Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Misunderstanding the monarchy

Yesterday's front page of the Evening Standard may as well have carried the headline: "SURVEY SHOCK: BRITISH PEOPLE FAIL TO UNDERSTAND HOW A MONARCHY WORKS".

According a Kings College London/Ipsos Mori survey (and surveys are always a fine source of nonsense and general bullshit), Prince William is currently the most popular member of the Royal family, followed by the Queen. No huge shock there given the hype around last year's wedding and this year's Jubilee. Next on the list came Prince Harry then the Duchess of Cambridge and poor old Prince Charles came in at number five.

Ipsos Mori director, Roger Mortimore, has extrapolated from the survey that: "A lot of people would like the idea of William succeeding straight away. He is young and good-looking and popular."

And here we go again with the familiar refrain from those desperate to keep the monarchy relevant: that it'd be just awesome if we skipped over Charles and let William take the throne when the Queen passes on. Except that's not how monarchies work. The whole point of a monarchy is that the next person in line will indeed inherit the throne, regardless of public opinion or suitability for the role.

Sure, the Royals have made a few attempts at modernisation over the years. The Queen started to pay tax, albeit in response to public pressure, and this year, she announced that if William and Kate's firstborn is a girl, she will still be allowed to inherit the throne. It's hardly a great stride for feminism or women's independence - Kate had to be confirmed into the Church of England before the wedding, if she was a divorcee, William would have been compelled to give up his claim to the throne to marry her, as per the Edward-and-Wallis marriage of 1937, and because her main role in life is now to produce and heir and a spare, the media is on a grotesque uterus watch.

Of course, if her Majesty is tired after 60 years of reigning and 65 years of marriage to Prince Phillip, she could always abdicate and pass the throne over to Charles now. Edward VII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, there was a scandal at the time involving plenty of slut-shaming of the highest order, but the world kept turning, his brother became the king, and we all got to enjoy The King's Speech. No real harm done.

Or is there? The other line monarchists like to spin is that the Royals are mere figureheads with no real political power. Except that Frank Gardner revealed that the Queen has indeed opined on why Abu Hamza was still in Britain rather than being deported to the US for trial. Her views on the matter echoed popular opinion but it was still an opinion expressed to people of influence by a woman who is meant to be above politics.

Plans for same-sex marriage legislation, meanwhile, were conspicuous by their absence from her speech for the opening of the current session of Parliament. Her speech is written by cabinet - were they worried that it was not an appropriate topic for the Queen's dulcet tones or were they trying to put marriage equality on the backburner for this session? Whatever the case, it is impossible not to politicise a speech written by politicians, regardless of who delivers it.

Then there was the revelation that Prince Charles had written 27 letters to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. In a massive failure for democracy and transparency, Attorney-General Dominic Grieve blocked the release of the reportedly frank letters despite three judges ruling that the release was in the public interest.

Moronically, Grieve blocked the release "because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king." He fails to appreciate that as taxpayers who fund the Royal family, we do have a right to know if Prince Charles is trying to use his position to influence policy. If Prince Charles wants to play a role in Britain's political life instead of being a politically neutral Royal, he needs to renounce his position and become a private citizen - then he is free to express his opinions in whatever way he sees fit or he can get himself on the electoral roll and run for office, if he wishes.

But it's easier for Prince Charles to influence policy on the sly with no accountability or transparency while living at the expense of the taxpayers. People of Britain, this is your future king. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" is another glib catchcry of monarchists who try and convince us all that the Royal family is benign. But it is broke and it needs fixing very badly.

Image courtesy of www.kozzi.com


  1. As an American I find the monarchy interesting but hard to relate to. Is there a desire there to see the monarchy end or just change some of practices relating to it such as making the letters from Prince Charles public?

  2. The monarchy is currently pretty damn popular here. I find monarchies absurd but I am clearly in the minority!

  3. Goeorgia,

    This one could run and run! One could argue that the monarchy is outdated and has outlived its worth, until you look at the possible alternatives. Better in my view to have somebody at an ornamental head of state who never asked for the job as opposed to someone who wants it. I would not want to see a president Blair, Livingstone or for that matter Cameron.

    Yes indeed the Queen did talk to Frank Gardiner about Abu Hamza. However the content of that conversation is pure speculation, so your assertion that she opined on that case is also speculation. All Gardiner ever did was to mention that a conversation had taken place. My speculation is she asked questions of someone better informed simply to keep up to date rather than giving her own particular opinion. After all, even if she had been vehemently in favour of his deportation, or equally opposed to is, what would her opinion be worth? The answer is that it would simply have stirred up a hornets nest of people complaining that the royal family were exerting undue influence, and she is bright enough to know that.

