Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Monarchist or republican?

The Guardian website has a 'Monarchist or Republican?' filter on their front page for those who don't want to read about the royal birth. Click 'Republican' and everything Windsor-related vanishes, leaving the reader to concentrate on the real Guardian nitty-gritty of flaccid left-wing pieties and posh food (as well as, perhaps, etymologically spurious reasons why we shouldn't use the term 'nitty-gritty')

It's an either-or gimmick, and, ever the contrarian, I'm ambivalent about it. It's certainly a smart way of drumming up publicity - a few US news websites have picked up on it, possibly because anti-monarchism is a curious anomaly according to the American idea of Britain. It also builds on the Guardian's liberal brand, and on this specific topic the paper has a certain amount of deserved credibility - they challenged the law that makes it illegal to advocate the abolition of the monarchy in print (the Treason Felony Act 1848) and established that the law is, in a judge's words, a 'relic of a bygone age' which would not stand up to the Human Rights Act.

But on the other hand, it's blatantly a bit weaselly. There are any number of divisive, column-inch-hogging stories where they could have offered the same service - the Olympics, party conference seasons, elections (here and in the US), death of Thatcher, etc. (It's possible that they did offer the same service in these instances and I haven't been paying attention - in which case everything that follows is irrelevant). There was no 'no Thatcher for me!' button, say, because newspapers are not user-generated content: one of their functions is to reflect and also determine a sense of what is newsworthy, and once that is abdicated to readers newspapers no longer do what newspapers are supposed to do. They take a stand on what they think is important, and we readers respond to that proposition. Thatcher's death was an important happening in the world, and to have allowed readers to screen it out would be to tear up a newspaper into solipsistic rags. I'd prefer a news agenda that never ever involves Ed Balls' unfortunate face, but it would be foolish were Fleet Street actually to indulge this immaturity of mine.

It seems the Guardian acknowledges that the royal birth is important - and while the UK is a constitutional monarchy, regardless of whether or not that is a good thing, it surely is. But they also want to simultaneously backtrack on this - the story is, apparently, trivial enough that readers can still get a good sense of what is going on in the world with it excised. They want it both ways - to weigh the story's objective importance equally with its putative (and incompatible) moral importance. Like I say - weaselly.

Why abandon usual newspaper style - i.e. why not tell the story and then slam the royals in the comments page and the leader? Is the 'Republican?' filter just a wish-fulfilment, picturing the news agenda republicans want but are failing to create? I wonder if the Grauniad has been led to commit such a large, over-the-top misstep by their own anxiety - the anxiety that the republican movement is not merely losing the argument but failing even to make its case heard. And there's no better way to make it clear you've lost an argument than raising your voice.


  1. The 1848 Treason Felony Act was brought in in response to the writings of John Mitchel, who as well as being a very interesting chap, was wrong about pretty much everything, and as such is worth studying to learn just how wrong people can be about the world. Mitchel was intelligent, completely convinced in his views, and completely wrong.

    Treason Felony was essentially created to secure his conviction & transportation - if you do enough digging in the archives, you find out that this was much less of a foregone conclusion than both contemporaries and later generations of Irish nationalists thought, even bearing in mind that the then Lord Lieutenant Lord Clarendon was incredibly highly strung and thought Ireland was on the point of revolution (it wasn't: although John Mitchel & co made much the same mistake). Mitchel, as well as being a nationalist turned republican, was also a passionate defender of slavery, the American South, and an opponent of industrialisation.

    Given the catastrophic failure of the market in 2008, and the head-long rush of our elites - including the vast majority of the media - into free-market fundamentalism, it’s worth bearing in mind John Mitchel, and how perfectly intelligent people can be completely mistaken in their view of the world. To wit, monarchism writ large? Only time will tell.

    Two thoughts: as a republican (small 'r') I think it is important to recognise that as much as I think this undemocratic and pernicious institution should have no place in a modern society, the monarchy is currently more *popular* than at any time in the last half century, bizarre as that may be.

    Why? Two reasons, I think. "Popularity" is something that can be engendered, and it's interesting that this sort of agenda (and the Olympics, etc.) is being pushed by the powers that be during such god-awful economic times, when rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer – that is, while we’re being run by a government no-one voted for composed of millionaires, ruling in the interests of billionaires, who pay proportionally less tax than their cleaners.

