Abolish the monarchy, but enjoy the party!
It is entirely possible to be both a republican and an indulger in this long, lazy weekend with cake.
When did being a republican become synonymous with being a party pooper? Listening to the ‘republican voices’ that have been raised in criticism of the Diamond Jubilee, it seems clear that modern-day anti-monarchists have all the killjoy miserabilism of the (caricatured) Puritans, but with none of their revolutionary spirit. The thing that’s really winding them up is that there’s going to be a big fat Jubilee party, that people are going to eat cake, wave flags, gather by the Thames, get drunk, have larks. The real focus of their ire is not the institution of monarchy as such, but rather the feelings they believe it provokes in a hoi polloi easily placated by bread and circuses.
An Independent columnist moans that Britons - ‘even the poor’ - ‘are happily buying Union Jack plastic cups and bunting, getting ready for the biggest party ever’. Apparently, we all unthinkingly ‘accept the exceptionalism and favouritism’ of the monarchy, proving that ‘the political strategy of [having] great royal circuses is working’. That is, the powers-that-be have successfully duped and doped us with this knees-up, taking our little minds off pressing issues like the recession. Another writer says the ‘message from on high’ is that we should all just par-tay and forget about ‘increasing inequality and its accompanying social problems’. Apparently this Queen-cheering shindig is designed to make us ‘clap our hands, smile and applaud’. Like seals.
A noted republican says she is ‘aghast’. No, not so much at the anti-democratic nature of the institution of monarchy, but ‘at the amount of rubbish in shops’, the Union-themed tat and buns millions of suckers are buying. Getting defensive, she continues: ‘I’m not saying people are stupid.’ No, she’s just saying ‘they’re not aware of how the Jubilee will be spun’. In other words, they’re stupid. The idea that the Jubilee jamboree has been sinisterly concocted to ‘distract’ plebs from the economic crisis is widespread. Just as Will’n'Kate’s wedding last year was described by these shallow republicans as a ‘Wedding of Mass Distraction’, a ‘magnificent pleb-pleasing distraction’, so we’re now told that the Jubilee party is an ‘orgy of deference’ designed to distract the little people from their own falling living standards and whatnot.
Monarchy-bashers seem to hate that institution for the same reason that the historian Thomas Macauley said Puritans hated bear-baiting - ‘not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators’. That is, they are most agitated, not by monarchy’s deadening effect on democracy, the way something like the Royal Prerogative gives PMs the power to do whatever they like in the name of the Crown, but rather by its allegedly deadening effect on plebian minds and souls. Listening to these embarrassments-to-republicanism, you get the feeling they don’t so much want a new political system, freed from monarchism, as a new and improved masses – less stupid, less gullible, less open to being ‘brainwashed on an Orwellian scale’, as the novelist Will Self describes moronic monarchy-likers.
This elitism-disguised-as-republicanism has a long and inglorious history. In the 1930s, some members of the super-snobby Bloomsbury Set declared themselves bamboozled by monarchy, because, in the words of Leonard Woolf, it generated ‘superstitious loyalty’ to King and Country amongst ‘the people’ (not people who lived in Bloomsbury, obviously). In the 1970s, the British Labour MP and vocal anti-monarchist Willie Hamilton said the reason Brits put up with these ‘clowns in ridiculous clothes with their prancing horses’ is because they had been subjected to ‘lifelong brainwashing about the value of the monarchy’. And now the Smart Set tells us that Britons, especially the poor, or what a Mirror columnist openly referred to as ‘plebs’, are easily sucked in by the ‘psycho spectacle’ of royal events.
What is revealed by all these attacks on the Queen’s subjects (rather than on the Queen herself) is that republicanism has, in the irony to end all ironies, been reduced to an expression of moral refinement, of moral superiority over the mass of society. Monarchy-bashing has become a way of demonstrating that you are not like Them – the forelock-tugging mob – and instead can see through the garishness and ugliness of both monarchy and the mass insanity it provokes. That is why monarchy-bashing commentators talk about themselves such a lot (‘I won’t raise a cup of warm wine’, etc) and present themselves as brave, isolated souls (they wander ‘lonely as a cloud’ and find that ‘being a sensible person, let alone a republican, has been hell’) – because for them, being anti-monarchy is little more than a way to advertise their own braininess and admirable immunity to ‘messages from on high’.
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The irony is that, in their very attacks on the people who plan to party over the long Jubilee weekend, these observers reveal that they’re not remotely republican. Being a republican once meant trusting in the public (the clue is in the name) and believing that the mass of society was capable of determining its destiny without either the guiding hand or sharp elbows of an unelected head of state. Yet judging by their ostentatious party-pooping-cum-pleb-mauling, today’s anti-monarchy set don’t even trust the public to know that there’s a recession on, and that Britain is in a bad way politically and economically, since they can apparently be made to forget all this by the appearance of Her Maj in a nice yellow hat. How can they govern themselves when they can’t even control themselves during ‘magnificent pleb-pleasing distractions’?
These pseudo-republicans need to get a grip. To the extent that many Brits like the Queen and some of her brood, it isn’t because they’ve been brainwashed into embracing the hereditary principle or forgetting about more pressing political matters. It’s because the royals are now really just celebrities (and celebrity culture is very popular these days), and also because the Queen is seen, rightly or wrongly, as Not A Politician, not one of those spun men-in-suits who rule over us and from whom we feel enormously estranged. It is entirely possible to be a republican, to be implacably Roundheaded, and to have some fun this Jubilee weekend. Abolish the monarchy, yes, because it is anti-democratic and archaic. But enjoy the Jubilee holiday, too, and trust that ‘the plebs’ know very well that it’s just a long, lazy weekend with cake rather than a sedative to make us forget about recession and reality.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.