Charlie boy apparently wants to destroy the monarchy

The Times hints at the gory details:

The Prince of Wales, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Friday, has told confidants he would like his role to “evolve” so that his knowledge and experience are not wasted once he inherits the crown, Jonathan Dimbleby, his friend and biographer, reveals today.

Translation: he wants to have his cake and eat it.

Look, it’s not that fucking complicated. Take all the enormous and unearned benefits of being born into the Royal Family and keep your mouth shut, or abdicate and campaign on your pet issues as a private citizen.

His charity work is generally unexceptionable, and he sells excellent biscuits, beer and sausages and gives the profit to his charity, so those things help me try to feel positive about him; but when he sticks his nose into politics it drives me completely nuts. If the official duties, the charity work, running the Duchy of Cornwall, the painting, the gardening and the polo aren’t enough to keep him busy, he’ll just have to take up knitting.

Democracy: it’s really not that difficult to understand.


More medievalish London

In my last Thames Path post, I commented that London’s medieval history is rarely visible except in the shape of a few street names. Which reminded me of something. When the Queen Mother (gbh) died in 2002, her coffin was laid in state in Westminster Hall for people to go and pay their respects. I was going to meet some friends for lunch, and when I arrived at London Bridge, I was startled to find myself at the end of the queue, which started in Westminster, went over the river, and ran all the way along the south bank. There was something about that moment that struck me as weirdly medieval; not just the fact that thousands of people were queuing to view the coffin of a dead royal, but the idea of a queue stretching from Westminster Abbey to Southwark Cathedral.

I know some people who think that the ceremony surrounding the Royal Family — the gold and ermine and glittery carriages — is the best reason for having them. And I can see the argument; it adds a bit of colour and texture to British life which is broadly harmless.

But it makes me twitchy. As long as the royals confine their activities to opening museums, launching ships, inspecting troops and so on, they don’t bother me at all. But all that pomp brings out the Oliver Cromwell in me. The symbolism of it all, of crowns and sceptres and thrones, of aristocrats in red robes and bishops in big hats is, well, medieval. In a bad way. And I know that very few people would admit to taking that symbolism seriously — it’s just a historical relic, right? — but it must surely have a powerful subconscious impact.

Though having said that, the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish and Irish regiments playing appropriately dirge-like music at the Queen Mother’s funeral were just fabulous.

» The photo is of the waxwork in Madame Tussauds. ‘The Queen Mother (Gawd bless’er)’ was posted to Flickr by xrrr and is used under a CC by-cc-sa licence.

Culture Other

Elizabeth by David Starkey

I’ve just been reading Elizabeth by David Starkey, a book about the early life of Elizabeth I. It covers the very start of her reign, but most of it is about her relationships with Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary Tudor.


It raises the question: when little girls want to be princesses, what kind of princess are they thinking of? The modern princess, who gets to live under relentless, unforgiving media scrutiny and has no possibility of publicly expressing any opinions? Or the medieval type, with a bunch of scheming old men arranging her a dynastic marriage to a corrupt, inbred foreign prince – if she’s not imprisoned or disposed of by the monarch as a potential threat to the succession.

The book was also a fine example of how toxic the mixture of politics and religion is. That period of English history would have been messy anyway, because of the lack of a clear line of succession, but the switching back and forth between Catholic and Protestant certainly didn’t make it any easier for anyone.

It’s a good book – Starkey knows how to tell a story – and an interesting period of English history. I’m just glad I didn’t live through it.


Pop Princess

I caught a bit of the build-up for the Concert for Diana earlier and it was a weird experience, seeing them try to present Diana’s taste for anodyne mainstream 80s pop music (Elton John, Queen, Duran Duran, Wham, ABBA, Chris de Burgh) as though it was a revealing personality trait.


I’m not knocking her taste (except for Chris de Burgh, obviously); as a child of the 80s I have a soft spot for Duran Duran and Wham myself. But it’s not actually very interesting, is it? I suppose a senior member of the Royal Family listening to Wham on her Walkman around the palace was symbolic of a culture clash of a kind, but that says more about the Royal Family than about Diana. And the fact that she enjoyed meeting pop stars doesn’t exactly represent a deep engagement with music.

I don’t know. It just seems odd to project such significance on to one of the least interesting things you could say about anyone: she listened to Radio 1, you know. I suppose having a charity concert in her memory with music she liked is reasonable enough; it’s the soft-focus halo of what, sanctity? reverence? earnestness? forelock-tugging? that weirds it. But then the whole idea of a ‘people’s princess’ was always kind of creepy and parasitic.


Presidents and small gods

I’m always puzzled by the fact that, in discussions about abolishing the monarchy, so many people assume it would be necessary to replace the monarch with some kind of president.

To me, ‘king’ suggests a small god. A slight odour of divinity attaches to the idea of a monarch which is sets it apart from other kinds of leader. Many cultures have made this explicit: Egyptian pharoahs were believed to be reincarnations of the god Horus, Roman emperors were often declared as gods after their death, and the Japanese imperial family are descended from the goddess Amaterasu.

Christianity makes it theologically awkward to claim that the king or queen actually is a god, but much of the symbolism remains. The royal touch is no longer regarded as a cure for the King’s Evil, and you don’t often hear anyone arguing for the Divine Right of Kings, but the monarch is still anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the coronation*. For that matter, the throne, crown, orb and scepter are hardly subtle.

