Monday, 19 March 2012

It's time to make monarchy history

This post first appeared on the blog "Polish The Podium!" under the title: Abolish The Monarchy!
Elizabeth Windsor, Queen and Head of State, will this Tuesday address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. The moment marks one of a series of “landmark” events to mark the Diamond Jubilee – a celebration of 60 years on the throne -  which will climax on June 3 in the Thames Pageant, a flotilla of thousands vessels on the capital’s famous river seemingly intended to recreate a scene from the reign of Henry VIII. While the latter event, and possibly others will involve greater public spectacle, it is today’s event which stands out as being steeped in symbolism, describing and reinforcing as it does a web of curious relationships of power.
So why have we had the same head of state for the last 60 years? With apologies for stating what might seem like the blindingly obvious, it is because when the Queen’s father King George VI died in 1952 she was next in line to the throne at just 25-years-old and is still alive today, having evidently decided that the job is one for life. What is less obvious to me is that this long reign is a cause for celebration. In fact, the hereditary principle which has given rise to it is the one reason, above all others, why the monarchy should be abolished and replaced with an elected head of state.
Supporters of the monarchy claim that the Queen’s power is merely symbolic. This is a both an oxymoron and a non sequitur. It is also an extremely problematic assertion in so far as the very need to say it hints at the illegitimacy of her position.
The idea that symbolic power is not real power is laughable. It is built on intellectual quicksand. All democracies rely on symbolic power in manufacturing consent. No serious student of political science would dispute this. It is what the monarchy symbolises that concerns me and the chilling effect this has on our democracy and our society.
We are told that the monarchy represents our national identity. They sum up who we are as Britons. They link us with our past. They are living history. We’d be lost without them. Seriously? I would argue that the very fact that our head of state is dictated by a royal blood line means that the monarchy fails to represent us in the most fundamental way possible. The system excludes the possibility of our head of state being drawn from our citizenry. Our head of state, as human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has pointed out, will therefore never represent the reality of our multi-cultural society, much as we laud the US for electing its first black president in Barak Obama. Neither will a head of state drawn from the Windsor line ever represent someone educated in our state schools. Or someone who has grown up on a council estate. Or someone who has had to rely on our NHS for their healthcare. The list is endless. It is hard to imagine ever freely signing up for this state of affairs. And yet as “journalist” Andrew Marr recently put it in his three-part BBC series celebrating the Diamond Queen, the Queen is “there because she is there”. Accept it. Even TV’s the X-Factor has more legitimacy than that.
What the Queen does, however, represent is a rather harsh, unpleasant reality: that Britain is now the most unequal society it has been at any time during her reign. That there has never been a greater gap between rich and poor, between those with opportunity and those without, in the last 60 years. In the language of the Occupy movement the Queen and her family represent the 1 per cent, not the 99 per cent. Yet the fact that she is one of the richest women in the world does not stop her and her family taking more than £200m from the taxpayer each year, according to analysis by campaign group Republic. This at a time when the many are suffering the ill effects of economic austerity. Any gesture from monarchy in recognition of this? Any offer to pay more tax on its wealth and earnings? No. In fact last year, as MPs were ensuring the smooth passage of legislation to boost royal income by linking the value of what used to be the civil list to the revenues of the Crown Estate (effectively the country’s coastline), the Royal Household was scrambling to explain why it was paying cleaners in its employ less than the London Living Wage of £7.85 an hour.
Given what the Queen, the monarchy truly represent, the underlying message is quite clear: accept privilege, accept unearned position and wealth, accept that we are not born equal. Be comfortable with it. Enjoy the fairytale that we the royals are living. Live vicariously. Aspire if you will, but accept that nothing may come of it. Is it not time we asked what the royals have done for us other than keep us in our place?
Of course the royalists will always try to hit back with the threadbare “it’s all about the tourism they bring in”. Even tourist body Visit Britain has been forced to concede, under pressure from Republic, that it’s difficult to prove that abolishing the monarchy would have a tangible effect. And why would it? We would still have our history. We would still have our historic palaces to visit. Indeed, the Palace of Versaille, in the republic of France, is among the world’s most visited tourist attractions with nearly 6m visitors a year. By comparison Buckingham Palace struggles for half a million.
