The Anachronism of Monarchy Obscures Britain’s Radical Tradition
The news, at the tail end of 2016, that the UK government is ensuring £369 million to renovate Buckingham Palace, the residence of the Royal Family, provoked a predictable reaction. In Austerity Britain, where homelessness has increased and disabled people in social housing are being charged the bedroom tax, it has provided an ideal opportunity for anti-monarchists to advance the republican cause.
Graham Smith, CEO of anti-monarchist campaign group Republic, called it as an “absolute disgrace” and an “indictment on the Queen’s scandalous mismanagement of royal finances over six decades.” The most recent nadir for the monarchy in the recession-hit 1990s focused on expenses, with the cost of fire damage to Windsor Castle forcing the Queen into paying income tax and the royal yacht Britannia being decommissioned.
However, the presumption that the public is paying for the palace’s repairs could be cited as an example of post-truth politics: they will actually be funded from the £2.4 billion raised through taxes on the royals’ various assets over the past decade.
But republicans will still argue that the institution of monarchy is inherently undemocratic and emblematic of social inequality. Conversely, royalists have two key arguments: tradition and neutrality.
The monarchy, they say, embodies millennia of cultural and political history, with the monarch merely being a symbolic, impartial figurehead. But in this context, there is also a radical history which has guided the evolution of the monarchy towards its politically diluted status.
The English civil war of the 17th century was fought between the Roundheads led by Oliver Cromwell, and the Cavalier forces of Charles I, who asserted the “divine right” of the monarch to rule as a theocratic dictator in contempt of the autonomy of parliament.
This saw the king beheaded and his successor Charles II exiled, with Cromwell taking over Britain and its colonies as Lord Protector to form a short-lived republican Commonwealth. Though Cromwell also ruled as a dictator, and was even offered by the crown, he was adamant that the monarchy should be “destroyed and laid in the dust.”
Cromwell’s protectorate did not long survive his death and he was posthumously beheaded himself, and the monarchy was restored under Charles II. But with the monarch’s powers limited, members of parliament were permanently secured as the sovereign representatives of the people, and religious diversity was accepted.
the American Revolution was therefore not just a rebellion against Britain but a reclamation
Without the replacement of absolute monarchy with a constitutional one, the monarchy would have remained untenable. Britain is heralded for giving the world parliamentary democracy, but resisters of tyrannical kings made a vital contribution to its conception.
This is commemorated annually with the pageantry of the state opening of parliament, which sees crown representative Black Rod have the House of Commons door slammed in his face when asking MPs to convene before the monarch in the House of Lords. The symbolism of the monarch being shut out of parliament is highlighted by a newer consitution convention: the heckle by republican Labour MP Dennis Skinner. (My favourite Skinner quip is from 2006: “Have you got Helen Mirren on standby?”)
In the 1960s, Oxford historian Christopher Hill framed the English civil war in Marxist terms as the English Revolution, citing the Christian radicalism of the agrarian Diggers and Levellers, who opposed both the crown and Cromwell, as early examples of anarchist or communist class struggle.
Hill argued that the English Revolution was the most momentous event in recent history, providing an ideological foundation for the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment, which led to revolutions across Europe and most notably in the American colonies.
The Norfolk-born radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, the first advocate for a universal basic income, can also be credited for the first printed use of the term “United States of America”. Another founding father, Benjamin Franklin, even predicted that Britain would eventually become a province of the United States. Many would argue he was not far wrong.
In Hill’s estimation the American Revolution was therefore not just a rebellion against Britain but a reclamation, or proper realisation, of the radicalism of the English Revolution - serving to solidify America’s status as the world leader in the democratic ideal.
Anti-establishmentarianism is as much of a national brand as the crown
Anti-monarchism, as well as integral to our politics, is embedded into our cultural history. Consider Shakespeare’s plays satirising royal court melodramas or the hymn “Jerusalem” (usually sung by flag-waving crowds at the Last Night of the Proms), with words composed by anarchist and republican visionary William Blake, being a favourite candidate for England’s national anthem.
On another, more modern, musical note, in 1977 the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was banned from BBC airwaves for marking Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee by sneering at the monarchy as a “fascist regime”.
40 years on, National Lottery funds have been spent on festivities celebrating the legacy of the punk movement, with support from the London mayoralty, and there have been longstanding calls to award “national treasure” John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) with a knighthood.
It has incited John Barré, son of Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, to burn £5 million worth of memorabilia in protest at punk’s commodification. Anti-establishmentarianism is as much of a national brand as the crown.
In his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell suggested that even if Britain were to give up its Empire and be transformed into a socialist country, it would still preserve the monarchy as part of its unique national character, leaving “anachronisms and loose ends everywhere.”
With the demise of Britain as a major power, the monarchy has become the anachronism Orwell predicted. Orwell also remains correct that the crown’s political status won’t be changing anytime soon.
The monarchy enjoys overwhelming support across demographic divisions, with the Queen, who has surpassed Victoria as Britain’s longest reigning monarch, having favourability ratings as high as ninety percent during her Diamond Jubilee. The leader of Labour Party is a republican, but Jeremy Corbyn considers it pointless to press for anti-monarchism.
It might be more realistic, as Orwell suggested, for republicans to focus on tying loose ends such the abolition of the House of Lords (polls indicate the public would favour its replacement with an elected senate), and reforming an imperially-themed honours system that Benjamin Zephaniah aptly described in 2003 as standing for “a thousand years of brutality” against his enslaved ancestors.
How will the monarchy be impacted by the death, or unlikely abdication, of Elizabeth II? Her successor will be Prince Charles, who has a reputation for defying convention by meddling in politics to push for pet projects like NHS funding for homeopathy.
It has been suggested that Charles should be bypassed so the beloved Prince William and Kate Middleton can become king and queen consort. But there is no constitutional precedent for this. That’s the problem with monarchy: we don’t get to choose.
As a republican, I would have no problem with keeping up the spectacle and eccentricity that Orwell was keen to preserve, but I would prefer that an elected president rather than from a hereditary aristocracy oversaw the spectacle. This would, after all, be consistent with the tradition of social progress.
As for the royal palaces and properties, they could be opened up as museums and public places so everyone could enjoy their cultural riches. To quote Johnny Rotten: “tourists are money”.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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