If the Windsors were quoted on the stock market then the past few weeks would have been what the analysts term a ‘rollercoater’ Firstly, Elizabeth Windsor visits the site of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the WinDaq rises rapidly as she is reported as ‘showing Theresa May how sympathy is done’. But then it all spins hopelessly downwards.
In a series of interviews Harry Windsor paints the Royals as victims of a grotesque system ‘enduring’ privilege while not wanting the responsibility which comes with it. In a twist of fate, that argument is actually similar to the one Republicans such as myself deploy, that the archaic monarchy really benefits no-one. So the WinDaq falls. Last week it hit rock bottom as it was revealed that the royals share of the Crown Estates profits will net them a very healthy revenue increase. This is in the same week as the Conservative/DUP deal highlights the dire state of public service funding.
But lets focus on one single moment, courtesy of Harry in an interviewreported in the Daily Mailwhich actually reveals something fundamental. He muses on the point of the yoyals, concluding
‘We don’t want to be just a bunch of celebrities but instead use our role for good.’
It is difficult to see whether this comes from a place of ignorance or naivety. Harry seems blissfully unaware that what is ‘good’ has been the hottset of political hot potatoes for centuries (maybe millennia). He is effectively saying he wants the Windsors to be overtly involved in politics (as if they weren’t already). Straight away there is a problem. For me the monarchy is bad because it represents a fundamental inequality, a secretive and manipulative private interest which distorts the heart of our Government. So ‘good’ for me is a constitutional Head of State accountable to the people.
For centuries the battle lines over what is good has been framed in terms of the balance of individual and state. Libertarians would argue that what is good is few laws and low taxes with a small state since only the people themselves truly know what is best for them. A socialist may argue that what is best is a larger state with higher taxes falling on the wealthiest in order that a redistribution of wealth gives even the poorest a better chance of the good life. There are many other possibilities besides, especially involving the definition of freedom as I have argued elsewhere in my blog. Harry must appreciate he is in a most precarious of positions being afforded a huge level of personal privilege and freedom while being funded by the state. If he doubts this he just need to consider the freedom of action available to people using foodbanks!
It seems the approach Harry wants to take is that of Charles Windsor who pontificates on what is ‘good’ while suppressing debate and dodging accountability. He does this in a number of ways but most commonly by making interviewers sign a 15-page contracteffectively handing editorial control to Clarence House. Nowhere is this more focused than on climate change. Charles Windsor calls for allocation of resources to Green projects without the difficulty of saying where those resources will come from who will be the ‘losers’.
If Harry Windsor really wants to ‘do good’ as he says then as the campaign group Republic urges, he must, give up his royal status and argue for what he believes in. But he will find the court of public contestability and accountability a harsher arena than the one to which he is accostomed. Just as it should be!
They say that memory starts to dim with age. So it is ironic that one of the oldest members of the House of Commons, Dennis Skinner, seems to possess his in full. The same is true of SNP MPs, maybe something to do with the invigorating Scottish landscape! But most MPs seem to be suffering from amnesia. The reason for this conclusion? The huge majority (by 408) in the Commons for increasing the Sovereign Grant for 10 years to a massive 25% of Crown Estate profit, effectively handing the Windsors and their courtiers over a third of a billion pounds extra for the repair of Buckingham Palace.
The Sovereign Grant Act makes clear who is responsible…
Why is this shameful? In 2011 the Sovereign Grant Act was passed allocating Elizabeth Windsor 15% of the revenue from the Crown Estates. Clause 11 of this Act, which can be viewed here states:
11. Maintenance of Royal Palaces and related land
The Secretary of State has no [my emphasis] duties under section 21 of the Crown Lands Act 1851 in relation to the maintenance of Royal Palaces and related land so far as they are maintained by Her Majesty out of the Sovereign Grant.
For avoidance of doubt Clause 13 (8) of the Act makes the situation perfectly clear:
Any reference to the support of Her Majesty’s official duties includes the maintenance of Royal Palaces and related land.
So why has the House of Commons forgotten this provision in the intervening 6 years? Clause 11 makes it clear that the Secretary of State has no business maintaining Buckingham Palace and Elizabeth Windsor is the de facto budget holder. There is no ambiguity here, she is responsible and must be held accountable for not doing so. She is in the same position as any other public body which has wilfully neglected to maintain its property. If a Town Hall falls down or a Hospital collapses it may be in the public interest to allocate emergency repair funds but you can be sure that the Chief Executive and his/her staff would be held accountable. If Elizabeth Windsor has misused the money we have already given her, what safeguards are there that she will not misuse the extra allocation. So at the very least MPs should have refused the support until an investigation was made and arrangements were put in place for the Government itself to have organised the works. As it stands the Government will be virtually reduced to an monitoring role.