[Coronation portrait of Elizabeth I]

The government is known as ‘Her Majesty’s Government’, and the Queen is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Head of the Armed Forces and, best of all, Fount of Justice (really, I’m not making this up). So that makes her ultimate source of all power, justice, and temporal and spiritual authority in the country. And of course she’s the Head of State: the very physical embodiment of the United Kingdom. If these are not the characteristics of a god, it’s hard to know what would qualify.

Since, by convention, the Queen does not in fact attempt to govern the church, order the army around or interfere with the decisions of the government or the courts, this is all pretty harmless. What I don’t understand is why anyone feels that, if we got rid of the monarchy, all this symbolism would need to replicated.

For me, that’s what a president to act as Head of State would be: a king substitute. You can see it to some extent in the American convention that while it’s acceptable to criticise the President as an individual, you have to respect the office of President of the United States. Really, what does that even mean? If the presidency is just a (very important) job, what does it mean to ‘respect’ it in some abstract way? Things like the imperial-looking presidential seal which gets plastered all over the place, and the way that ‘President’ is retained as a title for life, suggest that it’s not just a job; that the inauguration is a lot like a coronation.†

People criticising the institution of the monarchy tend to focus on the fact that the monarch is unelected — which is, of course, appallingly undemocratic. But would an elected monarch be any better? Perhaps the problem isn’t that the Queen is unelected, it’s that she’s a queen.

I’m actually not in a hurry to abolish the monarchy, just because of the fuss that would be involved in doing it. In eight years since they got rid of the hereditary peers, Parliament still hasn’t managed to come to an agreement about the composition of the House of Lords. Can you imagine how much discussion it would need for them to decide how to replace the monarch? But if we did decide to ditch the monarchy, I can’t see any need to replace it at all. The Prime Minister can keep running the government, and we can just declare that we don’t have a Head of State. What do we need one for anyway? There’s the occasional state dinner that needs to be hosted, but that hardly requires a monarch; a maitre d’ would be perfectly adequate.

I suppose one worry is that in the absence of a monarch to act as a decoy, there would be some pent-up reservoir of idolatry that would attach itself to the Prime Minister by default and give him ideas above his station. But I’d like to think we could get used to the idea of living as a nation of equals.

*Bonus fact: this, too, represents a kind of divine descent. The Archbishop’s authority descends from the first Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine, who was granted it by the Pope, whose authority ‘descends’ from St Peter and so from Christ. It’s not quite like being a direct descendent of a sun-goddess, but I think the parallel is interesting.

† Just as a comparison, it would be really weird to talk about respecting the office of Prime Minister in the same way. And far from having an inauguration ceremony, the new Prime Minister just moves into 10 Downing street the day after the election. I’m not claiming any kind of British superiority here, btw: we’ve still got a Queen.

Culture Other


I’m currently reading a biography of Bess of Hardwick. I’m not that far through it yet (don’t tell me how it ends!*), but one thing is striking, reading about Tudor England†: how capricious the politics is and how much it’s dependent on patronage and favour. Admittedly, the period I’ve read about so far covers the end of Henry VIII, a cameo by Lady Jane Grey, the reign of Bloody Mary and the dawning of the age of Elizabeth, so with the dynastic politics and the swings between Protestant and Catholic, it is perhaps unusually unstable. But the basic point remains that all power derives from the monarch, who can have people banished, impoverished or executed at will. At the Holbein exhibition, there were little bios of the subjects next to the portraits; it was noticeable how many of them seemed to have ended up under the axe.

It isn’t just that politics and law are unstable because of the whims of the monarch; it also creates an environment where access to the monarch is everything and where the people with access and influence don’t just get a bit of second-hand power: they also potentially get serious serious money. It breeds conspiracies, factions and coups. The stakes are so high and power is so unanswerable. Men, entire families, could be raised up or destroyed in a moment. And there were indeed plots, revolts and conspiracies; armies were raised and marched on London. And it trickles down; the great lord in favour with the monarch had local influence in their own part of the country, and used it to favour lesser lords who in turn favored their own cronies.

It’s rather like the situation in a poor country which has a lot of oil or diamonds but not much else; all possibility of wealth or success gets tied into one thing — how close people can get to the oil. The economy and politics get twisted out of shape, not because the oil company necessarily intends to be exploitative or ruthless but because the gravitational pull of the oil is so disproportionate to any other source of money.

I remember at university, possibly in my finals, there was a question which was something like: ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies are essentially political. Discuss.’ At the time I was annoyed by it because it seemed like a reflection of a certain critical tendency to find politics in everything, and to foreground politics, in its broad sense, at the expense of other kinds of analysis. Now, though, I’m more sympathetic. A play like Julius Caesar, about courtiers conspiring to kill a king, would have had immediate relevance to the original audience. Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear: all revolve around court politics. All operate in the shadow of civil war. Which isn’t to say that they are narrowly ‘political plays’, but the action does take place in a highly political environment.

It makes an interesting problem for anyone staging them. You want a setting which is contemporary enough to be immediate for the audience, but western politics these days just isn’t brutal, unstable or corrupt enough. Some kind of dictatorship seems the obvious choice, but of course that setting brings a load of baggage of its own. Hamlet set in the court of Kim Jong-Il doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

*Really, don’t: I don’t know that much about her and have no idea what’s going to happen next. I haven’t read that Wikipedia article I just linked to for precisely that reason.

and indeed medieval England, but one thing at a time.