Why the monarchy must go

Prospect Magazine

Why the monarchy must go

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Support for the monarchy is the result of brainwashing on an Orwellian scale, argues novelist Will Self

I haven’t seen The King’s Speech yet. This isn’t just because I’m a republican. I’m not such a zealot that I think ideologies which I have no sympathy with cannot still form the backdrop to compelling drama—I loved Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, so why shouldn’t I enjoy Colin Firth’s Georgian shtick? No, I haven’t seen it because whatever the disavowals of its makers, it serves royalist interests in an infuriatingly ingenuous way. It doesn’t matter if it portrays the Windsors as individuals, the net result is that its audience is more inclined to acquiesce to an institution that has a stultifying effect on our political culture.

Even watching the trailer, I could feel it wreaking this sinister effect on me: as Colin-cum-George stammered in front of an expectant crowd I could feel tears pricking my eyes; this was, I realised, exactly the sensation Winston Smith must have had as he looked up at the poster of Big Brother and realised he loved him. But at least Orwell’s protagonist had rats applied to his face before giving in. We Britons are conditioned from birth to accept there’s only one form of government being held up for us—constitutional monarchy—no matter how many others we can see.

Monarchism is the default setting for the way we think about our constitutional settlement. Those of us who question it are subjected to the usual blah-blah about the evolutionary character of the British constitution: the way our law is based on concrete precedent rather than Frenchified abstract principle, the way our democracy has grown incrementally and organically from Runnymede to the present day, the way our Queen’s prerogative exists as a means of negatively inferring the real source of executive power, and so on. The overall message is: see that noble oak over there? That’s our system of government. What kind of a foul oik are you to chop it down with your regicidal axe?

Another favoured argument of the default royalists is: Ooh, I know it’s not a perfect system, but what would you have instead? I mean, imagine having a head of state like Sarkozy/Bush/Gaddafi (delete where appropriate). This is another appeal to inertia. The political classes often agonise as to why there’s so little popular interest or enthusiasm for politics but part of the answer, surely, is this unreal counterfactual constantly waved in the air. We cannot, after all, have any of these heads of state because we aren’t France, the US, or Libya.

After years of espousing republicanism, I know that trying to dig out the suppressed premises from this Duchy Originals mulch is a wearying and thankless task. Besides, the default royalists don’t really want to debate the issue at all. That’s the nature of the default: a get-out-of-thinking-about-it card for constitutional change in general, not simply the monarchy. “Oh, a republic—we’ve had one of those already,” the default royalist smiles her patronising smile, as if truly representative rule, embodying popular sovereignty at every level, were some kind of teenage fad. And so the West Lothian question comes into being, and so we slide towards greater European integration with less democratic accountability, and so we have a pig’s ear of a second chamber.

I’m not going to engage here with the true-blue royalists who actually believe that the congenital characteristics of the Windsor family make them fit to be our heads of state; they’re too silly to waste words on. Far more influential are the politically savvy but lazy who, while acknowledging the royals are about as dysfunctional a mob as ever took part in a reality television show, nonetheless insist that monarchy is a necessary cynosure for the patriotic feelings of the citizenry. The not especially covert assumption here is a ghastly, patronising, de haut en bas attitude: we all know they’re ciphers, but Mr & Mrs Little-People need decorative mugs, street parties and all that palaver. It’s an attitude that makes a mockery of our pretensions to democracy.

It is, of course, the ever-closer convergence between the home life of the Windsors and shows such as I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother that has allowed the monarchy to adapt, survive and grow even stronger: Diana Spencer was their preeminent saviour, their Peter Bazalgette. Post-Diana, the Windsors are the foremost example of people who are feted in the media for accidental reasons, and not by virtue of any talent, let alone determination to succeed. People unconsciously understand this: for them, marrying into the Windsors is the genealogical equivalent of winning the lottery: the odds are virtually nonexistent, but wouldn’t it be amazing.