…so why is there no accountability?
Now consider the attitude of the November 2016 Report of the Royal Trustees on the Sovereign Grant. Section 4 specifically claims that there is an element of forward planning in Royal Household finances, up to 10 years ahead. So it is surprising that there was no mention whatsoever in the Report for 2012-13 the first year of the Sovereign Grant. The current report states:
The works needed for the reservicing of Buckingham Palace have been considered as a separate, discrete element of the property maintenance 10 year plan due to the programme scope being substantially different to the other priorities for property maintenance investment in the period 2016-21.
Since there has been no major refurbishment since 1945(!) why was the appalling state of Buckingham Palace not mentioned as it must have been known? Instead there is a complacent statement about future increases in the Sovereign Grant being used to make inroads on the backlog of repairs.
Following some overindulgence on turkey and mince pies it took a little while for my capacity to caary out basic arithmetic to return! But a simple analysis of the Christmas Day TV viewing figures reveals something interesting. Topping the charts (for the 3rd year running) was Elizabeth Windsor with her speech registering 7.7 million views followed by Strictly Come Dancing on 7.2 million and the Christmas Bake-off at 6.3 million. You might think that was a sound argument for the continued popularity of the Monarchy, but the figures say otherwise. Admittedly the viewing figure are something of an estimate, but with a population of about 63.1 million (2011 census, but almost certainly higher in 2016) that means only around 12% watched the speech. Allowing for those too young, too old or without access to a TV this is still a surprisingly small figure when set against a monarch with, we are told, huge personal popularity. So like most things connected with the royals, the idea that everyone watches the Queen’s speech is nothing more than a myth. Certainly, few of my family and friends, (admittedly a pretty radical and rebellious lot!) watched it. Ironically, I was one of the few, catching up on iPlayer to gain insights into the current thinking of the ‘opposition’!
A few months ago following the election of Donald Trump the ‘Loose Cannon’ Giles Fraser wrote an article where he extolled the virtues of monarchy. While I have much respect for this clergyman who gave support to the Occupy movement around St Pauls in London, this was at best a weak minded piece. Boiled down to its essence the argument was that following Brexit and Trump the world was becoming too scary and it was more comforting to simply go back to believing in princesses and fairytale castles. Lets just say that at a time when we need to come to the aid of our democratic institutions this approach did not strike a chord with me! His point was that the monarch provides a rallying point in troubled times. But the Queens Speech viewing figures suggest this is far from the case and we may as well replace our Constitutional Monarchy with Strictly Come Dancing with Queen Tess of the House of Daly as monarch!
On a more serious note, a central plank of the argument for the continuation of Monarchy is that it commands overwhelming support. But no figure for what ‘overwhelming’ means is given (surely more than 12%!) and there is establishment reluctance to consider the possibility of a Constitutional Convention or even a referendum where replacing monarchy is an option. Based on these viewing figures it is understandable. Most opinion polls give a commanding majority for the monarchy, but simply answering a question where no effort is expended or costs incurred is easy. When, however, it comes to making even a minimal effort such as listening to the Queen on Christmas Day the story is very different. On that basis, how many would make the substantially greater effort to get out and walk to a polling station to support the monarchy in a referendum? As a republican I say ‘bring it on!
Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future. An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.
Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet. Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information. Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of knowledge. This peer-to-peer interaction with established relationships (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.
But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government. The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us. They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.
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 hereand 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!
Royalists were unable to contain themselves during the summer of 2013. Apart from the birth of George Windsor there was alsothis 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 it was intended that he, along with his heirs and successors, shall be future Heads of the Commonwealth!
The scandal involving Prince Andrew trying to broker a ‘deal’ with an unsavoury Kazakh oligarch highlights just why we should be worried about the way the monarchy interacts with our Government. The myth that the royals are somehow ‘above politics’ is the illusion most zealously maintained by Buckingham Palace and only rarely do the real facts emerge and then frequently in a distorted form such as when the queen accidentally advised the Scots to exercise care when voting in the Independence Referendum. But we must remember the constitutional settlement where the monarchy gets to retain a privileged and wealthy existence (I have argued that they are actually addicted to it) in return for politicians using the archaic power of monarchy and to do their bidding when requested. The archaic power is operated through the Royal Prerogative and allows the Government to exercise autocratic control where the legal protections to citizens are at best unclear. This is a whole issue in itself, but let’s return to the Prince Andrew scandal.
