Down with ‘The People’s Monarchy’

Why puking princesses are bad for democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Reproduced from LM, issue 107, February 1998

‘Over the last few months we have seen what I call the Dianafication of the monarchy, an attempt by the Royal Family to become more attuned to public opinion. On the Queen and Prince Philip’s golden wedding anniversary in November we saw the Queen walking openly from Westminster Abbey to Downing Street, smiling a lot more than she usually does, chatting with people, playing with balloons, kissing her 49 year-old son in public for the first time in his 49 years. There is obviously an attempt by the royals to emulate the personal touch that was Diana’s trademark’.

Anthony Holden, author of two best-selling biographies of Prince Charles and the hugely successful Tarnished Crown: Crisis in the House of Windsor, has followed the fortunes of the royals for over 20 years. ‘I have seen a number of changes’, says Holden. ‘But I think this is the first time in its history that the monarchy has been put under such pressure to justify itself.’

Holden identifies the death and the funeral of Princess Diana as the events which triggered the demand for a People’s Monarchy: ‘The crowds outside Buckingham Palace were decent salt-of-the-earth, humane Brits who could not understand why their head of state, who is supposed to symbolise their emotions and aspirations, was not around to share the moment with them. They did not want to see their monarchy functioning in this old-fashioned way.’

Holden believes there has been something of a ‘polite revolution’ since the death of Diana. The demand of what Holden calls ‘Diana’s Army’ is for the monarchy to open itself up, admit that it has problems and become more like the rest of us. ‘Really it is the British people who have changed’, says Holden, ‘but in a very British way, quietly and politely, without any blood being shed. There are still those who would like the Windsors to remain aloof, remote, dignified and non-emotional. But the people themselves have become a new, young, Blairish lot. It is the people who have changed and the institutions which have to catch up’.

This has been a common cry since the death of Diana. First we had the People’s Princess, as dreamt up by the New Labour press office; then there was the People’s Funeral, where Earl Spencer delivered his passionate oration against the stiff upper lip; then came the People’s Prime Minister, with Tony Blair evoking Diana’s ‘caring and sharing’ values at the Labour Party conference; and later still there was the People’s Palace, following rumours that Kensington Palace would open its doors to the homeless and the sick. Now we have the People’s Monarchy, with the Queen being forced to change her ways after a 45-year reign. It is widely accepted today that Britain’s traditional institutions must emulate The People if they are to survive. So what will have to change about the monarchy?

‘If you ask people what they think about the Royal Family they are likely to say “They should be more like me”‘, says leading psychologist Oliver James. ‘People think the monarchy should be more open just as the general population has become more open. The gap between the royals and the rest of us in terms of our personal lives and how we conduct ourselves has become a problem. The idea of a People’s Monarchy is, I think, an attempt to narrow that gap.’

James, best known for making Peter Mandelson cry on television, is the author of Britain on the Couch, in which he brings together evolutionary psychology, studies of animal behaviour and research into psychopharmacology to paint a depressing picture of a society where ‘we are unhappier than we were in the 1950s – despite being richer’. According to James the monarchy is like a dysfunctional family, where the pressure to succeed and to be perfect has turned out a fairly unstable group of individuals:

‘There are quite a lot of problems within the Royal Family which are wonderfully symbolic. Look at the kind of childhood that the Queen and the Queen Mum had: they did not go to school, they had no normal connection with the rest of society. The only people who really mattered in their lives were their nannies, who were very old-fashioned and depriving, who encouraged the young princesses to develop a full self at an early age and to deny their instincts. This means that the older generation of royals have some very severe problems.’

But it is the younger generation of royals, James argues, who embody the problems of modern society more broadly: ‘The rise in aspirations in the 1990s has spawned all kinds of problems: depression, violence, drug abuse, relationship difficulties and so on. I think these problems are reflected in the younger royals, most conspicuously in the form of divorce and eating disorders. And of course, both Diana and Fergie were depressed and took Prozac, which is what a great number of women do today.’

