No Jubilee for republicans – or royalists
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee throws the spotlight on royalty that is not very regal, and critics who are not really republican.
Amid the endless praise heaped on Queen Elizabeth II as royal toadies of every stripe mark the sixtieth anniversary of her ascension to the throne, the key word is ‘continuity’. During her reign so much has changed – often for the worse so far as Britain’s rulers are concerned, who began the age with an Empire, yet today are faced with the possible break-up of the United Kingdom itself. The queen provides their one remaining symbol of stability and historical authority.
That is why the political and media class are all desperately clinging to her royal robes around the Diamond Jubilee, hoping that the image of timeless majestic power will reflect on the rest of the British state’s rather tarnished institutions. When the great and good sing ‘God Save the Queen’ this year they will really mean it, praying that she might be granted life everlasting, or at least go on and on for another 60 years, to postpone the trauma of change at the top. Even the alleged Scottish rebel Alex Salmond has made clear that she will still be queen of an ‘independent’ Scotland.
Yet behind the appearance of stability and continuity, the monarchy, too, has been transformed over the past 60 years. And the opposition to the monarchy has also transmogrified into something else. Both sides of the debate have been emptied of their traditional meaning. Today we are left with royalty that is not very regal, facing critics who are not particularly republican.
For much of the queen’s reign the British royal family has done its best to modernise its image by appearing more ‘ordinary’, or at least less aloof from its subjects. It is often claimed that a turning point was the 1969 TV documentary The Royal Family, granted unprecedented access to film the royals going about their daily business and looking ‘natural’ – sort of ‘The Only Way is ER’. The attempt to appear less peculiar and privileged, at least in public, accelerated after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when the press accused the royal family of being ‘an alien breed which is stuck in a time-warp’. (Ironically, that was because of the queen’s entirely human reaction of wanting to remain with her bereaved grandchildren in Scotland rather than join in the theatrical displays of grief in London.)
In recent years the royal family’s PR has tried to recast the royals, especially the younger Windsors, as sort-of TV celebrities in crowns rather than regal figures. This has led to such horrors as Brian May (guitarist for Queen – geddit?) marking Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee by playing the national anthem on electric guitar from the roof of Buckingham Palace. It reached its apogee around last year’s royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which was more an extension of celebrity culture than a traditional patriotic celebration. While the crowds waved plastic Union flags bearing the brands of OK! and Hello! magazines (which gave them out), the coverage emphasised the extraordinary ‘ordinariness’ of the young couple getting married in Westminster Abbey.
This year’s Diamond Jubilee events will no doubt attempt to strike a similar note. It will all be in striking contrast to the 1897 celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which took place when Britain was near the peak of its imperial pomp and were turned into a global exhibition of the power and glory of Victoria, Empress of India. By contrast in 2012, while India tells the UK government that it no longer needs the ‘peanuts’ of British aid and Jamaica’s prime minister says ‘time come’ to cut the royal apron strings and declare a republic, this year’s Jubilee appears set to be graced by a special royal reunion of the Spice Girls (again). That rather neatly illustrates the point about the decline of imperial British nationalism that Brendan O’Neill made on spiked at the time of Will’n’Kate’s wedding: ‘Today the Union flag is less “The Butcher’s Apron” than “The Spice Girl’s Boob Tube”.’
These ongoing attempts to modernise and ‘normalise’ the royal family through the queen’s reign have created new tensions at the heart of the monarchy, such as that between majesty and celebrity. It is impossible to appear ordinary and imperious at the same time, to maintain the mystique of a monarchy with the God-given right to rule while courting the approval of the celeb-obsessed media. For now, these tensions and questions about the role of the monarchy can be kept in check by the presence of the old queen, who spans history back to the days of Empire and the Second World War. That is one more reason why the authorities are so keen for her to carry on as long as possible, fearing ‘After her, la deluge’.
Yet the other great asset the monarchy has enjoyed through the queen’s reign has been the abject weakness of British republicanism. And that situation shows little sign of improving. Indeed, many prominent critics of the monarchy today appear to have forgotten what republicanism is meant to be about – especially the place of the ‘public’ at the heart of the republic.