This abandonment to Goddess Fortuna masks the extent to which the monarchy infantilises the public and squats like a fat toad atop the still-existent hierarchy of class in British society. Think on it: without royal titles, the existence of other forms of ennoblement become utterly redundant. The great success of the establishment in co-opting those who might otherwise be critical of it rests in the handing out of such baubles to commoners. No monarchy means no more of those most egregious solecisms, “Labour lords,” let alone the equally ridiculous spectacle of religious leaders sitting in the upper chamber. And frankly, if you can think of a more asinine sight in the known world than John Prescott or Peter Mandelson caparisoned in ermine, answers on a card please. In the current political climate, we could all do with a rich belly laugh.

Lastly, to return to the King’s Speech principle. In the last few months (Andrew’s blunders aside) the Windsors have pulled off two spectacular PR coups: the upcoming commoner marriage, and, equally influential, the Duchess of Cornwall’s walk-on part in The Archers. The Windsors—or their savvy advisers—understand full well the virtues of soft marketing. I’ve known plenty of people who should know better who’ve relapsed into the default position purely because they’ve been exposed to the Windsors’ soft offensive: they’ve pitched up for a garden party, accepted a gong, or stood for the loyal toast, because not to do so would seem somehow ill-mannered, and therefore un-British. But you have to ask yourself, if your principle of government is determined by not wishing to violate social etiquette, how can it ever hope to cope with rude truth of the contemporary world?


Also in Prospect’s monarchy special:

Simon Jenkins: What’s the point of the monarchy?

David Kershaw advises the royals on their brand management

Vernon Bogdanor on crown and constitution

Prospect/YouGov poll reveals the nation’s feelings about the monarchy in 2011

Edwina Currie, Alex Salmond, Bonnie Greer, Yann Martel and other public figures say whether the monarchy is good for Britain

  1. March 30, 2011

    Rasputin

    What an extraordinary piece. Putting to one side (1) what would we replace it with (2) its alleged incompetence (3) Its illogical status; the question really is “Does the institution do anyone any harm?”. For those that do think the Queen is a demon, a standard bearer for all that ails our nation, a bastion of class distinction and down treader of the masses, I suggest go look in the mirror and ask “What did I do for Britain today?” If you think the question’s daft take the mirror down.

  2. April 27, 2011

    Herlihy

    But is’t the Kings Speech a plea for repubicanism? The premise of the film is ‘that’ speech is the one which is going to bind us together. Instead of it falling to someone chosen by the people, who is capable it falls by accident to a person one never choose to put in this position,who is there by birth but is totally unsuited to make it. This poor man is traumatised but just about gets through it and saves the nation. But boy, weren’t we lucky for the Aussie to be there to help him or it would have been curtains for us all. Isn’t the rational coclusion to be drawn – strewth the hereditary principle almost did for us and we’d be better off getting someone suited to being a figurehead. Or did I misread it

  3. April 27, 2011

    terence patrick hewett

    Perhaps Will thinks we will not notice the pomposity, the vanity and the general uselessness of own his good self.

  4. April 27, 2011

    caterina de middleton

    Brilliantly put (although, a bit pretentious in vocabulary) !

  5. April 27, 2011

    J

    I do like how people who don’t necessarily understand the vocab of Will Self will just criticize it as being ‘pompous/pretentious’.

    Normally I don’t like Douchey Self but this article’s good.

  6. April 27, 2011

    Mr. Anonymous

    Wow – that article was pure drivel. I seriously hope you didn’t get paid for it…

  7. April 27, 2011

    Arthur Pitchfork

    The trouble is, you spell out the case FOR a monarchy all too well in your third and fourth paragraphs. In any case, what Earthly paradise do you envisage being ushered in by your elected head of state and non-pig’s ear second chamber? The US has representative rule “on every level” (just about) – is this what you wish for us – gridlock, pork-barrel politics and bankruptcy? Or I suppose we could try the current Russian model, so painlessly arrived at.