James sees the tradition of the stiff upper lip as the means by which the royals have denied their problems and maintained the facade of an exemplary close-knit family. What he thinks is needed today is a monarchy which can be more open about its problems and admit that it is going through what many other families in Britain are going through. In other words, the monarchy should cease pretending to be the ‘perfect family’, and should instead become a mirror image of our own depravity. What James and others seem to be arguing is that the monarchy should reflect our own inability to cope with relationships, depression and life in general. But what does it say about society when even the head of state is encouraged to wallow in her own failure and inadequacy?

‘The problem is you can only have a “Diana monarchy” if you have a monarch who is a celebrity or at least a bit sensational’, says constitutional historian professor David Starkey. ‘But do we really want a head of state or a consort like Diana who was reported as having her head stuck down the lavatory one minute and having an upper colonic lavage the next? Is that really an appropriate image? I don’t think we are going to get the Queen talking openly about her battle with thrush, although it’s hard to know; news is breaking all the time.’

Starkey sees the move towards a People’s Monarchy as a sign that ‘Diana’s values’ are gaining a hold. ‘What we are seeing at the moment is not the discovering of the People’s Monarchy, but an attempted reinterpretation of it. A reinterpretation which will work for the Britain of Tony Blair rather than the Britain of Stanley Baldwin. Diana’s values are taking over amongst a certain section of the population, with people talking about how we have become an Oprah Winfrey society, and to a certain extent we have.’

But Starkey also sees a contradiction in the Blair approach to the monarchy: ‘If you look at Blair’s speech at the Queen’s golden wedding anniversary celebrations, he went out of his way to endorse the traditional values of the House of Windsor, the values of duty and service. The problem is he also goes out of his way to endorse Diana, who was of course the absolute antithesis of those values: she was all about self-expression, emotionalism and all of that. And it is jolly difficult to have both sets of values.’

In other words, there is Blair the Brown-nose who, like all Labour prime ministers before him, is the Queen’s loyal and respectful servant. And there is Blair the Moderniser, who is keen to adopt the post-Diana values of ‘caring and sharing’. Royalist professor David Starkey may cling to the hope that Blair the Brown-nose will win through and keep the traditional monarchy intact, but in reality Blair the Moderniser has already won hands down. The royals’ moves to appear more open provide an early but powerful sign that Blair’s pact with the spirit of Diana is stronger than the traditional monarchy itself.

In the past the Royal Family maintained a formal distinction between their public and private lives. There was the public Imperial Family, head of the ‘family of nations’ which make up the Commonwealth; and there was the private Royal Family, as captured in the 1960s fireside photos. But in Blair’s post-Diana Britain there is an increasing erosion of the distinction between public and private – as journalist Peter Stanford has observed, ‘we are now truly a therapy nation’ (Independent on Sunday, 4 January 1998), one where those who grieve in private or keep their feelings to themselves are seen as dysfunctional, while those who wear their hearts on their sleeves are praised for being ‘in touch’ . This was clear around Diana’s funeral where the Queen and Prince Charles were criticised for their stiff upper lip and emotional restraint, while Earl Spencer and the Great British Public were praised for letting it all hang out in uncontrollable displays of emotion.

In many ways the language of therapy is becoming the language of government, with Blair and his new elite as the psychoanalysts to a nation of ‘damaged goods’. The title of Oliver James’ book, Britain on the Couch sums up the state of the nation today. According to Sinead O’Connor, ‘People liked Diana because she admitted that she’d slashed herself and made herself puke, that she was just as fucked up as us. I admire her for showing the Royal Family what they could have been, what they should have been’ (Vox, February 1998). So that is what we need today: a head of state who is not afraid to puke in public.

‘This is quite ridiculous’, says Brian Sewell, celebrated snob and infamous art critic at the Evening Standard. ‘The monarchy should set an example for us, it should not try to emulate us. You know, this Danish monarchy thing of riding your bicycle to go and buy a cabbage seems to me to be rather self-defeating and damned dull.’ In fact, Sewell is the only person I have spoken to who argues that the monarchy is not extravagant enough: ‘It is really so vulgar, so suburban to have your own aeroplane: any businessman can have that. It is even more vulgar to have your own train and your own boat: that is the sort of thing grocers used to be able to do 50 years ago. The monarchy must spend its money more extravagantly than that, by funding the arts or architecture or something.’

