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Friday, 29 April 2011

The real-life game of thrones

I met a young Australian fellow on St Michael’s Mount. I don’t know how we got onto the subject of royalty, but he was telling me how some of his countrymen were keen to abolish the monarchy. “Not me,” he said, “I look at the buggers that want the job of president and I figure we’re better off staying as we are.”

Utilitarian arguments like that always appeal to me, especially when presented in a gloriously no-nonsense Aussie accent. Certainly I am not by inclination a royalist – rather, a Roundhead – and if starting a new society from scratch I’d go with the Founding Fathers and opt for a republic. But the code you write for a new project is not the same as the code you rewrite for a program that’s already running. And it’s surprising how many people get so steamed up by the emotional issues surrounding royalty that they can’t view the subject rationally. (And yes, I know a king cannot be a subject, ho ho; I’ve seen Ridicule too, though the joke was originally Disraeli's.)

Having a non-political, non-executive head of state whose only interest is in maintaining the status quo is actually quite a useful balance when you have politicians jumping about with their eyes on a four- to six-year horizon. It may seem much more fashionable to install a president instead – but like my Aussie pal said, that’s just another job for a bloody politician.

Royalty is incompatible with the modern age, some say, and I often think that myself, though it sounds like a circular argument. We could just as well argue that representative democracy is outmoded now that it is feasible to have direct democracy on every issue. Take a look at California and then tell me how attractive that prospect sounds.

In the United Kingdom, some 10% of the population favour abolishing the monarchy as a step towards (somehow) ridding the land of class and privilege. Because that worked out so well for Russia, for example. Look around the world first. Examine history. When dictatorships rise, when injustice and evil flourish, it isn’t because the state in question wasn’t “modern” enough – whatever that may mean, given that Britain and the Commonwealth are continually adapting, as every state must.

Britain benefits from the robustness and flexibility that comes from having a constitution that is not, for the most part, hardwired in the form of written rules. Instead it exists as the ghost in the machine of society. That society isn’t perfect but it is capable of gradual adaptation. It ain’t broke. Abolishing the monarchy would not obviously create a more or less fair society, though it would be a very drastic change with completely unpredictable consequences. Those who argue for it are, I believe, not doing so rationally. As Cromwell said: “I beseech you: in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

But all that is just the practical side of royalty. For the mythic slant, which is far more interesting, pop over to the Mirabilis blog today.


  1. Bonjour Dave !
    (c'est très bien de citer "Ridicule", un film excellent !)
    In my opinion, in our democratic western societies, having a monarchy or a republic is rather a question of historical circumstances. "What if", if Cromwell (of whom you are a fervent admirer ;-)) could have founded a lasting Republic in Britain... "What if" if Napoleon the III had not stupidly declared war to Prussia....
    Looking at events right now in France, Britain and some other countries, I see that the gap is not between "republicans" or "monarchists", but rather between people who have money, and those who have not, those who have friends in high places and those who have not, and sometimes those who look beautiful and those who do not...
    The rest is quite irrelevant, except as to whether a Monarchy or a Republic can better suppress this growing feeling of injustice within the society.
    (Finally this is the same question as in FL1 : shall we support the new régime, or fight for the former monarchy ? ;-))


  2. I agree, Olivier. At the time of the French Revolution, the pressure that had built up in society was created by the enormous gap (social as well as economic) between the classes. Britain (well, England) having had its revolution 140 years earlier had by that time a more egalitarian society. I mean that there was still quite a gulf between rich and poor, but some of the steam had been released. Eg see Misson de Valbourg's account of his time in England, or various mid-18th century French aristocrats' shock at finding they were expected to mix with the hoi polloi on London's pavements.

    Now we have a world with a degree of global inequality that is just as great as French society at the time of the Revolution. And we in the West are just as complacent as those sheltered aristocrats were. I was amazed to see that 60% of Pakistanis believe that the USA is a bigger threat than the Taliban which just goes to show how the West is resented for its wealth and privilege.

    Yet if the world's wealth was (somehow) redistributed equally tomorrow, it would only take a few decades before we had new concentrations of rich and poor. There are no solutions, only the temporary release of pressure - usually in a catastrophic form. Just as depressing as the injustice is the thought of how many would be very eager to drive people into the tumbrils all over again.