  8. April 27, 2011

    Barry Larking

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about Will Self is his reputation. My own conversations with republicans, atheists and rationalists has resulted in the certaint knowledge that they would press the button, light the gas ovens and generally eugenically cleanse people like me and millions more off the plane without a backward glance. At the last count there were over 170 countries on the planet, the great majority republics. Surely Mr Self has the air fare?

  9. April 28, 2011

    Catchpole

    Vox populi, vox dei.

    Ignore the doubters. They are colossally stupid and are not worthy to cringe in your shadow. Unlike the Windsors (vulgar beyond belief) you ARE a national treasure.

    Arise, Sir Will – I want your babies (and so does Mrs Catchpole).

  10. April 29, 2011

    e2toe4

    Everybody said it before me..basically Will’s will isn’t in it is it?.

    It’s like that ‘Defend the Indefensible’ bit of Radio 5′s Fighting Talk (A Good? Bad? hard to tell! radio show) He’s putting up the aragument but he’s too many points behind and his heart’s not in it.

    You can’t knock Constitutional Monarchy because you can’t knock the Queen—well you can , if you’re a numptie I suppose.

    I can see how it’s annoying to see the recreation of duty, service, quiet diginity, in the ‘Wills and Kate’ construct–and it could all go wrong; it has once before— but some things are just good-diddley-obviously-good and a Constitutional Monarchy as exampled by the present Queen is one of them.

    I think the Olympic, faux-celebration of the apotheosis of the official (but already dessicated) Religion of Destination Event Consumerism, should be given it’s space — (as long as it isn’t a space anywhere near me)— before a proper appreciation and National celebration of the Queen’s personal contribution to the History of Britain takes place nationwide.

    It’s pointless waiting until she’s passed away.

    Such an event would serve many purposes—not least in allowing Will Self to convert a lot of otherwise moribund media cash into support for a National Treasure (himself) by writing a proper scathing attack on the Institution of the Monarchy — I’d hate to think the detumescent duty shift above might prevail in the centuries to come as an example of his usually properly corruscating thingamyjig?… style!

  11. April 29, 2011

    Rachel

    Lay off the (fat)toads – they are far more useful to our society: they eat garden pests and enhance our biodiversity. Can this be said of the Windsors? A lazy comparison, Mr Self.

  12. April 29, 2011

    Aniruddha G. Kulkarni

    As an Indian, I am envious of the Brits…We Indians imitate either them or Americans in almost all our ways…Why did then we abolish hundreds of monarchies that existed before 1949?

    Think about it, they would have given us even more entertainment than we currently get from politics, cricket and cinema.

    April-May is a typical busy wedding season in India. Imagine ODI cricket world cup followed by hundreds of royal weddings across the country…Tourists would never want to leave…

  13. April 29, 2011

    The Gadflyista

    Thanks, Will- was vry refreshing amid all the royal wedding grotesqueries.

    Readers might also be interested in this satirical anticipation of the royal wedding:

    thegadflyista.blogspot.com

    Featuring craven celebrity courtiers. royals both living and dead, media moguls with sights already set on another royal tragedy, and finally, we the British people, both the mad and the maddening. Though of course, this take on things only represents one possibility, and yet another is where we decide to turn-away from the whole sorry circus altogether.”

  14. April 29, 2011

    John Ellis

    Totally in agreement with Will. I would add more but I see it as bread and circus: did you ever see a more Ruritanian set of clothing as stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace? At least a President would stick with a suit.

  15. April 30, 2011

    MATTHEW_GIBBONS

    I’m sorry but I just don’t belive anyone can defend the existence of a royal family any longer. They recive x amount of millions every year from the tax payer then ask for more when there castles are falling apart. If a family on the dole had that much of a brass neck they would be on the front page of the sun.