According to Sewell the idea that the monarchy should be more like other people is ‘horrific’. He would rather see a monarchy which sets an example – especially in his own field: ‘Only a Royal Family can set an example of real extravagant, beautiful, aesthetic patronage, and they haven’t done a bloody thing for 150 years. In a sense they have been a People’s Monarchy ever since Queen Victoria was re-constituted, if you will excuse the phrase, at the end of the last century.’

Arguing that the monarchy should set an example of excellence for people to aspire to is not likely to go down very well today, where psychologists like Oliver James tell us that ambition and aspiration lead to depression and violence, and where excellence is derided as elitist. ‘But I’, says Sewell, ‘am starting a campaign for the revival of respect for the word elite. If you have an elite standard for people to aspire to, then everything gets better. People criticise public schools in the same way they criticise the monarchy. The way to kill off public schools is to make every comprehensive as good as them. There will then be no demand for public schools, except from the idiot sons of the aristocracy who are uneducatable anyway. Everything else will be as good as Eton and Harrow. Think of the Royal Family playing that kind of role: urging people, forcing people to get better’.

Of course we can all laugh at Sewell’s outdated snobbery, but his defence of the idea that people can improve themselves makes a refreshing change from listening to Blairites telling us we have become a nation of compulsive losers.

Personally I could not care less whether the Queen appears on daytime television to talk about thrush or sails around the world in a luxury yacht. My problem with the monarchy is not that it is too extravagant or that it is made up of rotten personalities, but that it is an insult to our intelligence and a barrier to democracy.

Consider the recent exclusion of Sinn Fein MPs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness from the House of Commons. Despite being elected by nearly 50,000 people, Adams and McGuinness will not be allowed into parliament because they refuse to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Such a brazen attack on the democratic process serves as a timely reminder that the monarchy is more than just a dysfunctional family, an overrated soap opera or a tourist attraction: it is a powerful symbol of an anti-democratic state, a sovereign power over and above the people.

If I had my way we would have neither a traditional monarchy nor a People’s Monarchy, but a Republic, where power rests with the people and their directly elected representatives, and where there would be no room for Kings, Queens, dictators or spin-doctors. The problem is that never has a Republic been less likely than in post-Diana Britain. A Republic is premised on the idea that society is made up of intelligent and confident adults who are capable of making important decisions. Britain AD (After Diana) is premised on the idea that we are all losers in need of therapy and Prozac. And as Edward Pearce points out, ‘only adults deserve a Republic’.

‘Republic: I like the sound of that word’, said John Wayne’s Davy Crockett in The Alamo. ‘It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words.’ By contrast New Britain is a place where, according to Oliver James, a large proportion of the population is ‘dispirited, disappointed and angry’, where at least one-third of adults could be diagnosed as having some form of ‘psychiatric morbidity’, and where it is estimated that ‘perhaps 20 million people’ need some kind of psychological intervention.

The discussion around the People’s Monarchy reveals what The People in Blair’s vision of Britain really are: a collection of atomised individuals, looked upon as losers who need a helping hand from self-appointed psychotherapists; people who would be better represented by a self-obsessed Princess who slashed herself with a razor and made herself puke (and then told us all about it), than by a Queen who prefers to keep her problems to herself.

In his book Britain on the Couch Oliver James suggests that our mentally ill society would benefit from an even wider use of Prozac. I was half-joking when I asked James if he thought any of the royals would benefit from such treatment: ‘Well, of course, Diana and Fergie took Prozac, and I think Prince Philip would also benefit from a course of the drug, and maybe Prince Charles. Yes, I think Charles could also gain from using anti-depressants.’

When even the Royal Family, once the object of servility and respect, can be forced to succumb to the politics of emotion and can be told to sort their lives out with the aid of therapy and pills, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Reproduced from LM, issue 107, February 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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