This is an article that challenges a taboo in British society. It questions whether it is a good thing to have a monarchy. In a world of Facebook, Uber, Brexit, Trump, Love Island, the Kardashians, the Islamic State, Netflix and Grenfell is keeping the system where we transfer the power and privilege of a head of state solely according to who gave birth to you a good thing?
Our current monarch was crowned in 1952. It was a society where Rock ‘n Roll had barely been invented, and meat and sugar were still rationed. In 1952 not only was homosexuality illegal in the UK but those who were found guilty of breaking this law, like Alan Turing who invented the computer, were chemically castrated by their own government. The UK still held Nigeria and Malaysia as colonies or protectorates, Twitter was something that birds did in the mornings, and my oldest grandparent was 17. This was what the UK was like the last time we transferred the power and privilege of the head of state according to who gave birth to who.
The government had huge amounts of control of its citizens back then, and in many ways it still does. But in 1952 the government held much of its control through deference. This was the idea of knowing your place, deferring to others in higher places and that the government knew best. The monarch, being in the highest of places, was not to be questioned.
In 2017, most feel the government no longer knows best. Deference in many ways is dead. But we do still defer to the monarchy. This could be for several reasons. The monarch does not have to take any political decisions on issues that divide us. The monarch is a direct link to our national traditions and represents continuity with the past and stability in the present.
The quickly changing world I have alluded to can sometimes be dizzying and scary. Artificial Intelligence, Climate Change and a female Doctor Who are complex issues that many people struggle to deal with. So being reminded, by the monarchy, that through an unending bond of duty and family, Britain will overcome anything that is thrown at it is reassuring and energising.
By drawing parallels between 1952 and today, I do not suggest the monarchy cannot function in the 21st century. It can. The monarchy has shown itself to be agile enough to adapt to a changing world. So it would be disingenuous on my part to suggest it isn’t possible to have a modern monarchy where a new king or queen could one day document on Snapchat the moment the Archbishop Canterbury places the Imperial State Crown on the royal scalp.
I’m drawing these parallels to point out that for over 60 years we have had zero experience with the main function of monarchy which is to give the privilege and power of the head of state to someone solely based on who their parents are.
Discussion on the monarchy since 1952 has centred on the very positive personality of our current monarch. We like the Queen so by extension we endorse the system of monarchy which gives people power and privilege solely because of who gave birth to them.
Although we may feel completely at ease with monarchy, we have never actually seen it in action and have no experience of the transfer of power and privilege at a coronation. We’ve not had the chance to see how we feel inside the moment our new head of state is handed a golden sceptre, kisses a bible and swears to uphold Protestantism. How do we feel about that? We can imagine it. But we’ve not seen it.
I mentioned the idea that we have less respect for politicians than before and the alternative to monarchy would mean electing another one. Looking across the pond to the arch republic of the United States we see an elected head of state that embodies the opposite of all the positive attributes of duty, stability and integrity we respect in our current monarch.
In my opinion in 2016 America chose badly. But in 2008 and 2012 I thought they chose well. Look closer to home and in 2011 Ireland elected a poet as president. American and Irish people get to choose to whom they give the power and privilege of the head of the state. Sometimes they choose well, and sometimes they choose poorly. But they get a choice.
One day we might have a monarch who is a horrible person. This monarch might bring out the same disgust many have for the current President of the US. Of course, the British monarch has far less power than the American President, but they still have a lot of privilege, influence, ceremonial power and represent us to the rest of the world. If in the UK we ever face the prospect of a distasteful figure becoming the monarch then we will have no recourse in four years time – they are there for life.
What Does This Say About Us?
In Ireland or America, you can tell your son or daughter that if they work hard enough, they could one day be the President and represent their country to the rest of the world. By having a system of monarchy, we say to our sons and daughters that if you work hard enough, you will never get the top job.
We tell our sons and daughters there will always be people that have higher status than you; not because of how hard they have worked or the content of their character but because they have the right parents. They were born to be royals – not commoners – and there are different rules for them. Monarchy tells our sons and daughters that they must know their place. This message spreads throughout our society like a climbing garden vine that grips an ancient house smothering lesser wildlife.
In 2016 the government’s social mobility commission released its annual report. Amongst its findings was this little fact. In the North East of England, not one child eligible for free school meals went to either Oxford or Cambridge University in 2010. Know your place.
It also reported that a private school student has a 1/20 chance of entering Oxbridge, but a student from a poor background has odds closer to 1/1500. Know your place.
There are many social and economic reasons behind these two facts. However behind every reason is an attitude. And the attitude is that you should know your place.
Thank you for reading to the end. Hopefully, you’ll have noticed that I haven’t criticised any member of the Royal Family. Many of the royals come across very well –including Princess Charlotte who is not old enough to articulate herself. But maybe it’s because she cannot articulate herself that she does come across so well. In fact, this feeling of not being able to articulate the feelings of your heart, probably a frustration for many toddlers, is good practice for being a member of the British Royal Family – forever trapped in the privileged purgatory of their own mind.