With the Platinum Jubilee celebration this weekend, here's why the monarchy must end and why Britain should become a republic.
The Platinum Jubilee, which celebrates 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, is everywhere in the UK.
The front pages of newspapers and magazines blare their worship of an old woman and her family. The television news is given over to segments on the Queen’s fashion style over the decades while the presenters worry that the special Jubilee bank holiday weekend (June 2-June 4) and all the attendant celebrations might be marred by rain—the horror! Even my email inbox is unsafe; a major British newspaper is trying to persuade me to subscribe by offering a cheap subscription deal, which includes a Jubilee tote bag for my troubles.
As a republican—not a Republican in the U.S. sense, but in the broader constitutional sense—I oppose hereditary monarchy; in particular, the one that rules over my own country of Britain. I believe that the monarchy must end.
I wish for the abolition of the Windsors and hope for Britain to grow out of the magical thinking and tawdry worship that characterize our strange relationship with that most dysfunctional of families.
I want Britain to have an elected head of state who is not the head of a church.
Last year’s evolution of Barbados into a republic and the rancorous reception accorded the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their recent Caribbean tour have confirmed to me that Britain’s former colonies are much more grown-up than their erstwhile imperial master. Why can’t Britain follow the lead of Barbados and finally become a modern country?
It is ironic that the descendants of those the British enslaved and considered a lesser form of life have shown themselves more rational than their former rulers. What could be more superstitious than the British monarchy? We British ‘decide’ our head of state by family tree and inaugurate this person in their role with a lavish ceremony of magical words, chants, and oils. This person, we are supposed to believe, was chosen by God to lead the nation as well as the Church of England. Mystically, the monarchy connects us back to our ancestors and represents the ideal family—pious and faithful and dutiful.
Yes, the monarchy is indeed the epitome of magic and superstition, and cannot stand the light of rational analysis. Predicated on the basis that the bloodline of a particular family means they should have political, religious, and symbolic power, the monarchy is plainly undemocratic. It also reinforces hierarchical, class-based thinking. It is inextricably tied to the establishment of the Church of England as the state religion, which allows bishops to sit in the (already unelected) House of Lords. It is avowedly sectarian—the monarch must be a Protestant and is the “Defender of the Faith” (even if Prince Charles gets his way and he becomes an ecumenical “Defender of Faith”, how can it be right that the state upholds and encourages religion in a country which is now largely non-religious?).
The view that the monarchy represents an unbroken thread to the distant past ignores all the wars and coups and other contingencies that have decided who sits on the throne at any given time. As for being the ideal family, one need only look to the sordid history of dysfunction and scandal, from the Queen being put in an awkward position when her sister wanted to marry a divorced man, the rumored infidelity of the younger Prince Philip, and, of course, the great Diana drama, all the way to the Sussex saga of more recent years, to show this up as the delusion that it is.
Ironically, they may fail to adhere to the bourgeois ideal of the family, but in their dysfunction, the Windsors are at least representative. What family hasn’t had to contend with philanderers, bigots, drug-takers, problem teenagers, sex pests, and the like? This is why Walter Bagehot wrote in the 19th century that “[w]e must not let in daylight upon magic.” Daylight always shows us the old fraud behind the mighty Oz.
The worst of it is that Britain seems to love the monarchy. Well, a significant portion of it does, though how much jubilation for the Jubilee there really is for anything other than the temporary extension of pub opening hours (the only good thing about the whole absurd spectacle, in my view) is likely to be concealed beneath the emetic conformity of the media.
This is why I said that Britain needs to grow up. Our constitution is a mess, and to a large extent this reflects the mysticism at the heart of the monarchy. The royal prerogative might not be used by the monarch herself, but it is this that gives government ministers sweeping and unaccountable powers.
“No real power”? Well, an investigation by The Guardian revealed that the Queen has frequently used an obscure procedure, the Queen’s consent, to influence government decision-making to her own benefit—as, for example, when she successfully lobbied the government to alter a draft law to keep the true extent of her private wealth hidden. We know that the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, also has a habit of trying to influence government decisions on subjects as varied as the Iraq war and badger culling. (Incidentally, I wonder if the future king’s infatuation with homeopathy, habit of nattering with plants, and Islamophilia might convince people to abandon the monarchy when the Queen is gone?) And besides what we know, when so much is hidden from public view, how can we know for certain how often and how deeply the monarchy interferes with democratic governance?
But in any case, how can an institution be credited for providing stability and grounding British national identity, to name but two achievements its defenders always throw out, and still be said to have “no real power”? It is a very odd definition of “power” that leaves out such symbolic weight. And how can it be impartial and above politics when all the values it is said to uphold are classic conservative ones (family, faith, nation)?
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions
Jamie Weir, Reasons to be jubilant (Aero)
It is also often said that we must respect Elizabeth II for her years of unstinting service and duty. I don’t depart too much from this view. But to say she has never been a figure of disgrace is false. Perhaps it stems from wishful thinking. In addition to the controversies mentioned above, she was caught up in the Paradise Papers scandal and, in my view, has protected her alleged sex abuser son, Prince Andrew, from the serious investigation that he deserves. Allow me to elaborate on that latter accusation. We know from the past that the Queen exercises tight control over the family. Given this, she could at any time have made Andrew face justice, whatever the consequences, and chose not to.
Ultimately, I believe that Britain needs to become a secular, democratic republic. The first and perhaps greatest task in achieving this is convincing Britain to liberate itself from what that great Anglo-American Thomas Paine, who represents to me a nobler patriotic tradition, called “the slavish and superstitious absurdity of monarchy.”
The monarchy entrenches privilege, unaccountability, and state religion. Most of all, it infantilizes the British people. We will see crowds waving tacky flags and declaiming their love for the decidedly mediocre Windsors over the Jubilee weekend, debasing themselves with cultish worship and magical thinking.
So, until the British people grow up, we will never have a political settlement worthy of the best of ourselves. Let us follow Barbados and bring on the British Republic, I say—but first, let us have some British maturity.