I have never held a gun, let alone fired one. I share this with the vast majority of British people, lucky to be born in the second half of the 20th Century when being sent to war in a mass army was a thing of the past. At the same time I am no idealistic dreamer and am fully aware that we live in a world full of dangers (albeit some of which we create!), appreciating that there are men and women who make sacrifices for our country. Because I have never been in the forces I cannot fully understand the life of a serviceman/woman, but I am quite capable of questioning the motives of a British establishment which commits them to action. In particular there is a serious issue with a royal family which treats the armed forces both as a mean of personal glorification and a job creation scheme.
One of the inspirational aspects of the past few months for me has been meeting members of the Veterans for Peace movement (I particularly valued their presence at Levellers Day and Gus Hales has written a personal account). A number of my recent blogs (here for example) have involved the way contemporary monarchy encourages many people in Britain to uncritically accept it as part of their identity. For servicemen and women the pressure must be overwhelming with the taking of the oath of loyalty and the justification of fighting for King/Queen and Country. To mentally reject that identity and question whether military power is in the interests of the British people themselves takes real will power.
While limiting the problem of the glorification of war to the monarchy risks missing a large part of the story, it is still a good place to start. The fact that for three or four hundred years following the Norman Conquest English monarchs were in reality successful warlords means that monarchy and militarism were interlinked from the start. Although by the eighteenth century the time was long past when a king personally led an army, monarchs lost none of their zeal for sending troops into battle for power and glory. For example in 1781 when it was patently clear to politicians that the war in North America was lost and British troops should be withdrawn, George III (pictured above) insisted on continuing with hostilities, With an increasingly rebellious House of Commons, Prime Minister Lord North was left with no option but to tell the King where to go! Today, George III’s ancestors show similar disdain for servicemen. At any state occasion members of the Royal family can be seen ridiculously strutting around in uniforms of high military rank bedecked with ribbons and medals.
As this Telegraph article makes clear, many of these are invented or handed out by the queen presumably with the intention of making an impression on us. There can be no other reason why you would give Prince Philip the Order of Merit when it is limited to 24 individuals and otherwise has been held by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell (himself a pacifist!). Look more closely and you will see almost all of these preening people displaying medals such as the Queens Silver Jubilee medal and Golden Jubilee medal given ‘for service’. Interestingly these very medals have frequently been denied or withheld from actual servicemen/women of long standing as this blog illustrates.
A few weeks ago shortly after the Queen’s birthday I posted a blog on how the presentation of the Monarchy has mutated in response to changing social conditions. I concluded by pointing out that the Monarchy is now essentially a corporate brand in the same way as, for example, Ford cars or Cadbury chocolate as numerous academic and business studies will attest (for example see this study by John Balmer). Furthermore, marketing experts have known for a long time that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods such as phones or clothes are almost solely presented 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 portion 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. Most examinations of the monarchy have missed this aspect and studied the institution from the point of view of social mobility, constitutional law or political science. All the while Buckingham Palace courtiers have busied themselves with the corporate marketing exercise (that the Queen herself clearly understands this important fact is underlined when she calls the royal family ‘the firm’). Once this is appreciated, a major aim of UK republicanism is clear. We must deal with the issue of identity and ensure that we replace monarchy as an integral part of the identity of ever greater numbers of British people. To do this we need to effectively recover or build afresh symbols, myths, images and events which offer superior value to the royal ones.
The Corporate Brand nature of the monarchy goes a long way to explaining why royalists frequently 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. An irony of the situation, as Balmer in the above article noted, is that if they are not the subject of debate then organizations can decline and die. The problem for royalists is to guide that debate in a controlled manner to exclude ways in which we can reorganise our Head of State and upper echelon of Government into a more democratic and accountable system. It is a typical royal tactic for example to encourage debate on such aspects as whether precedence should be changed to allow the oldest child, if female, to be heir to the throne or the fact that William should be allowed to marry his live-in housemate Kate rather than a sourced ex-blueblood. It is the responsibility of all republicans to frame the debate on our terms and give the royalists more debate than they can handle!
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.