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in 1781 when it was patently clear to politicians that the war in North America was lost and British troops should be withdrawn, George III (pictured above) insisted on continuing with hostilities, With an increasingly rebellious House of Commons, Prime Minister Lord North was left with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.
In two earlier posts this week I blogged about the pernicious effect of sycophancy towards the royals and the way in which their Public Relations machine has positioned them within the celebrity culture. So what is the aim of all this, what is the end game? Once again the visit of William Windsor and his wife Kate to India and Bhutan gives us a clue. On a very short tour to Bhutan they spent one day on a personal climb up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Incredibly this provoked a very rare criticism from the BBC royal reporter Nicholas Witchell who pointed out that the Bhutan trip was at taxpayers expense and thus it was not a holiday but a business trip.
So what was the justification for what was a sightseeing jolly? As mentioned in a previous blog, William views himself in the role of a country squire (evidence the move to Norfolk) living at the expense of someone else, but it seems his education failed to impress on him a fundamental constitutional fact. The royals get to retain their privilege, wealth and residual influence in exchange for the Government using Royal Prerogative powers and a large measure of control over them for political and diplomatic purposes. It is on this basis, for example, that Charles Windsor is sent at frequent intervals to deeply unpleasant and autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia to secure lucrative arms deals – though there is no reason to suspect that Charles objects to a knees-up with his privileged mates. So if politicians send William to Bhutan at our expense they must see some advantage (note that it occupies a very strategic position bordered by both India and China!). They are not going to be pleased at the perceived waste of money when they are already under fire for punitive austerity measures.
It is a recurring line amongst royalists that they would prefer to pass quickly over Charles as the next king (or even bypass him altogether) since he is perceived as being eccentric, meddling and downright unpopular. It is likely that he would soon grate with politicians who would resent his constant interventions. Although less of an activist, a lazy and idle King William with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement would present a different by no less pointed set of problems. Hugely more interested in pursuing his own interests rather than fulfilling his duties he would be perceived by the establishment as superfluous and his removal would be sought. From my point of view this presents an opportunity, but only if the have a well worked out plan to move to a republic. Maybe the recent spate of problems raised for the Windsors by the press (such as the Sun Brexit story – my post here) are the first moves of an establishment with their media allies preparing for such an eventuality
A few days ago I published a postabout the nauseating spectacle of sycophancy surrounding the royal family. But there is another crucial weapon which the Palace Public Relations machine deploys in the 21st Century – celebrity culture. During the Middle Ages court jesters or troupes of entertainers were retained to perform for the king. Now, in an apparent reversal of roles, it is the royals who display themselves via mass media for our entertainment! But the outcome is the same, the monarch remains at the top of the tree.
The low point for the UK monarchy in recent times came in 1997 immediately after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In some respects the danger for the Windsors was similar to the circumstances which led to the demise of the Russian Romanovs in 1917. Somewhat surprisingly it is not the ostentatious display of wealth alone which alienates the people, but wealth combined with a perception of remoteness. Correctly perceiving the danger, royal public relations after Diana has been successful in harnessing the power of mass media to embed the royals in the celebrity culture.