If the monarchy is a political institution, and it certainly is, representing certain ideals and values, then the response to the Queen’s death, too, is entirely political.
I wasn’t sure whether I should write this piece so soon after the news of Elizabeth II’s death. I am a UK republican, an advocate of the abolition of the monarchy. Griping about the monarchy at such a moment might not be such a good look, after all. But in the end, I think it better not to give in to the deluge of sentimental conformism flooding the media.
If royalists can have their say at this moment, why not republicans?
You might argue that expressing condolences isn’t the same as attacking the institution which has just lost its beloved chief. But royalists aren’t just making their grief known; they are defending the Queen’s record, and the monarchy itself, implicitly or explicitly.
In other words, if the monarchy is a political institution, and it certainly is, representing certain ideals and values, then the response to the Queen’s death, too, is entirely political. The monarchy is an expression of a contestable political view, as are most of the views on it.
So one can move beyond the question-begging idea that the British monarchy is somehow above or transcends politics, and see all the appeals to republicans to shut up at such a moment for what they truly are: a bullying tactic intended to constrain discussion. By bowing to such rhetoric, republicans unwittingly reaffirm the ideology of monarchy.
And why should there not be a discussion about the role of the monarchy right now? Contrary to so much blather, this is precisely the moment we should be talking about the validity of monarchy in modern Britain. After all, the head of state has just died, and her son has automatically replaced her on the basis of bloodline and superstition. Such a significant political moment as this should merit debate—and fierce debate at that.
Turn on any news channel right now and you will be deluged with sorrowful images of crowds outside Buckingham Palace mourning the deceased monarch, reels of footage narrating her glorious history, and endless, pointless chatter about her greatness. There is scarcely a dissenting voice to be heard.
If you are in London, as I am now, you will also notice that the Queen’s image is plastered on just about every digital billboard and sign in sight. She has even taken over the bus stops. I have to say, and I assert my right to say it in the face of mushy pro-royal consensus, that this is creepy North Korea-style stuff.
Now, I want to emphasize that to say everything I have just said (and everything I will go on to say) is not to spit on a dead woman’s grave. I am not attacking Elizabeth the beloved matriarch, but the Queen, and the institution she represents. I am attacking the political, not the personal.
And even I, as staunch a republican as they come, have felt a certain sadness today. The Queen has been around for far longer than I have been alive, and her presence is—was—a mighty one indeed. She led an extraordinary life, a truly great life, and I can readily agree with much of what the chatterers are saying about her: she was dutiful and dignified and a constant.
Yes, I can assent to all those endlessly repeated platitudes. And I have no wish to be cruel or vile, as those gleefully celebrating the death of an old woman certainly are. In fact, I comforted my own mother earlier, as she cried on the phone to me in grief about the Queen’s passing. I understand the depth of feeling of the many mourners.
But that does not mean I must be shy or silent during such a momentous political, social, and cultural juncture. The Queen was a political, public figure who wielded great power (she was not just the head of state but the commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England—the CoE being a theocratic vestige of history that is for some reason still allowed significant representation, on a purely confessional basis, in the UK Parliament—not to mention all her various other prerogatives and privileges both formal and informal), and so is her son. Again: to shut up right now would be to tacitly endorse the royalist view that the monarchy is benignly transcendent. A responder to one of my tweets on the matter earlier put it very well:
Back to it, then.
I also resent the insipid idea currently to be found everywhere on social media and in the news that, essentially, “no matter what your political views, we can all agree that the Queen was unimpeachable, a constant presence above politics, blah blah blah.”
Allow me to be quite clear in my view on this attempt to drown everyone and everything under a soggy consensus: fuck that.
No, not everyone can agree. Publicly fawning over a deceased head of state is an explicitly political act, and to use this sort of moral blackmail is to posture as being above politics yourself, just as the monarchy has so expertly done for a very, very long time.
This again is the royalist illusion: that the monarchy is above and beyond politics. In fact, as I wrote at the time of the Jubilee, the Queen was not some paragon of the apolitical, no angelic embodiment of virtue:
[A]n 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.… 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?
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.
The Queen, and the monarchy in general, was a political operator par excellence, with a veritable army of press gurus behind her to create the image of the Queen as national grandmother. She possessed great power and used it to her own benefit. In short, she was like every other politician in the world.
And what next? Now Prince Charles has morphed into King Charles III, and I think we will all be sorry for it. I am curious as to whether the Queen will turn out to be the last great British monarch. Whatever criticisms I can make of her, she was an outstanding historical figure. Her son, however, is nothing of the sort. As I wrote at the time of the Jubilee:
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?)
King Charles III, the last monarch? I would have preferred the institution to have bowed out on a high with his mother, but I hope his is the final act of the interminable, stultifying Windsor saga.
I’d like to finish by making explicit the underlying point of everything I have said.
The monarchy is not a divinely mandated institution but a historical, human creation, whose past is riddled with invented tradition and contingency. Hard as it is to believe, and as sad as it is, the death of Queen Elizabeth II is just that: a historical event. And so it is the right of all of us to speak as we please about it. The nauseating conformity of the media, like the institution of monarchy itself, is as political a phenomenon as a general election. We are in for months of grotesque orthodoxy, of hero worship and even hysteria, on a scale unmatched since the death of Princess Diana.
Let us not, then, be bullied into silence. This is the time for dissent. Republican voices should make themselves heard as much as possible, but not in the nasty way that we see in some of the smellier parts of the Twitter sewer. We must stand on principle, not vindictiveness. I mourn the death, in my own way, of Queen Elizabeth II, and sympathize with those whose private grief is far deeper than my own. But I utterly oppose what she stood for, and what the British monarchy stands for, and I will continue to say so as loudly and freely as I can.