Deference check

An argument that’s often put forward by people who support the institution of the British monarchy is that the monarch and his or her family are apolitical; that is, they can rise above party politics and lead through dint of example and charisma. An elected presidential figurehead, by contrast, would inevitably be drawn into party politics. Names would have to be put forward; manifestos drawn up. We are better off without any of that, monarchists argue. The monarch and her family are popular, well liked; a force for national unity.

The fact that the occupants of a royal limousine were recently mobbed – and, allegedly, to some degree physically assaulted – surely does severe damage to that argument. The relevant counterfactual is this: if last Thursday that car had contained a figurehead president, would he or she have been mobbed in the same way? I reckon many people will find themselves answering yes to that question. And if that’s what you believe, then I’d suggest you jettison any belief you might have had that a royal family is better at unifying the nation than an elected president would be. At least consider the possibility that a president wouldn’t do worse.

There are some other things to think about as well. The second-in-line to the British throne is getting married next spring. The government wasted no time in deciding that this event should be celebrated with full spectacle: the location is Westminster Abbey; an extra national holiday is planned for the day. It seems very unlikely that a nation would do any of this for a president, let alone his or her grandson: the thinking has to be that the royal wedding will be bread and circuses popular; a unifying event. But will it be? There’s some polling on this. Only one in four thinks that the government should spend any extra money on the royal wedding. Plenty of people think that the monarchy should modernise. The most interesting figure in the Independent’s recent piece on the popularity of the monarchy is that around about two thirds of the D and E socioeconomic groups now say that the monarchy should modernise. I don’t see much bread and circuses potential there, given that ‘modernising’ is code for shrinking the spectacle. And one illusion about the royal family – that it can command at least a minimum of deference wherever it goes – has been shattered. Those who want to maintain the illusion will probably make an effort to show that the paint can throwers were asocial hoodlums, and altogether unrepresentative. I’m not sure it’ll work.

14 thoughts on “Deference check

  1. “…would inevitably be drawn into party politics”

    But what if the social conflict is along lines of wealth – which is now the great class differentiator? In that case, the “Royals” are at the center of it, not on the edge.

  2. “Those who want to maintain the illusion will probably make an effort to show that the paint can throwers were asocial hoodlums, and altogether unrepresentative.”

    Another example of Charlie’s twisted logic. What are we supposed to conclude? That in a democracy, throwing paint, beating on vehicles, and assaulting people should be *representative*?

    Representative of what? Of the society we want to be? Of our citizens? Of our youth?

    I think we had better hope that these kids are *not* representative, otherwise we are going to have problems that are far worse than debating monarchy versus republic.

  3. Let them spend as much money as they want on the monarchy. The more lavish and grandiose the better, and the more tone-deaf the reactions of the ruling classes, the better. Hopefully it will incubate such seething resentment amongst the masses that the Revolution, when it comes, will be all the more total and spectacular.

  4. Another example of Charlie’s twisted logic. What are we supposed to conclude? That in a democracy, throwing paint, beating on vehicles, and assaulting people should be *representative*?

    What you haven’t spotted, Jon, is that the people we’re talking about were selective. I met that crowd, and they didn’t assault me (the assault is not established, btw), throw paint at me, my vehicle, or at any vehicle except those in the motorcade. They were, on the whole, an unthreatening bunch. Having said that, I wouldn’t call them a ‘representative cross section’: they were younger than the average, for example.

  5. English Bob: If you were to try to assassinate a king, sir, the, how shall I say it, the aura of royalty would cause you to miss. But, a president, I mean, why not shoot a president?

    —–

    Charlie, I think you’re restricting the choice unduly.

    The role of the monarchy is ceremonial and symbolic. If they have any importance, it can be found in us, the onlookers, and the set of attitudes we collectively agree to share. We, as subjects, are the object.

    It follows that we should seriously consider replacing the Windsors with livestock.
    The problem of their political views would get no worse. And it’d be a costsaving measure. If they were to be dragged from their limousines and eaten, they could be straightforwardly replaced.

  6. When people talk of “the Royal Family” who do they mean?

    I remember catching sight of an obituary to a man (a duke, or marquis or some such) who, when he died, had been 101st in line for the throne of England, etc. my understanding of that was he was part of “the Royal Family”. Presumably some civil servant somewhere had this recorded and published. Presumably s/he is paid to keep track of all the Births, Deaths and Marriages of – well who knows how many number of “the Royal Family”??? (And the are probably paid to do this by UK taxpayers).

  7. I don’t mind a monarchy at all. I just wish the royal family was something very special. Martian maybe? Something that would convince me to visit the UK more often. A real tourist attraction! Unfortunately, while sometimes amusing in their behavior, they seem quite ordinary. Very, very ordinary. Kind of like forcibly having to watch a reality show. But it is the Brits that ultimately have to live with them. Oh, and the Spaniards, Benelux and Scandinavians. Sigh. Mendel is not giving me much hope either.

  8. The relevant counterfactual is this: if last Thursday that car had contained a figurehead president, would he or she have been mobbed in the same way?

    No, the relevant counterfactual is: if last Thursday that car had contained the Queen, would she have been mobbed in the same way? And I reckon most people would not find themselves answering yes to that question.

  9. Well, it might be that English Bob wins the bet if it’s the monarch herself: i.e. there is a certain aura about that person. I think there has to be more doubt about that than there was, though.

  10. Royalty in itself is an absurd concept in a contemporary western democratic context. The British royals and their aristocratic hangers on exist in an anachronistic parallel universe.

    Royalty, aristocratic elites, and all they represent should be put in the recycling bin. Hey, just think of the great rec center Buckingham Palace would make!

  11. Well the argument against royalty is that
    a) it is **much** more expensive than a president(the country does not foot the bill for weddings of the president’s kids for example) and
    b)you can change a president who is an idiot, but a king is for (more than) life(barring a Cromwell-like solution ). Because you have no guarantee that the kid of even a great king will not be an idiot.

    That said, it’s still a democracy. People wegh the pros and cons and can vote monarchy down if they so wish.

  12. The problem is the way the issue is always presented as though the only alternative is an executive President on the US model, where the head of state is thoroughly politicised. But there are plenty of parliamentary republics around, many of them in the EU.

    The US constitution is incredibly archaic and unattractive to people who aren’t American. I’d think that something like the German model would be far more appealing to people who are wavering on the issue of the monarchy, but you never hear it discussed.

  13. Well the argument against royalty is that
    a) it is **much** more expensive than a president(the country does not foot the bill for weddings of the president’s kids for example)

    That’s extremely debatable. Do you think the Danish monarchy costs more than the US presidency?

    The US constitution is incredibly archaic and unattractive to people who aren’t American.

    It also has a nasty tendency to give rise to dictatorships pretty well everywhere it’s implemented. (Except the US.) The slide from a powerful president to an all-powerful president seems rather easy to execute.

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