As the royals have attempted to become more popular, their critics have moved in the other direction, appearing more aloof from and disdainful of the British public. We are left with a bizarre spectacle of anti-monarchists who can sometimes look more snooty than the royals themselves.
Anti-monarchists often seem to save their most bitter contempt not for the royals themselves but for the supposedly royalist British people, who are seen as ‘brainwashed drones’ duped by the media. Hence all of the complaints about last year’s royal wedding being deliberately plotted to ‘distract attention’ from spending cuts and war, as if the public truly were that stupid. It is ironic that at a time when most people are more indifferent to the monarchy than in living memory, many critics appear to believe that we are screaming queen-lovers.
One anti-Jubilee campaign planning to protest at the big royal pageant on the Thames in June claims that these celebrations ‘go to the heart of what’s wrong with the monarchy’ and ‘represent everything we, as republicans, oppose’. Really? Call me old-fashioned, but this longstanding republican has always thought that the heart of the problem of monarchy is the anti-democratic constitutional device of the Crown Prerogative and the Crown-in-parliament, which gives the British government executive power to do much as it sees fit. The rest is just theatrical dressing-up and window-dressing. Yet some now seem to suggest that the bigger problem is the public spectacle of supposedly gullible dupes turning out to wave little flags and take pictures of the queen on their phones.
While the royals are trying to use the public to give their highly undemocratic anachronistic status some legitimacy, high-profile anti-royalists tend to avoid the public, the majority of whom they see essentially as a monarchist mob. Those who have little faith in democracy prefer to take their complaints about media bias to the suits at the BBC and Ofcom, or ask judges to rule on their challenge to outdated constitutional laws.
If we are going to use the Jubilee events to question the monarchy, let us at least remember what the case for a republic is supposed to be about. Not miserabilist moaning about the cost of celebrations, but putting the positive case for an expansion of democracy. Not just banging on about Them, but putting the emphasis on Us – our right to be recognised as citizens of a free society, not subjects of the Crown.
But what could be the point of a republic, if you truly believe that the public are brainwashed dolts incapable of acting independently in their own interests? Little wonder the case for a republic has never taken off in modern Britain, if we have so little genuine faith in the potential of the people to take sovereignty into their own hands.
It might be worth reminding ourselves that historically the fight for a republic was not just a complaint about pageants and princes’ pocket-money, but was part of the wider struggle for democratic revolution and social change. The English Revolution that decapitated King Charles I in 1649 inspired the eighteenth-century republican revolutions in America and France (and if the English bourgeoisie had not lost its nerve and invited back Charles II in 1660, we would not now need to be worrying about the accession of Charles III).
During Queen Victoria’s reign there was a brief flourishing of republican clubs and sentiments in the 1870s, in which conservative critics of the then-reclusive queen vied for influence with those such as Karl Marx’s International Working Men’s Association, who saw the question of monarchy as part of the bigger issue of power in capitalist society. That republican moment proved shortlived, as the weakness of left-wing politics in Britain and the burgeoning power of British imperialism enabled the authorities to consolidate support for the monarchy. Ramsay McDonald, who would become the first Labour prime minister, later reflected on the rise and fall of Victorian republicanism: ‘In the seventies the throne appeared to be tottering…The Queen and the Prince of Wales had no hold upon the popular mind; there was a spirit of democratic independence abroad; the common man believed in the common man. That has gone.’
If republicanism is to have any future today it will depend on the creation of a twenty-first century version of that ‘spirit of democratic independence’, a belief in the capacity of the ‘common man’ and woman to exercise more democratic power. It could begin by recognising that the main thing maintaining any semblance of public support for the monarchy today is not public stupidity, but the discredited state of politics and politicians. That is why, when you propose having an elected head of state, the first response will often be: ‘What, President Blair or Ashdown? I wouldn’t want to vote for any of them.’
Against the background of the crisis of democratic politics and the celebritification of the royals, not everybody waving a plastic flag for the queen this year will be a mad monarchist. Meanwhile, many of those criticising the Jubilee look like plastic republicans.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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