Royals

When I look out my window, I see no bunting and no sign of any street party. We’re all republicans round here, then. If I were to take a trip into town, to where the royal wedding procession is going to be, I’d likely find a ratio in the order of 3:1 of foreigners to Brits. Still, it’s a morning for reflection. Over at Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris argues (and surely only for the sake of argument) that the monarchy is a good thing. Let me reflect on that for a moment. No, the monarchy isn’t a good thing. Here are my reasons.

1. The monarchy is not politically neutral. Even if the monarchy isn’t explicitly of the political right, whether in custom or belief, royal arrangements and traditions are such that they can be taken advantage of by the ruling party. Best advantage from them is had by a right wing ruling party. Neutral royals with a minimum of clout would have made sure that former Labour prime ministers remained on the wedding guest list, and were visible on the day. Neutral royals would have insisted that the wedding cause only a minimum of disruption to national life. Instead, the wedding is happening on a Friday and the government has declared it a holiday. It certainly looks as though the British Conservatives have an interest in our stopping work to watch what’s going on with the royals; if the monarchy were politically neutral, the ruling party wouldn’t bother much with them. As it is, we find David Cameron saying things like this.

2. The monarchy is illiberal. The royal wedding explicitly promotes the norm of marriage: that’s obvious. But the monarchy as a whole also promotes the norms of heterosexuality, male primogeniture, patriarchy, religious worship, military service, and – last but not least – fixed, titled status distinctions. All of these norms are bound up together in a picture of an ‘ideal life’, as lived by one family. This goes against the liberal idea that we each have a right to choose which values to take up, and which to drop. Titles and status aside (any head of state will have a title and high status) we can ask whether the royal family could at least display a pluralism of values. Could there be a openly gay Prince of Wales and an avowedly atheist Queen Mother? I think the answer is no, and not because that’s what the Windsors are like: I don’t think any family, royal or not, is capable of a pluralism of values to the degree that’d be needed. Compared to the society within which each is embedded, all families are small, insular and parochial. As a consequence, it’s doubtful that a liberal society can tolerate the very notion of an exemplar family. Yet this is what the British monarchy is usually taken to be.

3. The monarchy does something terrible to the Metropolitan Police, who seem to think today is all about the nation coming together to celebrate. In fact, they’ve announced their intention to firmly sit on anyone who looks as though they’re doing something other than celebrating. This, of course, is not how they should be carrying on: a liberal polity would make this clear to them.

4. The monarchy encourages us to accept class divisions. This goes along with the illiberalism, but there’s also clearly something up with the whole spectacle of the monarchy. It’s not just that the royals are rich and upper class, it’s that we seem content to gaze on their wealth and high status. Ordinarily, you might think to ask: why don’t the houses in my street look more like Buckingham Palace? Why aren’t my circumstances better? And is there something I can do about it? If you’re having a royal wedding street party today, you’re probably not thinking any of that: you’re bound up in the spectacle. And that might be the idea. Chalk one up for the thesis of false consciousness.

5. The monarchy discourages human flourishing. Prince William and Kate Middleton are young, active and attractive. In the royal wedding, we see two people in their prime making plans to spend their lives together. Setting the issue of chauvinism of physical appearances aside for a moment, why shouldn’t we celebrate what we see? Well, one national newspaper said that if Kate Middleton hadn’t gotten engaged to whom she did, she would have spent her life in “peaceful anonymity”. But why should that be so? Why couldn’t Kate Middleton have an accomplished life in her own right, and a famous life at that? The monarchy promotes the idea that some people are to receive certain rewards while the rest of us get to watch. This goes beyond simple allocative unfairness. William and Kate’s material blessings are conditional on their acceptance of extraordinarily rigid career constraints. These two people simply won’t get to do the things of which they’re capable, yet they’re to be considered high achievers nonetheless. Their failure is to count as success. This can’t be considered an encouragement of human potential. Specifically, William will be doing token military service for a few more years: after that, he’ll be attending state and establishment social events. He’ll occasionally attend the openings of public works, which could be seen as a limited positive. Kate will be having kids: in fact, she’ll be spending her life in “peaceful celebrity”.

