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!
Click here for my The Leveller article on why external privatization isn’t the only threat to the National Health Service. Looking closer at internal market reforms, we can already see the disastrous effects of a consumerist approach.
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!
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.
If 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.
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.
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!