But it is also clear that the monarchy enjoys what we might traditionally consider ‘real power’. The Queen receives weekly briefings from the prime minister, and has a body of advisers, the Privy Council, made up of senior politicians. Is this administratively expensive exercise simply about humouring her? Furthermore, the prime minister gets to exercise the Royal Prerogative on behalf of the monarch. This is an executive power wielded without reference to people or parliament and was last used to commit us to an illegal war in Iraq.
But it is in the cover that the monarchy provides for our weak, pallid politicians that we see its true, designated role, aided and abetted by an ever-willing established media. In the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandals, for example, the media encouraged the view that we should deal with our loss of faith in our elected politicians by basking in the reflected glory of our unelected royals, who would never do anything to embarrass us in such a way. This is simply irrational. The answer to the flaws in our politicians and our political system should be to demand greater accountability and transparency. Not to seek refuge in the unaccountable.
The monarch also conceals the cronyism of politicians as exercised through the honours system, which is ultimately there to reward the few for partisan favours, and in the case of Fred Goodwin, for bringing the country to brink of financial collapse. She’s the one doling out the gongs, after all. We can also, by extension, say that to some extent the Queen helps establish a similar sort of cronyism in our upper chamber, the House of Lords. Bit it’s not just Westminster politicians. Now the Holyrood government of the SNP is taking the retrograde step of trying to hide behind the monarchy rather than have the courage of its convictions. Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond suggests that a referendum vote for Scottish independence would not really mean the breakup of the Union because he would retain Queen as unelected head of state.
The power held by the monarchy can also be seen in the private privileges afforded to the Queen and her offspring. Most egregious of these is their right as owners of huge swathes of land in the UK – principally the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster – to scrutinise any piece of legislation which might in any way affect these holdings. No other landowner has such rights. The monarchy is also granted exemption from Freedom of Information legislation, despite a clear need for scrutiny of the institution.
But the ‘real’ power of the monarchy is not just what is sanctioned but what is tolerated. Prince Charles’ meddling in public life for example, as evidenced by his well-documented Whitehall letter-writing campaign in which he has sought to promote personal interests, which range from architecture to homeopathy. Patronage of certain charities also allows him to leverage his position to pursue personal interests. Yet sometimes this seems strangely at odds with the charity with which he is associated. Charles is, for example, president of the environmental charity WWF-UK, yet is opposed to onshore wind farms, and is currently challenging a ruling from the Information Commissioner to provide greater environmental transparency in his Duchy of Cornwall estate (which is not exempt from FOI legislation).
And it is not just at home that I believe the monarchy is doing great harm. Our image abroad is also being damaged. There must be a collective snigger from our more democratically enlightened foreign friends every time a member of the House of Windsor embarks on a trip abroad, ostensibly to represent Britain. It does not reflect well on Britain to have Prince Harry – third in line to be illegitimate head of state – visiting a country, Jamaica, which now wishes to elect its own head of state rather than have someone else’s, reminding people of a colonial past they’d rather forget. The UK needs to realise that it is increasingly anachronistic. Last week saw a Commonwealth service at Westminster to celebrate the jubilee. The irony cannot have been lost on attendees that of the 49 Commonwealth countries, 33 are now republics. The UK is in fact, by sticking with its monarchical system, now falling behind nations which 25 years ago were under the yoke of Communism. Many of these now have more robust democratic institutions than we possess.
In conclusion, there is one power I would like the Queen to exercise. It is within her gift to call time on the monarchy. It would be a fitting legacy for which she would be warmly remembered, long after pomp of the current jubilee celebrations. It would prove her detractors wrong. It would demonstrate that she can see beyond her narrow class interest. It would demonstrate that she truly had the interests of the nation at heart.

Twitter: @andrewjchild


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