    Secondly, the royal baby story is populist nonsense, but people lap it up – it sells newspapers, pure and simple. So as well as vested interests having, er, a vested interest in the whole shebang, it’s also a story that creates its own dynamic – if it sells one day, it will sell the next. We get the press we deserve, etc.

    Finally, you say The Guardian’s “republican/monarchist” button is “weaselly”, but I disagree: it’s admittedly a publicity stunt, but it’s also an arched-eyebrowed comment on media saturation. For those of us who would like to escape the blanket coverage of the royal sprog, it was a bit of a relief. And at least the Graun is consistent in its republicanism, which given the paucity of this viewpoint in the media, is something we should be thankful for.

    Perhaps Private Eye handled the whole thing better (blanket headline: ‘Woman Has Baby’) because the whole point of the royal baby story is that it’s not really a story beyond the fact that it happened – which in the era of 24 hour rolling news leads to reporters reporting on a situation in which essentially nothing happens, a lot. Bit like Waiting For Godot, then (I bet you could get good odds on 'Godot' for the name...)

    1. Thanks for your posting such a considered reply, and especially for the background info on the Treason Felony Act. I was rather ill-informed about it - or, put in a positive light, as well-informed as one can be having read a Wikipedia article.

      I think the Graun are being weaselly because they are vacillating about something on which it is their role to make a judgement call. I take your point, though, that there was probably more humour behind it than I made out. And, to avoid the charge that I am being weaselly myself, I should probably state my own position. I would call myself a half-measure monarchist: I do not think monarchy is the ideal system, and if we were to refound Britain tomorrow I would be a republican. But it is never helpful to reply 'well, I wouldn't start from here.'

      'As a republican (small 'r') I think it is important to recognise that as much as I think this undemocratic and pernicious institution should have no place in a modern society.'

      But Britain is a modern society, and through historical accident it finds itself with a monarchy placed slap bang in the middle. My problem is with your 'should' - when ought we take action to re-engineer and re-shape our polity and society? I suppose I am a pragmatist - the UK, along with other countries, has been lucky enough to enjoy stability in a wider world in which political chaos kills millions; that stability is achieved by a cautious (maybe inertial) attitude towards systemic change, on the basis that societies and polities are such complex organisms than any widespread change is dangerously likely to have unintended and unforeseen consequences. This is not an argument for the validity of any status quo - but that change must occur in response to prior necessity.

      I just don't see that the monarchy is really damaging our society to such an extent that we need to redesign our constitution. True, it is a vestige of a pre-democratic society - but this rather ignores the sophistication of constitutional monarchy as a 300-year-old compromise, and massively exaggerates the institution's archaism. It is true also that, unlike modern European monarchies, the British royal family still controls a vast amount of wealth and land - and this is problematic. And this is to say nothing of the moral symbolism of a hereditary head of state.

    2. Fine. But none of this is remotely as undesirable as the republican alternative, which would disregard the reactive pragmatism that keeps us safe and make the country's political structures a testing zone for pure and advanced ideology. States that privilege the ideological over the experiential and real all too often turn into unpleasant places to live, because they inevitably depreciate - or discard entirely - our actual experience of political and social life, and often our lives, in favour of the higher reality of pure, crystalline principle. If we ditched monarchy when it wasn't posing any immediate problem, we would make that dangerous dissociation of the politically real from the politically abstract.

      And why try and do it now when there's no problem? As soon as Charles comes to the throne there will be genuine constitutional crises week in week out.

      More simply - the other reason for continuing the monarchy lies in the accidental virtues of its evolutionary design. It separates the symbolic power of the figurehead from executive power and ambition. A bunch of bovine, inbred German aristocrats is the *perfect* repository for something as dangerous as atavistic national symbolism.

      Briefly on the popularity of the monarchy. Yes, much attachment to the royals might be vapid, but I shy away from this sort of argument because it presumes some sort of divide (an intellectual one, maybe) between sceptical you and me and the utterly susceptible, needy, gullible plebs. I contest that most people cannot see the differences - historical and political - between Prince Harry and Kim Kardashian. There are similarities (and both will almost certainly end up having done sex tapes) but people are smart enough to see the important differences.

    3. *I contest the argument that most people cannot see the differences - historical and political - between Prince Harry and Kim Kardashian.

  2. I see what you're driving at re. "some sort of divide" - I'm not trying to imply some sort of innate intellectual superiority over monarchists, be they ardent or otherwise , just grappling with the age-old question of why people act in ways that are genuinely not in their interests. Marx & