A few weeks ago during April (2016) I was invited to celebrate the 90th birthday of a very wealthy and privileged Londoner I knew little about, had never met and was never likely to meet. For me Elizabeth Windsor is a media entity with no more reality than, say, Sherlock Holmes or Daffy Duck. I cannot truly say I never wish to meet the Queen since I have some questions I would like to put to our Head of State! A casual observer of the British media, however, may have concluded that I was almost unique in finding the whole situation bewildering, not to say nauseating. That I am not a casual observer is evidenced by the fact that I made a brief appearance in Stephen Smith’s biassed BBC Newsnight package on Republicanism. By the way, my balding pate can just be seen in the background at a Republic Birmingham meeting as CEO Graham Smith was interviewed. I mention it in case my fame suddenly accelerates and I am the subject of a future Have I Got News For You round!
Back to reality and the whole experience led me to reflect on how this preposterous situation came about and, more importantly for todays republicans, how it is maintained. The conclusion was that we are the victims of a single event which allowed a psychotic chancer and a bunch of bandits to seize power, initially in England, almost a thousand years ago in 1066. Now, we cannot be sure how history would be different if Harold’s troops had not been duped into breaking ranks, handing victory to William the Conqueror (or more correctly William the Bastard). It may be that I would be encouraged to celebrate the birthday of an entirely different Londoner equally remote and unaccountable.
So how did we get from that moment to 2016? Initially, the shock of conquest combined with the application of the feudal system subdued the population with William allocating tracts of land to his invading Earls, who ruled absolutely and in the case of the North of England, genocidally. Coincidentally with feudal overlordship a concept was promulgated which still finds some traction hundreds of years later, the idea that the King is the ultimate protector and guarantor of the security and liberty of the people. If your Lord is oppressive then you can petition the King who will either summon the miscreant for punishment or arrive in person with a body of troops to sort things out. It was on this acceptance of the nature of the King which the leaders of the Peasants Revolt (incidentally triggered by the imposition of a punitive Poll Tax) met with King Richard II in 1381, during which the leader Wat Tyler was slaughtered. This should have been a warning, but there was another crucial factor at work. The concept of a society without a King was literally unthinkable to the vast majority of the population in medieval times. The King was appointed by god and was the earthly kingdom’s link with the eternal state of heaven. An appointed Head of State was therefore impossible and only a very few were aware of the ancient Roman Republic or he existence of the Serene Republic of Venice with its Head (the Doge) elected by a closed college system.
This changed with the Enlightenment and 200 years after the Peasants Revolt the concept of a republic was started circulating during the later part of the reign of Elizabeth I. This was promoted by such events as the translation and circulation of Macchiavelli’s Discourses on Livy which dealt with the creation and maintenance of a well-ordered republic. Shakespeare could therefore write his play Coriolanus (most probably written soon after during the reign of James I around 1608-9) dealing with such themes without losing most of his audience. Coriolanus was to prove prescient with conflict between Parliament and the Stuart Monarchs finally erupting in Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649. That would have been the monarchy done and buried but for two crucial factors. Firstly the old idea of one man being the protector of liberties led Oliver Cromwell to actually be offered the Kingship. He turned it down before taking on powers (including the title Lord Protector) which afforded him even more authority including the capacity to appoint his successor, his son Richard Cromwell. The second reason was the religious conflicts which infused society during this time allowed the establishment to accrue powers as protection against the reintroduction of Catholicism. In 1660 it was all too easy to restore the King.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries that idea of King as god’s divinely appointed representative was defunct, republicanism was on the rise (following revolutions in America and France) and Monarchy had to evolve to maintain its status. The rise of Chartism in the mid 19th Century was accompanied by an upsurge in anti-monarchism in Britain and there is a subtle change with the idea now widespread that the monarchy was a benevolent concept which was slowly allocating more and more liberties to the people as they were capable of handling it. This ‘Whiggish interpretation’ overlooked that reality that liberties had been wrenched from the establishment by either physical or political force!
Also starting to emerge at this point is the idea of branding the monarchy as an unimpeachable, respectable and beloved institution of the people which continued to evolve during the twentieth century. By the time of the Queen’s coronation in 1952 this deferential atmosphere was all pervasive, but the world has since changed vastly. So how has the branding exercise developed? The techniques of carefully managed media is now supported by excellent Public Relations and in the 21st century the celebrity culture with its fake intimacy is a fundamental component. The Monarchy has become essentially a corporate brand and promoted as such (for example see this study). Marketing experts have concluded that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods, for example, now being viewed as a ‘lifestyle choice’). This has led to a reliance on the monarchy by a greater or lesser proportion of the public for the maintenance of at least a part of their own identity. The result is a family, the Windsors, being psychologically addicted to privilege whilst a great many people are dependent on that behaviour in a form of co-dependence.
This goes a long way to explaining why monarchists love the superficiality of a birthday party which leaves republicans cold, for whom the issues are deeper, running to equality and the rational accountability of power. So I am invited to join this ridiculous celebration of an individual with the concomitant stick of being considered an outsider if I desist! Fine by me!