    And I have little doubt that letters which Charles wrote were more questioning than persuading. He knows that when he speaks about architecture and a few of the other kites he likes to fly then all hell breaks loose. And if the letters were private letters, then why should the curious or the mischievous wish to see them? I think it would be stretching imagination just a tad too far to think that Blair, or anyone in high office altered their policy as a result of a few letters written by a member of the royal family.

    As for William being more popular than his father, and therefore better placed to be monarch when his grandmother dies, well it does not work like that. The royal family are not interested in the popular vote, and a good thing too. If they were, we would be back to the point I made in the opening paragraph. I don’t want anyone in the job who wants the job, and who gets it by being TV and media savvy.

    You might conclude from the above I am an ardent royalist wearing union flag underwear and flying a flag at every opportunity. You could not be more wrong. I am fairly ambivalent to the whole affair. Unlike some I do not have a desire to shake hands with the queen or any other member of her family. There is a fair bit wrong with the royal family and things that surround it, but in my view there is a hell of a lot more right with it. If it aint broke, then don’t fix it.


  4. President Blair. That's the horrifying alternative.

  5. The British monarchy has become totally irrelevant to Australia.
    However a referendum decided the monarchy was more popular than us becoming a republic.
    It may take another generation for Australia to cut our ties with the Queen. Perhaps there will be more support for a republic when Charles takes over from the Queen. This cbe a long way away and then the royalists will want William and Kate. Who knows what will happen in Australia but it is embarrassing when Asians ask us why we have the Queen on our bank notes. I agree with the Asians.

  6. Correction Anonymous, the Referendum in Australia decided that a majority did not want to implement the specific model for choosing a president that was being proposed. A majority of Australians before, during and after (i.e. now) the referendum wanted/want Australia to be a Republic, we just don't have a majority agreeing on the form it should take. The referendum can't be construed as showing that Australians want to retain the Monarchy.

    1. The first question in the 1999 referendum asked if as Australians we wanted to to alter the constitution to establish the Comonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor General being replaced by a President. 54.7% voted No and 45.13% voted Yes.
      The biggest problem Australian voters had in deciding what to vote was the method by which the President would be chosen. This was the factor many Australians voted against it because they did not know how the President would be chosen. The PM of the time John Howard (ardent monarchist) deliberately worded the question knowing many Australian would vote against the Republic.
      Until the method od chosing a President is decided Australia will retain the Monarchy.
      Hopefully one day before we are all on our walking frames this problem will be resolved and we will become a Republic.

  7. The discussion seems to have developed into just the Antipodean perspective. I think the perception of the royal family is markedly different in the former colonies than it is in England.

    Here I think the majority view the royal family, in particular the Queen with respect as opposed to reverence. Rarely will you find a picture of the Queen on an office wall, other than high ranking government or military establishments. Rarely will you see the Union flag being flown.

    Contrast that with other parts of the world where you see massed flags outside just about every public building in France or the USA, where many offices in the US have a picture (often a signed picture) of the president on the wall. The signature is of course usually a signal that that company has contributed to the election fund of the guy on the picture!

    Go to some parts of the West Indies and they are so proud of ‘our’ Queen that pictures of her hang everywhere. I have even seen them in scruffy bars, and the bigger the flag the better.

    As for Australia becoming a republic, well I really don’t have any particular opinion on that, but if it is to become a republic then I sincerely hope it will encompass the better qualities of the UK as opposed to becoming a clone of the US and their political system.


  8. The proposal for the Australian republic was minimalist but symbolically necessary. The president would have been elected by a 2/3 majority of Parliament and would basically replace the rubber stamp role currently being done by the Governor-General. The GG is currently the Queen's representative in Australia and is meant to be an apolitical figure but this became farcical when former politician and republican, Bill Hayden, became the GG.

    It was embarrassing when the republic referendum was outvoted in Australia and John Howard's scare tactics were depressingly effective.

    So how does this relate to the prospect of the British republic? I'd support a similarly minimalist model here, with the Parliamentary vote and the requirement that nominees for the position cannot be ex-politicians. It should be a figurehead role, rather than the US-style presidential role - this is where people get confused because the American president is the world's most famous president and the most powerful person in the world.

    But, as I said, the royal family remains pretty popular here and I cannot see that changing any time soon. I remain in the minority. Oh well!

    (Also, thanks everyone for the civilised discussion - even when we disagree, it is good to do so in a classy manner!)