The British Royal State is in terminal decline but still holds all of us back
Sunday National, December 13th 2020
The Royal Family have been in the news of late with Kate and William’s three-day, whistle-stop ‘Royal Train Tour’ making just nine stops in Scotland, Wales and England. This marks an end to a very uneasy year for the Royals, defined by personal difficulty, crisis and continued scandal.
In terms of supporting their subjects, the Royals have effectively been invisible this past pandemic year. There was the Queen’s TV address in early April; she commented in May on the 75th anniversary of VE Day; and appeared at a ceremony before Remembrance Day masked-up for the first time in public. The Queen is 94 years old and her appearances are limited because of her age as well as risk of infection, so allowances can be made, while 99 year-old Prince Philip has retired from public engagements.
What about the rest? Charles caught COVID-19 causing him and Camilla to self-isolate. His age puts him in a high-risk group, which leaves royal responsibilities falling on the relatively young shoulders (at the age of 38) of Kate and William (the latter who also caught COVID-19).
All of this comes after a previous trail of embarrassing stories. Prince Andrew, the Queen’s favourite, of interest through his friendship with sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein destroyed his reputation in an interview with Emily Maitlis on BBC Newsnight. Added to that was Harry and Meghan’s gathering unhappiness in the House of Windsor, the fallout of the princes – leading to Harry and Meghan’s break for what they called ‘freedom’, first to Canada, then California and hooking up with Netflix.
Andy Beckett in The Guardian said of the first eight months of the pandemic, ‘the Royal Family has retreated from view for long stretches’ – which isn’t what they are meant to do during national crises. This has left us with William and Kate’s mini-tour nine months into the pandemic, crossing Scottish and Welsh borders to cool responses from the devolved administrations.
One commentator was happy to celebrate their embracing of ‘duty’. Sarah Vine wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘It’s been a masterclass in how royalty can remain relevant in the modern age, and their popularity has rightly increased because of it’, taking a swipe at Nicola Sturgeon for being ‘grumpy’ and the Welsh Health Minister, Vaughan Gething for being ‘disobliging’.
None of this left ‘The Crown’ (the institution) in a good place, even before the pressures of COVID-19. To add insult to injury, this year has concluded with hullabaloo over ‘The Crown’ (the Netflix series). In past times this would never have been made, and if had either suppressed or seen as close to treason – certainly by hot-headed Tory MPs. Its crime has been to show, with artistic licence, an unflattering but completely convincing portrayal of the Royals, throwing light into the dark corridors of the institution. Its overarching plausibility has been aided by the fact that the main writer, Peter Morgan, meets senior members of the Royal Household before each series to discuss storylines. Maybe after the latest episodes, Series Four, that Royal willingness will end.
What does any of this matter? Are the Royals not just decorations on top of the tree, or even a guilty pleasure to take your mind off the problems of the world? And from a critical perspective, can it be argued that so rotten and venal is Britain’s ruling orders that the Royals – with all their negatives – are not the most offensive or powerful part of the establishment?
The Royal Family matter – and matter to understanding Britain. It is not possible to comprehend how Britain works, how it is wired and how power and privilege manifest themselves without thinking about them. The UK is at its core a Royal State. Stephen Haseler, author of The End of the House of Windsor takes the view that: ‘The Royal State possesses a legislative branch in which heredity is a qualification for office.’
Despite this, received wisdom is that power in Britain sits with Parliament and the sovereignty of Parliament – with the Crown and monarchy being mere decoration: a view articulated by Walter Bagehot’s notion of it being the ‘dignified’ part of what he called ‘the English constitution’.
In reality the Crown sits at the apex of power – political, cultural, and privilege. Few radical voices have got to the heart of this. One exception is Tom Nairn in The Enchanted Glass published in 1988. Another from further back is Karl Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, who wrote in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844: ‘Remove the Crown, the ‘subjective apex’, and the whole artificial structure comes tumbling down … And the less important the monarchic element became in reality, the more important did it become for the English.’
The UK is not a fully-fledged democracy. Political authority – for all the ‘Take Back Control’ rhetoric – is still embedded in the mythology and artifice of ‘The Crown in Parliament’ – a term formulated in the 19th century by the constitutional authority A.V. Dicey. We have ‘Crown powers’, such arcane devices as ‘Henry VIII powers’ to allow the executive to circumvent the will and scrutiny of Parliament, and even ‘The Crown Estate’, which owns vast acres of the UK’s land and coastline.
The Crown is political
The Crown poses that it is apolitical; in its own official words proclaiming: ‘As Head of State The Queen has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters.’ This is myth-making. How could the central institution at the heart of the British state – which embodies the core anti-democratic characteristics of the British state – not be political?