6. The monarchy is excessive. No country with a presidency would close the streets and line them with soldiers for the marriage of the grandson of the serving president. It could all be done with very much less.

7. The monarchy does something terrible to the British media. Have you seen?

Update: I didn’t intend to single out heterosexuality as the norm promoted by the royal family; something has to go first in the sentence order, after all. But it seems to have gotten the attention over here.

Update 2: Here’s a video of Charlie Veitch getting arrested in Cambridge the day before the royal wedding. He was released 23 hours and 45 minutes later, without charge. It turns out that the Metropolitan Police co-ordinated its efforts with other police forces to make a series of pre-emptive arrests (around a hundred?). They detained others on the day of the wedding itself. Altogether, the arrests seem to have been a tactical move aimed at keeping would-be protestors in custody during the wedding, with police powers to detain people without prosecution as the means. However, if no law is being upheld and no crime is being prevented, the effect is simply to stifle expression of public dissent. This is wholly inconsistent with the democratic right to freedom of expression. Since the arrests were regionally co-ordinated, it’s reasonable to assume that the tactic was decided on by police at a high level. It’s also reasonable to assume that they were acting with the connivance of the British government. If that’s so, then the British government has in fact adopted a policy of suppressing dissent. It seems confined to street protest so far. I’m not sure they’d dare push it much further, but we’ll see. Who knew that they cared so much about royal weddings?

Update 3: And here’s another video, this time of the Metropolitan Police doing their thing in support of freedom of speech, in Soho Square, on the day of the wedding. Soho Square is quite some way from the Mall, incidentally. But six guys with a guitar and a megaphone: a threat to the regime? Really?

12 thoughts on “Royals

  1. Pingback: A reason to be against the royal wedding

  2. This goes against the liberal idea that we each have a right to choose which values to take up, and which to drop.

    But not all values are equally beneficial to the common good. It is simple honesty for the state to acknowledge this and promote the values more beneficial to the common good.
    The state has an obligation to let you do as you please within the bounds of law, not to make you feel good about it.

  3. I hadn’t taken you for a Marxist, Oliver, but it’s good to see that you’re well on the way with your fine commitment to political perfectionism.

  4. “6. The monarchy is excessive. No country with a presidency would close the streets and line them with soldiers for the marriage of the grandson of the serving president. It could all be done with very much less.”

    Hm. Just wait that Sarkozy needs to distract the press.

  5. I also wouldn’t use the existence of a Queen as ruling Monarch as evidence of a patriarchy either….we don’t have Salic Law, recall?

  6. So that would explain how when Prince Andrew was born, he became second in line to the throne, ahead of his sister, Anne, born ten years earlier? Looks like a clear preference for a male succession to me. To be fair, there are noises about changing this.

  7. You have to be careful with that word “patriarchy” since it’s basically inadequate. While our society has certain male rights, strongly linked to excess male responsibilities (e.g. males are obligated to fight and die for the nation, females aren’t) you have to remember that we are a female-dominated society in socio-political terms.

    In terms of monarchy, it’s why virtually all our most significant monarchs have been Queens, and invariably characteristic in the national mythology of a “golden age”.

  8. I’d be careful about the heterosexuality bit. I have heard rumours – from sources that were easily enough to provoke a raised eyebrow – that some royals are not so committed as all that.

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  10. Why not mention the underlying absolutism of a democratically illigitimate ceremonial head of state? Is there any reason for putting the Queen up there in front of the parliament other than to wag a finger at the rabble-rousers and say don’t you dare or she’ll get sanctimonious and call out her dragoons!

    And claims that the Windsors are intrinsic to British culture are absurd. Was Kaiser Wilhelm II intrinsic to German culture in 1914? The Royals are an economic factor, admittedly. In part because of the paranoia of the over-privileged, the British economy is a mess. Desperate to promote one of the country’s few growth industries – tourism – on Friday the police swept demonstrators from the London streets.

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