I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while to learn that I am not a royalist. I don’t think the queen or any of her extended family ‘do marvellous work’ or represent ‘fantastic value for money’. In fact, I’m not clear what actual work they do at all in their capacity as royals (some of them have jobs outside their royal duties). If, as I suspect, their time is mainly occupied by make-busy schemes like opening buildings that would have opened whether or not a royal showed up and reviewing troops who would have held a ceremonial parade regardless, it’s difficult to say anything about their value for money – to offer either good or bad value they’d have to actually do something in return for the money we give them. Instead, we basically pay them just for existing.
Neither am I persuaded that the royals are ‘good for tourism’. I agree that our royal history is important to many overseas visitors, and royal buildings feature heavily on some tourist trails, but this is not to say that we require present-day royals inside them for this to continue. Versailles and the Winter Palace at St Petersburg seem to do quite well attracting foreign tourists despite France and Russia having taken fairly robust action against their respective monarchs. So far as I am aware, no-one is proposing a Maoist-style purging of history, so the removal of a hereditary head of state in the here-and-now would do nothing to disrupt the ‘heritage’ industry. Foreign tourists come for the old buildings and the picturesque countryside and the sense of a lot of globally significant history crowded together on quite a small island. All of that would continue unabated even if one individual octogenarian were to be known henceforward as Mrs Windsor – or kept the title of Queen Elizabeth II but lost her constitutional responsibilities.
While we’re on the subject, I also don’t accept that the royals, and the ‘pageantry’ that surrounds them, provides a ‘vital living link to our past’. For a start, most of the royal rituals that so excite traditionalists are very recent; many are less than 100 years old, and only began as a means of ‘staging’ the monarchy for the new-fangled medium of film. Queen Victoria, for example, would have been bemused at the suggestion that her marriage service was a national event, rather than a private one.
As I say, I don’t expect any of this to come as much of a surprise to anyone who reads this blog at all regularly. What may come as slightly more of surprise is the extent to which my lack of patriotic fervour is matched by my lack of revolutionary fervour. I may not be putting on a union jack bowler hat and organising a street party, but neither am I cueing up The Sex Pistols, ready to drown out any patriotism I might happen to overhear. I just don’t care about the jubilee, in the same way that I just don’t care about the monarchy. I’m not happy, I’m not angry, I’m largely indifferent.
It doesn’t help that, when I can stir myself up to care just a little bit, the things about the monarchy that actually do matter (like the persistence of the Royal Prerogative, which gives government ministers sweeping and poorly-regulated executive powers, or the continued existence of the Privy Council, which allows the government to make some changes to the law without involving parliament) are precisely those things that anti-monarchists complaining about the jubilee are least likely to talk about. Abolitionists will instead drivel on at length about the cost of the monarchy (which is, in the context of national spending, peanuts) or the awful ‘symbolism’ of the hereditary principle, as though the class system is the same in 2012 as it was in 1912, and social status had not been replaced by parental wealth as the principle determinant of a child’s life chances. (In 1912 your father could have been the wealthiest industrialist in the country and doors would still have been closed to you if you were a commoner; in 2012 your parents’ wealth will buy you access to any area of life you want, whatever social background they come from. There’s still a class system, but these days it’s driven by wealth, not patrilineage.)*
My response when I come across individuals and groups campaigning loudly and enthusiastically for the abolition of the monarchy is a lot like my response when I come across individuals and groups campaigning loudly and enthusiastically for the disestablishment of the Church of England. In both cases I would endorse their aims and support their cause – but my mind still boggles slightly at how comfortable someone’s life must be, and how limited their ability to appreciate the problems of others, for these campaigns to count as their highest priority. I consider myself a secularist, but can’t imagine how anyone could see disestablishment of the Church of England as anything other than a low grade administrative change; I want to see equality of opportunity for all children, but can’t imagine how anyone could see abolition of the monarchy as a significant step in achieving that goal: both are changes to be made when the substantive work has already been achieved, and these kinds of symbolic gesture are all that’s left. To treat them as priorities in a world where people are put to death for violating religious expectations and in a country where someone born to poor parents might die years earlier than someone whose parents are rich seems to me to be positively perverse – or, to be kinder, to represent a substantial failure of perspective.
To be honest, though, there’s something else that conditions my attitude towards the monarchy. You see, I like the idea of a weak head of state with a largely ceremonial role, and the few constitutional functions of the office carried out in accordance with strict protocols that provide little or no opportunity for personal prerogative. A situation, in other words, more like that in Ireland (where most executive authority rests with a government of ministers elected from the legislature, and subject to day-by-day scrutiny by them) and less like that in the USA (where executive power rests in the hands of a president who is largely independent of the legislature).
The situation as it currently exists in the UK is not the one I would prefer – but I’m canny enough to recognise that it gives me a lot of what I want. The queen is weak, and her freedom of action is very tightly curtailed; her constitutional role is limited to making various appointments on the binding recommendation of the government, and to the appointment of the prime minister, which she is required to do in strict accordance with an established set of protocols. And yes, as per above, I’d like to see the Privy Council abolished, and the exercise of the Royal Prerogative brought under much closer parliamentary control – but achieving those goals doesn’t require the abolition of the monarchy, and there’s a good chance that the creation of an elected presidency would actually lead to a further concentration in executive power, not the dilution that I want to see take place.
I’d like to see the back of our hereditary head of state, but it’s way down my priority list, and I’m alert to the possibility that the cure might be worse than the disease. That’s why I won’t be particularly cheering or booing this weekend, just waiting patiently for it to be over, so that we can get back to thinking about things that actually matter.
* – Actually, of course, parental wealth will buy you access to almost every area of life, with the sole exception of the monarchy. It’s possible the principle drivers of republicanism these days are wealthy people incensed at the realisation there’s one small corner of privilege they can’t buy.