Thursday, 7 June 2012

Monarchy - who needs it?

I pause in the account of the strange goings-on at the Odanglesex County Council Outdoor Activity Centre for a nude flash. Sorry, no, a post on monarchy, brought about by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II in the U.K..

My problem is that U.K. and non-U.K. visitors to this site will see this very differently. My guess is that the jubilee would have merited a brief mention on Indian or U.S. T.V. news (former colonies, after all) with a chance to watch more on some minority channel, and not that for the French, the Germans, the Japanese or the Mexicans. Here in the U.K. it was wall to wall.

The pageantry is impressive, a magnificent huge dance; the colours blaze out. The crowds seemed to be enjoying themselves even in cold, damp weather that our ancestors would have taken to indicate God's displeasure. What I caught of the commentary was embarrassing if one's mental facilities, particularly the critical and analytical ones, were turned on.

The point was fairly made that the Jubilee, representing 60 years on the throne, was a rare event - only one female monarch before had lasted that long, though that fact sounded a bit like one of those peculiar statistics dredged up by the backup to commentators during quiet passages in a cricket test or a golf competition ("Now what about this? Stroganoff has never before scored three or more under par in a round in a competitive match in Scotland when it was raining!") But it was also said several times to be an historic occasion. Now as a History graduate with a continuing interest in the subject I know a bit about historic occasions and events. They're ones people in the future judge to be very important, so they're still being discussed and taught about hundreds of years later. Things are important because they affect the lives of a lot of people. For example, the invention of the printing press was an historic event. So was the climactic last day of the struggle for air superiority over southern England in 1940 known as the Battle of Britain. So was the unification of the Chinese kingdoms and Luther's nailing his 95 theses to the church wall. I'd suggest the Diamond Jubilee is not an historic event because it will change nothing of consequence; neither will the precise length of Queen Elizabeth II's reign affect many lives much outside the royal family.

It was claimed that the queen was Britain, which would be dangerous if it were to be taken seriously, and that we Britons were unified in her - but how? For what purpose? Creating what action? The great majority of Britons were unified in 1939-45 by a difficult and dangerous task and an external threat, though not a few were outside that unity (Fascist sympathisers, criminals exploiting the absence of the younger, fitter policemen and the wish to find a way round rationing, suffering people who considered any peace better than the bombing, idealistic pacifists) but that unity was against something and for something and there were practical and urgent reasons to co-operate. The unity of celebrations like the one just gone seems to me to be no more than a warm feeling, though to give her credit, Elizabeth II has always made an effort to encourage us to be inclusive, tolerant and to some extent internationalist.

She's done a pretty good job, an alienating and troublesome job despite the perks, but I want to think about the monarchy in general, not one monarch. What are the arguments for it? These perhaps:

*The royal family has a lot of experience in the job
*It's healthy to separate the quasi-religious function of emblem of the nation from practical political power because ruthless political leaders as Presidents can exploit the feeling that they represent some kind of mystic national identity to overcome opposition
*In the British system, even in a republican version, the President would not have anything like the power of the Prime Minister and would probably be a rather colourless figure, perhaps a semi-retired politician not quite successful enough to make prime minister
*It represents a lot of history
*People like to look up to a royal, even a minor royal opening some event that would run very well without them.

And the arguments against? Perhaps these:
*It's far more expensive than an Irish, German or Indian-style presidency
*Being a member of the royal family for life does some strange things to people and it may be better to have a president who was a normal person living a fairly normal life for most of his or her life
*Our monarchs have become understandably so cautious about the slightest intervention in actual politics that the role of the head of state as a kind of umpire, helping to facilitate some order after a chaotic election result or government breakdown, challenging an overweening prime minister so that at least Parliament gives proper consideration to his or her proposals in the light of full information (as didn't happen over the Iraq war) and making occasional verbal interventions when the constitution or basic values of the country seem to be at risk, has been lost. Irish and German presidents, for example, can fulfil this function because they are elected, and it's healthy for democracy.
*Through no fault of the monarch, the monarchy stands at the apex of a system of honours, distinctions, gradations and instinctive inequality (though the Scandinavian monarchies seem to have cut this link).

There is much more that could be said. Any views?

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