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30/04/2011

Royal Hangover


Even as a staunch republican, yesterday felt like a good day to be a resident of this quirky sceptred isle. I started the day off in a cynical mood delivering republican views to my partner, friends, family and anyone else who would listen - and the response was a receptive one, no counter-arguments put forward as to why we should have a monarchy, an acceptance it all makes sense in theory. But as the day progressed we were all touched by the spectacle of the events in beautiful, uptown London. Reflecting on this now, it seems the major case for the monarchy persisting in Britain is an emotional one rather than a reasoned look at the pros and cons of constitutional monarchy vs. parliamentary republic. Speaking very generally, the British people (of all tribes, English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, Ulsterman) appear to maintain a tempered support for the monarchy because of the sense of stability and unity - mixed in with a large dose of soap opera and celebrity glamour - that they provide during events such as a royal wedding.

Indeed, yesterday it was easy to see this appeal of the monarchy as a million people gathered on the streets of the capital, and across the country people took a day off work to sit in the sun in parks, bars etc. There was a sense of togetherness in the flag waving, the spontaneous standing to cheer and applaud the events on the big screen, the clumsy rendition of our favourite hymns - and classic British irreverent humour with people donning all manner of Union Jack tat, some dressing in their best wedding hats to go down the local pub, some going further dressing up as one of the royal family, as the 'Queen of Hearts', a medieval knight etc. - and perhaps the highlight, the en-masse nudging and winking (with a few whistles and cheers thrown in for good measure) at the sight of the Best Man, Harry Wales, and the Bridesmaid, Pippa Middleton, walking together. Through a certain lens, this could be viewed as Britain at its best.

The sense of stability that the monarchy and royal events bring also adds to this emotional pull. Britain has changed immeasurably over the past century - rapidly transforming from a generally ethnically and culturally (white, Christian, English-speaking) homogeneous industrial & imperial superpower with a neat class structure (everyone knowing their place) to a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual 'messy' nation operating as 'one of many' in a globalised economy.  The seemingly unshakable tradition of our monarchy sends the message that things may have changing fast, the future may be scary, but we still have our ancient beliefs and ways to hold onto - "things might be changing, but not that much..." was the message of the day.

The press coverage and comments from people who had made the trip to London also highlighted another side of the emotional pull of the monarchy - aspiration. Views from members of the public (selected by the media, of course) focused on the fashions, the pomp, the luxury etc. of the event and the casting of Kate Middleton as the 'commoner' who had made it to the top. The narrative was one of 'rags to riches' fairytale - Kate Middleton the Cinderella, William Wales the Prince Charming.

Of course, some of this comes from reality. William Wales presents as a hard-working, conscientious individual seemingly more in-touch with the general public than previous generations of royalty. As much as Elizabeth II is admired for her seemingly stoical, dutiful manner, it is felt that it was her aloofness following the death of Diana Spencer (mixed in with her handling of various previous scandals involving her children) that previously lead to a gradual decline in support for the monarchy. Both of Diana's sons, William and Harry, have grown up in the media eye and seem to have pro-actively followed their mother's legacy in trying to use their public profile primarily for representing charities and lesser-known causes rather than for personal gain and pet projects. They have also proved more willing to acknowledge their fallibility. Their personal tragedy in losing their mother has also created a lasting level of goodwill from the British public who want them to succeed, as they would any children facing the sudden loss of a parent. This tied in with the media's portrayal of Kate Middleton's and William Wales's quite everyday relationship as a fairytale love story adds to the attraction (don't stop believin' folks).

But if we move past the emotional pull of the monarchy and in particular, yesterday's occasion, the rational arguments for a transition to a republican model of politics remain valid. The principle and practice of the British constitutional monarchy is ultimately a flawed fantasy - offering little more than fanciful, unfulfillable notions.

The sense of unity under the monarchy ignores the fact that it continues to exclude the majority of the population based on ancestry, economic background, gender, denominational affiliation / religious beliefs, sexual identity and arguably, ethnicity also. Yesterday's Royal Wedding was an exclusive event open to a tiny hand-picked elite-of-sorts - the general public who massed in London and around the UK were passive spectators not active participants. We were subjects not citizens. Our society has become increasingly diverse - and has benefited greatly because of this in terms of creativity, skills, openness - but this has left some communities on the margins. On seeing the royal wedding guests, how many of us relatively affluent, comfortable spectators still felt a nagging sensation of exclusion and detachment - of not being part of the club, and not wanting to? Imagine then the thoughts and feelings of northern English communities who have faced long-term recession, the NEETs, the 'New British' growing up with a different religion and language, the 'Celtic fringe' communities with a history of conflict with the British state and so on. If the top spot and related upper echelons of society (The Privy Council, The House of Lords, The Honours System) were opened up to all through the adoption of an elected presidency - that an 'Obama moment' was made at least technically possible in Britain - then it is probable some of the dangerous alienation we now face as a society could start to be countered in a more meaningful, sustainable way.

Similarly the sense of stability - the traditions, the protocol, the centuries-old symbolism - may all offer a comforting nostalgia and 'Rule Britannia' pride but they can only act as a temporary distraction from the challenging economic and social times we live in. As the global economy grows & shifts in focus and our societies continues to undergo a technological revolution (akin to the Industrial Revolution on amphetamine), we live in a state that is leaving people behind - and not necessarily the older generations, but rather more dangerously, the younger generations. We have an school & college system not equipping all of our young people for the new economy, a university system that's lost its way, we have an increasingly monolithic print and television media, we are trying to recover from a recession caused primarily by multi-national conglomerates, we have a political system that is leading to increasing apathy and small but significant occurrences of violent extremism under various banners (far right, Islamist, anarchist). A constitutional monarchy, in its offer of stability, is charged with providing long-term protection of the state and its subjects - as 'servant of the people', 'guardian of the consistution', 'national conscience' - but it is ill-equipped to do this by its very nature as an unelected, unaccountable, unqualified, ambiguously apolitical, elitist institution. An elder statesperson or other distinguished figure - democratically chosen by the people for such a role - would be able to discharge these duties much more effectively and with much greater legitimacy.


Furthermore, the aspirational aspect to the monarchy - the royal wedding in particular - is both misleading and in conflict with the values our society claims to now hold dear. The wedding clearly wasn't a 'rags to riches' story despite all the media spin. The Middletons are reported to have assets worth £30million and the very fact a 'commoner' has to marry into a specific family to get anywhere near to the top spot in our state and society runs in direct contrast to the general view that we are on the road to meritocracy. If we are to pursue 'The British Dream' espoused by our political leaders over the years, more recently re-cast by Labour leader Ed Miliband as 'The British Promise', beyond mere rhetoric then inevitably there must be an end of constitutional monarchy. This is not simply a case of freeing up the top spot but about the very principles our entire political system and economy are founded on and seek to embody on a day-to-day basis. An elected president would set a standard and most probably act as a catalyst for further egalitarian-minded reform (the next stop being whole-scale democratic reform of the House of Lords, then tidying up devolution to make it fairer across all of the home nations).

Certainly an elected British presidency (styled according to the German presidency our nation helped establish following WW2) would not be without it's pitfalls and there would be far-reaching constitutional implications of such radical reform, nor is it a panacea for all of our country's ills - but it is an essential step towards 21st Century Britain realising the dream and promise of democracy and meritocracy.

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