Posted By: July 30, 2013

The monarchy is at odds with a modern Britain Welcome to the royal baby, but his family represents an outdated tradition

 Observer editorial
The Observer ( London) Saturday 27 July 2013 13.40 EDT

Christopher Hitchens said we should emancipate ourselves from the mental habits of royalism. Photograph: Peter Foley/EPA As republicanism gathered a little wind in the 1990s, following Her Majesty’s “annus horribilis” and helped by the founding of Charter 88, a campaign for a democratic written constitution and “a culture of citizenship for Britain”, Ian McEwan announced: “It is time to say boo! to the big goose.”
Several decades on and it seems obvious from the sugary sycophancy that has spread like treacle over most of the media’s coverage of the arrival of “gorgeous George”, the future George VII of what may or may not be a United Kingdom, that there is little appetite for even the slightest challenge, let alone a reasoned critique of why themonarchy may not be good for us. But that, arguably, makes it all the more urgent that an attempt at some corrective is made, lest we, as subjects, forfeit all sense of perspective and vigilance.
It is remarkable how often, in relatively recent times, the British monarchy has been dragged up from the depths of unpopularity again and again by a woman. Following the abdication of Edward V11, and the awkwardness of George V1, his wife, the late queen mother, did the trick. Her daughter Elizabeth has similarly steered the royal family through several rocky straits. Princess Diana added the populist touch and, in death, initiated the partial defrosting of the court.
Now, the Duchess of Cambridge is succeeding in polishing what the constitutionalist Walter Bagehot called the mystery and magic of the charm of royalty. Last year, even before she became a mother, one not untypical Ipsos Mori poll took a measure of “the Kate effect”. It showed that 80% of Britons wish to remain loyal subjects of the Queen, with just 13% in favour of living in a republic, the lowest proportion for 20 years.
The arrival of a baby is always a joyous occasion, but when the much improved presentational and PR skills of the House of Windsor are added, republicanism takes an even harder knock. George’s birth was greeted with all the “ancient” pageantry of a royal household, most of whose ermine-draped rituals were invented in Victorian times. A 41-gun salute, the pealing of the bells of Westminster Abbey and the knowledge that not one but three male monarchs are lined up to ensure that, while the law of male primogeniture has been abandoned, tradition is maintained, all add wind to the stately royal galleon’s sails.
The modern twist, speeding its progress, of course, is, ironically, the Middletons, a middle-class, non-blue blood family who actually appear to like each other. They have no titles but, when required, they prove that commoners can behave with as much decorum as the theoretically more elevated.
That almost disguises the fact that Kate, their daughter, is university educated but has reverted to a 1950s model of wife and now mother, strangely out of step with the lives of the vast majority of women over whom she will one day reign.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge plus, for the first time, the co-existence of three generations (amounting to 100 years’ supply) of regal throne sitters, has to mean that the current royal resurgence, after a general cooling at the idea of Prince Charles donning the crown, will probably continue. So where’s the harm? Royalists contend that the monarchy provides continuity and stability. It reflects back, at times of high ceremony, a vision of how we, as a nation, like to see ourselves. It draws tourists. It links the Commonwealth and thus gives the UK international clout. It saves us from the perils of an elected presidency. It provides colourful distraction and reasons to be cheerful when times are grim.
So, where to begin the counter-argument? Windsor Castle is as good a place as any. According to the campaign group, Republic, in the top 20 UK tourist attractions, Windsor Castle is the only “living” royal tourist draw. However, it only just creeps in at number 17. It is trumped by Windsor Legoland at number seven. Tourists will visit whether or not we have a sovereign. There are, of course, more serious points to make.
Even as the Middle East and Africa tear themselves apart in the bloody battle to assert democratic rights, we accept a hierarchical, secretive, non-accountable regal “firm”, the membership of which is far from representative of the diverse pluralistic society of which we are all part.
We have no written constitution, no right to call ourselves citizens. In a time of alleged increasing transparency, the royal household is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, it is at the apex of a pyramid of power from which ordinary people are excluded.
Immanuel Kant argued that an enlightened culture is one that does not rely on inherited traditions, authorities and social structures. To be enlightened is to question and challenge aristocracies of wealth, church and politics and, in doing so, justice is ushered in. The monarchy is the brick wall that stops that healthy process. In the 21st century, how can breeding and lineage be allowed to count for so much more than capabilities, talent, aspiration and drive?
In 2005, Mark Bolland, former press officer to Prince Charles said: “The Windsors are very good at working three days a week, five months of the year and making it look as if they work hard.”
Undoubtedly, some members of the royal household pull their ceremonial weight, especially the Queen and Princess Anne, but the price paid for that labour (and for us also carrying the indolent and richly indulged) is the reinforcement of privilege and the expectation of deference – what Richard Hoggart called “rank attitudes”.
It is absurd that under the Act of Settlement (1701), no Catholic, no one born out of wedlock and no person who has been adopted is allowed to ascend the throne. It is an anachronism that church and state are still so wedded that the monarch says he or she “shall join in communion with the Church of England”.
We live at a time when the democratic deficit – the reluctance of people to engage in the process of casting their hard-won vote – is a growing crisis.
The first step in finding a solution, as the late Christopher Hitchens advocated, lies in “emancipating ourselves from the mental habits of royalism”.
In that spirit, after weeks of royalism overload, while we give good wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, we would also hope that the arrival of George Alexander Louis heralds a renewed and robust debate on the role and relevance of the modern monarchy.