Friday, 1 June 2012

Why the Left should love the monarchy, and the Right shouldn't

The rational arguments for the monarchy - the supposed stability it confers, the advantage of having for a head of state a unifying symbol entirely "above" party politics, the historical continuity - are seriously undermined by the sheer tide of sycophantic drivel occasions like this jubilee or last year's royal wedding inevitably unleash. Today we've had Rowan Williams waxing lyrical about how exceptionally lucky we Brits are to have a head of state with "real personality" and the Chief Rabbi assuring the nation on Thought For The Day that "Jews are intensely loyal to the Queen". All of them? How many has he actually consulted?

But then what and who can anti-monarchists muster at a time like this? Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, of course, complaining about how having a royal family "subjugates the national imagination, infantilising us with false imaginings and a bogus heritage of our island story." That's half-right. But as I've argued elsewhere, the exaggerated role that the monarchy plays in modern British consciousness has less to do with self-abasement before heritary privilege than a desire to feel important and special and to differentiate ourselves from the Americans. Almost by default, the monarchy has become the centrepiece of "Brand Britain". It's more about flag-waving and false pride, about singing patriotic songs and telling ourselves and others we still matter as a nation than about forelock-tugging. It's a show of empty pomp put on to impress gullible foreigners and delude ourselves.

How much any of this actually helps the country punch above its weight internationally and how much it merely confirms an anachronistic image of theme park Britain, all beefeaters and fog, is not an easy question to answer. Because it's almost certainly both. But the fawning, infantilising media coverage, the colour supplements and emetic tributes from politicians, all these are secondary. They, like Prince Charles's idiotic pronouncements on alternative medicine, spirituality and the environment, are part of the price that must be paid for the bejewelled confidence trick that we as a nation play on ourselves and attempt to play on the world.

To that extent, most of the left-wing arguments against having a monarchy are beside the point. Yes, it is undemocratic, it's based on hereditary privilege and entrenched class divisions and all the rest of it. But the notion that the monarch is there to keep the peasants in their place is as anachronistic as the institution of monarchy itself. It's also disproved (I'd say) by the persistence of monarchy in the relatively egalitarian societies of Scandanavia, the Netherlands and Japan and by its absence in the notoriously unequal society of the United States. Britain is not unequal because of its monarchy but in spite of it.

In a monarchy, royalty aside, everyone is equal. Everyone, from billionaire banker to cleaining lady, is equally a subject, equally unable to ascend to the highest position in the state. That makes it a radically egalitarian institution. You can of course marry into it. Ironically, being royal, or properly aristocratic, is in this day and age a positive disadvantage for anyone hoping to marry the heir to the throne. Hence Prince William's choice of a first generation posh girl rather than the German relation his grandmother married or the pedigree brood-mare who was foisted on his father.

If it is anything, the institution of monarchy is vaguely socialist. It owes its survival to fostering a sense of social cohesion and to downplaying or undermining divisions. Every honours list offers gongs to school governors and beloved postmistresses along with the semi-obligatory knighthoods and peerages for bankers. Most royal engagements are charitable in nature. It's said that - with the exception of Tony Blair - the Queen's personal relationships with her Labour prime ministers have tended to be warmer than with her Conservative ones. The one time her political views became a matter of debate was during the 1980s, when she was said to be out of sympathy with Thatcherism.

Although they are rich, the royal family do not represent "money", still less capitalism - the monarchy is pre-capitalist in origin and anti-capitalist in tone. In modern Britain, it belongs with the BBC, the NHS and the Church of England in being saturated in politically-correct liberalism and evoking nostalgia for a gentler, less cash-dominated era. Look at how the egregious Speaker Bercow hailed Elizabeth II as the "kalaidoscope queen". And well he might: like other parts of the liberal establishment, the royal family now enthusiastically preaches the gospel of diversity, successfully disguising the fact that it remains entirely white and has no openly gay members. What, if you're Polly Toynbee, is not to like?

But look, here's Sunder Katwala making my case for me:

From the mass enfranchisement of 1918, the monarchy proved an effective midwife to British democracy. It co-operated with the rise of the Labour Party, smoothing its path to being a trusted party of government. This helped to secure the allegiance of every Labour leader to the Crown, so that the monarchy faced no serious challenge at all from the New Jerusalem of Beveridge Britain.

Quite so. So what about a right-wing argument for republicanism? It's not hard to make. The monarchy is after all anti-meritocratic and anti-aspirational. It is expensive and not obviously cost-effective. Like its counterparts the NHS and the BBC, it is a complacent and unreformed part of the public sector, a relic of the postwar era, possessed of undeserved sense of entitlement to unlimited state handouts.

And let's be quite frank: the Queen and members of her family live off the hard-pressed taxpayer no less than the most abject benefit claimant or most pampered and useless quangocrat. They just cost more. Like celebrity culture, monarchy is bad for the work ethic, not because the royals do no work but because the work they do is essentially unproductive. Indeed it is anti-productive, given how much time and effort are wasted (by companies as much as by public authorities) preparing for royal visits that could be spent doing something useful. Next week's jubilee alone is likely to prolong the recession into a third quarter, costing the UK up to £5bn of GDP.

Having a monarchy makes a country backward-looking and complacent. It offers a warm bath of nostalgia at a time when the transformation of the world economy makes such complacency dangerous. It frustrates, or at least impedes, the development of a log-cabin-to-White-House style American dream that produced a far more dynamic (and richer) society across the Atlantic. It promotes wishful thinking. It's surely no coincidence that the royal family are so keen on homeopathy. The monarchy itself is a homeopathic remedy, sustained by belief alone, purest water but presenting itself as bottled history, stability, symbolism or national cohesion. It is a fantasy we can ill afford.