Royal Popularity; A Ruthless Exercise In Identity Politics

The monarchy is kept in place as a result of its constitutional role, right? Not quite! In reality it is a grand exercise in the maintenance of public affection.  In fact, way back in 1977 at the time of the Silver Jubilee, no less a person than the distinguished historian A.J.P. Taylor concluded that the continuance of Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy was not so much dependant on its executive power but in upholding its emotional and symbolic links with the British public. But authors had been pointing this out for a century!  In reality much of the modern monarchy’s executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the other roles could easily be reassigned. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury would reasonably be head of a disestablished Church of England.  So the Monarchy is nothing more than a complex exercise in the continual generation of popularity.  How is it done in the sophisticated 21st Century? Enter the corporate branding experts!  In two previous blogs (you can read them here and here) I outlined the fact that  the Monarchy has become essentially a corporate brand and promoted as such (for example see this study).

In previous blogs I pointed to marketing experts who discovered 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’). It includes everything from cars to mobile phones to chocolate bars and so on (if you are in any doubt just look at Apple’s advertising!).  As a result of the application of these principles to the monarchy, people often use the Royal ‘brand’ as a means of reassuring themselves as to the type of person they are (‘patriotic’, ‘loyal’, ‘British’ etc), as a means of self-expression or a lifestyle ‘beacon’ to others. People will often seek ways in which they can express this personal identity and the courtiers  at Buckingham Palace are careful to provide a complete range of products and activities to support this; garden parties, parties in the Mall, walkabouts, royal visits so people can wave plastic flags.a whole range of tangible items such as mugs teatowels etc. 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.

It is unthinkable that I should adopt an institution dedicated unaccountable privilege as an integral part of who I am as a person. But, as a British Republican I recognise that I positively adopt aspects from history and my environment as part of my identity.  For example, many of my friends and family are aware of my deep affection for the poet Shelley. Similarly a part of my identity is bound up with the great scientists, artists and radical political thinkers who were born in Britain or moved here from other countries. My symbols are those which championed freedom, the Rosemary branch, Sea Green banner and suffragette tricolour to mention a few. Monarchy, empire and aristocracy have no place in my heart and thus form no part of the construction of my identity.

As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten

voltaireIf you have read some of my previous posts you may be aware that I rarely write about foreign radical thinkers.  Even when I do they are mainly in the Anglophone tradition such as American Thomas Jefferson, the major exception being Niccolo Machiavelli.  There are two reasons for this bias. Firstly, other countries such as France with a less moribund and self-protective establishment than Britain tend to be more open about radical proponents of the past and are better known as a consequence. Secondly, possessing woefully poor foreign language skills I am dependent upon published translations of major works.  Where nuance and opinion are all important, the subtleties of language are vital and easily lost or distorted as they cross language barriers.

Voltaire: Some Good ideas, Some Not so Good

I am making an exception in this post to make a couple of observations about François-Marie Arouet, better known to us as Voltaire.  Even more unusual for me, Voltaire was essentially a constitutional monarchist who also toyed with absolutism! But it is rare to find a radical thinker with whom I am in complete agreement, partly because of drastic changes in society over the past century. For example, many 17th Century English Republicans such as Algernon Sidney actually argued for a form of aristocratic rule, tempered by democracy. On the other hand, Chartist Ernest Jones was a constitutional monarchist.  To dismiss every thinker who holds one or two contrary opinions would simply lead to an impoverished and shrivelled view of how society may be improved. In few other individuals, however, is the sense of contrariness in such sharp relief than in Voltaire.  But I want to see how one of his ideas stacks up to contemporary reality in the shape of the present heir to the United Kingdom throne, Charles Windsor.

A hazard when considering Voltaire’s work is the polemical and satirical style he adopted.  Voltaire actually lived in Britain between 1726 and 1729 and formed a favourable view of the British Constitutional Monarchy in comparison with France’s pre-revolutionary autocratic ancien régime. As I mentioned in this openDemocracy article, Voltaire  was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment and a leading figure in the associated Republic of Letters network.

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The Honours System: A Subtle and Toxic Method of Control

medal
Order of the British Empire (motto reads: For God and Empire)

Almost before the cyclists had put away their bikes and the rowing lake at Rio had returned to a mirror surface the campaign began.   With British competitors winning 27 Gold medals, some like Hockey with multiple team members, would the rules allow them all to get a New Year Honour? Doubts were assuaged by Theresa May confirming that there was no fixed quota for sporting medals and everyone who ‘deserved’ one would get one. But behind that discussion lay an assumption – that the athletes concerned actually want an honour!