  16. April 30, 2011

    Joannah Yacoub

    While I agree with much of what you say, I am surprised, Mr Self, that you have not mentioned the one reason why it would be currently unwise to dispense with the monarchy. Great Britain does not have a written constitution in the sense that France or America have. We have a body of law, set by precedent as well as statute, but the judiciary is “crown”, not governmental and therefore theoretically independent. The same applies to the Civil Service and the military. They are beholden to the crown which is seen as the embodiment of the British Constitution. The first move a dictator makes is to subordinate the military, judiciary and civil service to his governance, thus disempowering them. The first major nail in Thatcher’s political coffin was her proposal to make the Civil Service answerable to Government and not Crown. it is an unsatisfactory institution but until legislators get together and write a formal constitution which becomes equivalent to the State and to which everybody is beholden, we could run the risk of dictatorship if we abolished the monarchy. I have lived in countries where the constitution has been subordinated to the interests of government and politicians and the result isn’t pretty. If you look at the shower who represent us, I’m sure you can see the dangers, so even if I agree with you, I couldn’t go along with you for that reason and that alone.

  17. April 30, 2011

    Jo Huddleston

    Just don’t fancy getting or having a president. The Quing/Keen doesn’t drop grand-children into daft law for the sake of a media-flashy presidential year.

  18. April 30, 2011

    Patricia Hoad

    Sorry, Mr. Self, I’ll go with Rasputin.

    Patricia

  19. May 1, 2011

    Not my place to judge

    Mr. Self,

    If you can’t accept the autonomy and integrity of the political thoughts of your fellow citizens you are just as much of a barrier to Republicanism as our current government and monarchy.

    A Republican.

  20. May 1, 2011

    Tim Sharp

    I enjoyed reading that – and there is plenty to be annoyed and bemused about when it comes to the monarchy if you have half a brain cell – I think that Republicans (I’m one) need to be able to carry the argument beyond the awful bad taste of it all and come up alternatives that are likely to inspire the majority of people in the UK who can’t be a***d either way. Firstly that is by not being a bunch of eccentrics ourselves (we’re not) and secondly we need some very tight positive arguments that can be communicated clearly and insprirationally. I’m a Republican because I think that the country is grown up enough to make its own choices about who the head of state is.

  21. May 3, 2011

    Bransby

    Well said. And let’s not forget that we are still paying for the privilege of maintaining this physical embodiment of the landed gentry. We are paying for the privilege of endowing people with a sense of entitlement that still stifles social progress everywhere in this country. We are still paying for the wealthiest people in the world whilst they “make a living” from the vast tracts of land that they own through nothing other than an accident of birth. We are paying to hold a group of people at a humiliatingly elevated status that makes apparently normal people talk about “marrying a commoner”. We’re paying so that an essentially arbitrarily chosen group of people can live in luxury and pretend to be better than us.

    Can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a raw deal.

  22. May 3, 2011

    james pinson

    The other bromide wheeled in support of the monarchy is the political stability it gives the British. Even putting aside the Scottish lack of enthusiasm for the institution and a probably instinctive sense that royality is a conjuring trick that assures the least democratic system imaginable there is the curious British denial that for most of the 20th century the United Kingdom was in a state of civil war. ‘The troubles’ was all about resistance to constitutional monarchy and a botched idea of ‘the union’. I say this without the need to even take sides. Constitutional monarchy simply has been the cause of extreme, violent unrest in the UK on a scale that can be put alongside the Lebanon. No amount of kilt wearing, blue blooded English can convince the Scotts of this mirage. This circus is strangely English.

  23. May 6, 2011

    Angel Bacon

    After publishing this absurdly narrow-minded , rent-a-north-london-punk rant ,
    the only question that remains is this :

    Prospect – What’s the point ?

