Monarchy: Britain's highest office left to the perilous genetics of a single family

In 2012 on the day on the Queen’s jubilee I met my extraordinary friend, the campaigning journalist Joan Smith at the National Theatre for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay. Somehow her tragedy seemed appropriate. If nothing else Antigone is a play about the conflict between natural and man-made laws. It is a call to arms for the political animal, originally produced for a democratic (if male) audience in 5th Century Athens. That night we were political refugees.

I was reminded of that evening recently while listening to Mike Bartlett’s Charles III on Radio 3, an imaginary “future history” play about our probable next head of state. Shakespearean in outlook, it paints a picture of a political interfering monarch. If correct Charles’ reign will divisively test the strength of our constitutional fabric to the limit. But will it lead it the end of the monarchy?

I hope the British unlink their sense of national identity with an anachronistic, feudal systemAs someone who has passionately held beliefs about politics and democracy, my greatest fear is that I will not live to vote for my head of state; that a combination of apathy and strange reverence will prevent this. I want to be wrong though. I hope the British unlink their sense of national identity with an anachronistic, feudal system. At heart that is what Bartlett’s play is about.

If the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he did not exist, then the monarchy’s has been to persuade the country that it harmlessly represents its interests without prejudice. While Charles may want to be an activist king, his mother has avoided anything that could be even construed as a personal opinion. She never puts a foot wrong, they say. (They do not say the same about Prince Philip.) But while they may be correct, I think it is fair to say that she has never put a foot right either. When it mattered, what has the queen ever, even by the merest hint (or palace appointment), done to - say - support women or ethnic minorities? The over-riding priority has been to protect the institution from unpopularity at the country’s expense.

There is a remarkable contrast next door: the Republic of Ireland has elected three extra-ordinary people as head of state over the past two decades. Each has in their own way crafted a message about what they think their country should look like. Their popular mandate gives them the legitimacy to do this. Each has played their part in changing the Republic of Ireland for the better: I wonder if the country would have just voted - less than two decades after homosexuality was decriminalised - so overwhelmingly in favour of equal marriage without them.

The system enforces an idea that we are an unequal country that does not believe in political homology

This is just part of the real argument: we live in a democracy, albeit a representative one, but more importantly we live in a democratic age. The left and the right may argue about the meaning of equality, but ideas of equality before the law or in the political system are theoretically undisputed. Yet the highest office is left to the perilous genetics of a single family. Monarchy is our blind spot. It does not matter that they have finally legislated on primogeniture or might allow Catholics to succeed. It is important that a monarchy is unlikely to see a black or Asian head of state, or a gay one. The system enforces an idea that we are an unequal country that does not believe in political homology. It is psychologically crippling. But the fundamental issue is this: good or bad, you cannot democratically remove them. Such power - and Charles’ ‘black spider’ memos reveal that power - unchecked is intrinsically corrupt.

But it is good for tourism, say monarchists. Utter nonsense! As Republic, the campaigning organisation for an elected head state, says: even VisitBritain, the UK’s official tourism agency, cannot find any evidence to support this claim. Besides Republicans are proposing getting rid of the monarch not bull-dozing down Buckingham Palace. The argument is frankly insulting: to base something so important as one’s system on government on tourists’ supposed romantic fancies is ridiculous. One might as well suggest that America make Mickey Mouse their president and they move the capital to DisneyLand.  

The country allows an unelected head of state because of the myth perpetuated that to be British and to believe in monarchy are the same thing as if France stopped being France when they beheaded Louis XVI. In fact the reverse happened. They imperfectly discovered what made them French, a set of values around which they agreed: liberté, égalité, fraternité! Ideas of nationhood might be out of favour. We become ever more cosmopolitan. However the two ideas need not always be mutually exclusive. As the Greek debt crisis has shown, the nation state remains the only protector of democracy we have. In the glorious, messy fiction that is the United Kingdom we might discover that what has been holding us back from being “one nation” is the institution we are told binds us as a country.

So as Joan said: “Down with the Royals!” Let’s become a democracy.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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