An Unacceptable Compromise

Lost in the excitement of the Olympics all was another story of a sporting honour, that of Howard Gayle. Gayle is a retired footballer, the first black player to take the field for Liverpool FC and a proud Briton. In mid-August it was announced  that Gayle had rejected the offer of a MBE. Gayle’s reason was based on the title of the award, MBE standing for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. As Gayle stated:

The fact is that I felt it would be a slap in the face for so many to be part of that British empire [my emphasis] process. When you look at what the empire did to my family and our ancestors, it just doesn’t bear credence. I would always have felt uncomfortable writing those letters after my name.

Gayle’s view is shared by others including prominent poet Benjamin Zephaniah  In any  civilized country an honour titled ‘British Empire’ should have been consigned to the dustbin of history a great many years ago.

But, irrespective of the title of the award, a more sinister process is at work in the honours system. For those recipients clearly uncomfortable with accepting an honour (radical activists, trade Union leaders, for example) the defence is often mounted  that the award is not really a personal one, but is for their members, organization, community and so on. In some cases this may be a genuinely held belief but in some there is no doubt an element of self justification. The fact remains that by accepting an honour they are  buying into a narrative of privileged control. As the higher honours (knighthoods for example) are awarded by the establishment including the Government it means they are arbitrarily deciding which activities or individuals are worthy and which are not.

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Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!

May Queen Cartoon
Cartoon by Peter Brooks for the Times Newspaper

Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day.  But things are not all they seem.  In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about here and here.  Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind!  An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:

Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.

This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past.  This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry.  There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.

A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive

But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading.  At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling  statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high.  I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot.  So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!

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The Queen; 50 Years of Trying to Subvert the Commonwealth!

Royalists were unable to contain themselves during the summer of 2013. Apart from the birth of George Windsor there was also this report in the Daily Mail.  According to the article the Queen was ‘discreetly’ campaigning to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position. Apparently this included getting David Cameron to speak to the other Commonwealth leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM13).  Now, it must be said that the Daily Mail has been known to get things wrong! There was certainly nothing in the final communique, but maybe that was because it was very discreet. But lets make the entirely reasonable assumption the story is correct. Such an assumption is supported by the royals own website which deliberately confuses matters by having a Role of the Monarchy on its Commonwealth page. The Queen may currently be Head of the Commonwealth as a person but that is not true of monarchy as an institution. The idea that anyone could be promoting the extension of hereditary privilege in the 21st Century is simply disgusting. Furthermore, the fact that a change in the constitution of an international organisation would be attempted ‘discreetly’ shows the complete lack of respect that the Windsor family has for Commonwealth citizens.

The Mail was indeed correct in stating that the words ‘does not pass automatically to her heir’ had been removed from the Governance section of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The site, however, still emphasises the fact that the Head is chosen collectively by the member states.  What gives the story credence is that the Queen had already attempted to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position.  When the Letters Patent were issued in 1958 to make Charles the Prince of Wales they clearly intended that he, along with his heirs and successors, shall be future Heads of the Commonwealth!

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More About Monarchy and Swearing!!

Oath

Last week I posted about the Royal Oath of Allegiance and why it needs replacing.  The post proved popular and I thought another look at some other issues surrounding royal oaths was useful. Firstly, it is worth reminding ourselves of what an oath entails, especially for young people who are encountering such things for the first time. Essentially an oath requires the individual to possess the ability to make and keep a promise and to understand what it means in terms of personal integrity to break that promise.  Psychologists actually regard it as one of the highest moral achievements in a young adult. It means that the individual understands that the promise made in an oath is offered seriously, to be taken at face value and to clearly understand the distinction from other sorts of promises which may be only a polite gesture (we’ll keep in touch when the holiday is over!!), not necessarily to be taken earnestly.

The Alternatives to a Royal Oath

In my previous post I highlighted the issue of MPs being forced to take the oath of allegiance.  It has often been noted that in the Parliamentary oath there is no swearing to the democratic principle or upholding the traditions of the institution. But down the years there have been suggestions for a more suitable replacement.  I particularly like this one by Tony Benn in 1988:

I, Firstname Lastname, Do swear by Almighty God (or Solemnly declare and affirm) That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the peoples of the United Kingdom, according to their respective laws and customs; preserving inviolably their civil liberties and democratic rights of self government, through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and will faithfully and truly declare my mind and opinion on all matters that come before me without fear or favour.

What About The Queen?

So what about the monarch, what do they swear?  The actual oath is in the form of answers to a questions put by the Archbishop of Canterbury, itself a problematic issue for people of other faiths and denominations or no faith. Here is the interaction from the 1952 Coronation of Elizabeth Windsor:

Archbishop: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?

Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.

Archbishop: Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?

Queen: I will.

Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

Queen: All this I promise to do.

Continue reading “More About Monarchy and Swearing!!”