with Europe because (among other reasons), of an imagined democratic deficit, even as our own head of state – not to mention the House of Lords – are orders of magnitude less accountable to the voting public than the European Union.
The mythology of the Queen will surely not live on through Charles.
The monarchy’s numerous defenders might tell me that the Royal Family is an enormous source of income, in the form of the coin spent by the millions of tourists that arrive at Buckingham Palace in the hope of a glance at a real, living, breathing monarchy. But, why is it then that Versailles, the Winter Palace, Sanssouci and the Forbidden City – all historic homes of long-deposed monarchies – have no trouble attracting tourists? Furthermore, the Netherlands, Japan, and Spain are hardly forced to rely on the mystique of their own royal families to draw travellers. Though the mythology of the Queen is attractive to tourists, it will surely not live on through Charles.
Republicanism is not a new phenomenon in the United Kingdom. England and Scotland were of course republics for a brief time in the seventeenth century, ruled in the autocratic style of an absolute monarch by Oliver Cromwell. So powerful was he, that Parliament actually offered him the crown in 1657, and although he rebuffed them, he wielded dictatorial authority, aided by the powerful army under his sole command. After his death, Parliament decided a monarch, whose powers could be kept more easily in check, was preferable. Britain’s brief experiment with republicanism came to an end with the return of Charles II in 1660.
We’ve never so much as flirted with republicanism since then, although Britain did produce one of the finest republican thinkers of all time, Thomas Paine. In his pamphlet, Common Sense, published in 1776, he contended that the burgeoning conflict between Britain and its American colonies could be averted by the establishment of a democratic republic. In the wake of the French Revolution a decade later, Paine formed part of a pro-republican faction alongside other prominent figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. He even went so far as to lobby for a French invasion of Britain to establish a republic by force. Paine wrote:
One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.
The example set by those original French revolutionaries inspired future British republican and anti-establishment movements. The Chartists, a working class movement for constitutional reform, adopted a red-white-green tricolour in the style of the French flag, and the motto ‘Fraternity – Liberty – Humanity’. Although the Chartists never directly campaign for an end to the monarchy, their pro-democracy rhetoric could often verge on the revolutionary. The Treason Felony Act of 1848 put a halt on any talk of a republic by the threat of deportation to Australia.
For the next 150 years, republicanism was limited to a few fringe left-wing politicians. In 1991, the cause was taken up by Tony Benn, who introduced the Commonwealth of Britain Bill in the House of Commons, advocating a complete constitutional reorganisation of the country, beginning with the abolition of the monarchy. His bill never received a second reading, although it was seconded by none other than Jeremy Corbyn. Parliament’s unwillingness or inability to take the bill seriously shows not only Britain’s profound resistance to change, but also what amounts to brainwashing at a national scale. Is nobody willing to question the status quo?
Of course, the answer is yes. In fact, a number of our most famous figures are republicans, including Jo Brand, Colin Firth, Eddie Izzard, Mark Kermode and Daniel Radcliffe. It isn’t such a fringe belief after all, so where’s the public support? We have embraced the monarchy so totally that Royals are treated like celebrities, every new buildings seems to feature the name of the Queen, and even our history is viewed through the prism of who was on the throne at the time.
It’s high time for another Chartist movement. The United Kingdom has become listless, its public life diminished and its democracy floundering. We need fundamental change: a new electoral system and a federal state that creates parity between the four home nations. But why not go one further? Let’s abolish the monarchy, and change Britain for the better; more democratic, fairer, finally able to let go of deeply entrenched class divisions formed over centuries of rule by monarchs and nobles. These aren’t the wet dreams of a socialist: this is the final realisation of liberal freedom and equality, as imagined by the likes of Thomas Paine. If Prince Philip can retire, why can’t the rest of the Royal Family?