    For we delighted subjects, who spent last weekend rejoicing in the Royal Wedding
    ( and all who sailed in her – go Rowan go ), dipping back in for televised highlights
    ( how did they choose – it was so seamlessly darling – as if touched by divinity )
    from the pretty young spectator’s glorious
    T shirted quip : ” I’LL MARRY HARRY ”
    to the clergyman cart-wheeling for joy
    ( before our news screens were eclipsed by the latest Middle Eastern snuff movie – whatever happened to the watershed ? )
    it would have been sensational ( as we assume the on-line ed. had hoped Self’s
    slap-stick drawl would be ) for Prospect
    to commission instead an insightful
    piece about the rich and beautiful tapestry that is Britain,how each silken thread glistens with the story of the tireless
    good works that our Royals do, our Gracious Queen a noble inspiration to us all , and
    so onwards and mood-lifting upwards ( cue proms : There’ll always be an England – and England shall be free – If England means as much to you – as England means to me .. )

    I want to hug a cultural hoodie , really I do. After all , they didn’t ask to be published – they are but victims of our culturally rootless media, fighting for world domination ; but here , Will Self’s piece reads like some Groucho club drunk,
    or cerebral-cortex challenged teenager
    in need of appropriate parental attention , still fishing for boundaries about just where he can leave his whiffy plimsolls,
    and will brook no reassurance nor argument..

    However, for Self to describe the Windsors as dysfunctional ( whatever that means )
    might be the pot-head calling the copper-bottomed kettle synthetic ? It is not our
    Royals who are dysfunctional, but these pesky self-appointed cultural commentators ,
    perhaps, along with Prospect embracing it’s new proprietors’ grubby politics a little too greedily? Today, Prospect publishes
    another novelist, telling the Cambridges what they should think and do about ( the, generally speaking, rubbish that now
    passes for ) British contemporary art

    Were the radiantly beautiful young couple in need of any advice from me , which obviously they are not ( such gleeful smiles – that kiss – och – cupid not so stupid) I would suggest they avoid dear old Prospect for the
    time being , and observe HRH’s comment :

    ‘ Change does not always mean progress ‘

  24. May 8, 2011

    Blah blah etc

    I thought the general unwashed had tried removing the royals? – wasn’t the result that the lord high protector banned christmas and invaded ireland – or was i just brainwashed by evil royal lizzards to think that?

  25. October 31, 2011

    solid

    So all those people who devote themselves to performing largely unsung, often volunteer, community service and, not sharing Will’s view, are thrilled to meet the Queen and possibly receive an OBE can go [insert Selfian verb] themselves?

    PS: When did Bonnie Greer become a “public figure”?

  26. November 1, 2011

    David Le Page

    The fashionable thing is privatisation. The Tories love privatisation. So why not privatise the monarchy? Sell them to Hello Magazine, or something. Remove their constitutional privileges. They’re welcome to continue the pomp etc, privately, and have the means to do so – the fans of “decorative mugs and street parties”need not be deprived.

  27. November 1, 2011

    Frohicky

    Excellent article, simply excellent.

  28. January 6, 2013

    Steve

    “We Britons are conditioned from birth to accept there’s only one form of government being held up for us—constitutional monarchy—no matter how many others we can see.”

    This coming from a journalist?

    Since when was the media predominately controled by and it’s authors supporters of anything other than a monarchy?

    From the pulpits of the supporters and upholders of the divine rights of kings to the desks of anchormen today the media loves the monarchy because it caters to their own ‘evil’, their own inequity their own indulgences and more to the point their own participation in taking the work of others labours by violence and deception, for what else has the media and it’s authors done but deceive to achieve? deceive to succeed? in essense deceive as monarchs deceive in order to have, to take, from the works of another?

    What media co owner wishes to lay the bricks to their own home? And what monarch?
    What editor in chief wishes to shape the metal of the rim of the wheel of their car? And what monarch?
    What journalist, what author wishes to cut the wood that makes the frame of their bed? And what monarch?

    In short, if that’s at all possible at this point, Will Self’s tears are crocodilian at best.

    :) )

  29. March 24, 2013

    david gandy

    It is so predictable of those who disagree to attack the author when they are unable to refute his argument.

  30. March 27, 2013

    Steve

    Indeed.

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Author

Will Self

Will Self
Will Self published a book of short stories Grey Area (Penguin) earlier this year. 


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