The monarchy’s political role has changed as Britain has changed. The monarch was once head of the British Empire – an entity meant to be characterised by supposed unity, as well as administrative and military prowess. The Empire went to war together for the home country in 1914 with no debate or doubt anywhere – from Canada to Australia and New Zealand. This was no longer the case in 1939 when the Empire was a looser force and South Africa took three days to join the war after the UK. Post-1945 this process accelerated, as decolonisation led the Empire to morph into the Commonwealth.
Thus the Queen found herself as the head of a multi-national alliance of independent states – the Commonwealth – that she took very seriously, seeing it as giving her a role and international profile. The political dimension of this arose in the 1980s as the campaign for sanctions against apartheid South Africa grew in force, opposed by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This came to a head in 1986 when the Commonwealth split 48:1 for sanctions; the one being the UK to the horror of the Queen. The Sunday Times then reported on the dismay of the Palace at Thatcher’s undermining of the Commonwealth; an unprecedented story of political division between Downing Street and the monarch.
Another example is the controversy over the lobbying of government ministers by Prince Charles and his ‘black spider memos’, details of which came out after a Freedom of Information request which resulted in the law changing to prevent subsequent releases. Then there was the revelation this year that he intervened and supported the Governor-General of Australia Sir John Kerr dismissing the Australian Labour Prime Minister in November 1975 – which has aided the cause of an Australian republic further.
And of course there is Scotland and its constitutional position. In the run-up to the 1979 devolution referendum the Queen declared in the Silver Jubilee in 1977: ‘I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – coded comments taken at the time to be anti-devolutionist.
Spring forward to the 2014 independence referendum. The weekend before the vote the Queen said outside Crathie Kirk: ‘I hope people will think very carefully about the future.’ Post-vote, it became known that these comments were the result of David Cameron pressing for her to speak out. Lionel Barber, then editor of the Financial Times, said in his recent diaries after speaking to the Duke of York: ‘They had clearly planned it. It was very artfully done.’ Post-vote, Cameron was caught off guard telling Michael Bloomberg that when he phoned the Queen to confirm the result she ‘purred down the line’ – a revelation which embarrassed both the monarch and Prime Minister.
In a future independent Scotland, if it happens, there is little doubt that the Queen or her successor would adapt to such circumstances but there are bigger democratic questions. Does Scotland want to maintain this relic from a past age and remnant of pre-democracy? If we want to be a republic, what constitutional form does that take? And if we decide for now to retain the monarch as head of state, do we want to revisit, examine and minimise its role in public life, keeping only a ceremonial role?
Monarchy matters. It defines Britain. It contributes to a set of distortive and dishonest stories about who we are. Last week BBC journalist Andrew Marr opened his new TV series New Elizabethans with these words about the Queen: ‘I want to reflect on the age to which she has lent her name: the second Elizabethan age.’
This is cringe-worthy and inaccurate. First, we are not living in a second Elizabethan age of the UK; it is a second age for England and Wales alone. Second, one of the features of this age is that it is no longer defined by the sitting monarch, so with the exception of courtiers and sycophants it is not described in such terms, outwith a Ladybird book of British history.
These are not glib mistakes. They go to the heart of what the UK is. Engels hit the nail on the head; as Stephen Haseler says any account of political authority in England would start: ‘In the beginning there was the Crown’. British constitutional advances are always framed as an act of grace (or noblesse oblige), all ‘dignified’, by royal approval and ‘conceded’, ‘given’ and ‘allowed’ – as if the consent of the people is always conditional. Scotland has a different tradition of authority: one we can draw from and renew should we choose.
Britain is a top-down creation. Dominant stories of the UK are seen through the eyes and perceptions of the Royals and wider establishment. We ‘the people’ are present to give them meaning, purpose and validation: to justify their privilege and place in society. The consequences are that this underlines the fundamentals about power in the UK: not only are we subjects not citizens, but merely passive spectators, even strangers, in our own country.
Tom Nairn summed this up in The Enchanted Glass: ‘There is no power to see ourselves as others see us, and like anyone else the British look into a mirror to try and get a sense of themselves.’ What they see is not an empowered citizen culture, but ‘a gilded image is reflected back, made up of sonorous past achievement, enviable stability, and the painted folklore of their Parliament and Monarchy.’ This is fabrication and deception, which costs us dear.
It does not have to be this way. As the House of Windsor slowly decays and fragments – what chance is there of Britain as an entity overthrowing these fossilised relics which define too much of society, public life and power? What chance is there once Brexit is ‘done’ of the UK finally embracing modernity and democracy, and becoming a modern, outward looking country?
The answer to this question must be negative for the foreseeable future. Britain as an idea has been captured by regressive, reactionary and disaster nationalism. This has significant implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the conversations ongoing on how we mature and define our future – part of which at some point will involve a reappraisal of our relationship with the UK Royal Family, its roles and ultimately whether or not it continues.
What is important is not whether the artifice and form of the monarchy continues, but how we progress from being strangers in our own home to practicing a form of home rule that we want. And one that allows us in Scotland and elsewhere on these islands to make our own collective future and tell our own stories as citizens, not Royal subjects.