  3. I have a lot of time for certain members of the British monarchy, and in particular Queen Elizabeth II. It's interesting that this blog post has an image from the film 'Excalibur', with its overall conceit that 'the king and the land are one,' or words to that effect. This is perhaps stating the case too strongly for Queen Elizabeth II. But nonetheless, as she is, I think, for the majority of British citizens the only monarch they've ever known, she has come to be very intrinsically linked to the concept of British identity; she very much embodies, for many, some part of the idea of 'Britishness' itself. And she has filled this role with dignity - or aloofness, depending on your perspective. Not an easy task, given that she's the first to occupy the throne during a technological explosion of radio/television/internet, and the consequent non-stop scrutiny that these various media facilitate. Other royals have fared less well, and embarrassed themselves - and perhaps, the country - as a result. One example might be a television company owned by Prince Andrew being the ONLY company to break the agreed media taboo intended to allow Prince William a degree of privacy at university. And didn't ex-royal Sarah Ferguson once release a pop video, before she became Oprah Winfrey with a funny accent?

    Prince Philip, of course, is just an unstoppable media gaffe machine. But, strangely, the sheer entertainment value of his unthinking, uncaring, outspoken bigotry gives him a free pass. How much can we criticise him, really? He's a man from a deeply chauvinistic social class, and era, and professional background, who will forever be overshadowed by his more important wife. I'm prepared to cut the old fella a break - and, in fairness, I can't think of anybody still alive who represents pre-1950 England more effectively than he does.

    (My favourite Prince Philip quote was to a blind man with a guide dog, in front of a room full of journalists: 'You know, I believe anorexics also have dogs to help them eat, now!')

    Thinking of yesterday's royal wedding – and, let's be honest, that's what this post is all about – neither the lavishness of the occasion, nor the behaviour of its participants, bothered me in particular. It was the journalists who annoyed me. I'll skip over the mediocrity of the coverage, and the desperation for days to find any notable angle to cover a non-news story, and lunge straight at the fact that at least two news channels had lip-readers on their staff to dissect every morcel of dialogue that might be spoken. This level of media intrusion is just shocking, and reprehensible. It's no great surprise that both aristrocracy and politicians have to so carefully choreograph their every word and movement, resulting in an ultimately sterile, and utterly boring, governing class.

    Though the decision of France, my adopted home country, to guillotine its aristrocracy has not, in the long term, resulted in any sort of clearout of the country's over-moneyed skunks. Sarkozy is still blowing the taxpayers' money on things like private jets ('Sarko 1,' if you can believe that), and generally acting like some sort of billionaire hobgoblin. Preferential treatment and nepotism continue to abound – Sarkozy's own 22-year-old son very nearly seized control of a major development project in Paris's La Defense business zone; this was only prevented by the highly commendable French tendency to very publically raise a hue and cry at any sort of public inequality.


    Oh well. Back to discussions of ogres and magic and things like that.

    (PS: 'Excalibur' fact of the day – the boy who played young Mortdredd was Charlie Boorman, who grew up to make lots of world-traversing motorcycle documentaries with Ewan McGregor.)

  4. Charlie Boorman I believe also played the lead in his dad's movie The Emerald Forest. (I could imdb that but I'm just going to put it out there and let my memory fend for itself.)

    I didn't actually watch the royal wedding, being at heart a republican - though I'm not one of those tiresome fanatics who would string effigies of the royal couple from a lamp post and claim it's street theater. For the reasons you give, Paul, I think it's logical to keep the monarchy; they act as a unifying embodiment of the nation in a way somebody like Sarkozy is never going to.

    It does annoy me when Charles says something like, "I'd like to be Defender of Faiths, not Defender of the Faith" because that's not his effing decision to make. He has a constitutional role to play. My private opinion of the man is that he's a complete twit, and the one thing we need of him is to do his job - part of which is voicing no political or constitutional opinions whatsoever. If he can't stick that, he can always rule himself out of the succession.

    When Arthur returns it'll be a different matter, of course!

  5. Arthur returned a while ago. He's running a hedge fund now.


  7. There are plenty of countries that have presidents who are "non-political, non-executive heads of state whose only interest is in maintaining the status quo". We tend to assume that presidents must be executives like those of the US or France, but other models are more appropriate for the UK. If we think of the role of UK president as a sort of 'lifetime national treasure' -- which QEII clearly fits, but Prince Charles clearly doesn't -- you can see how it might be made to work.

  8. That'd still be a job that a certain kind of person will want to run for, though, and I'd like to see fewer jobs for politicians, not more. But that isn't really the point. We have a system, it's not broken, so why fix it?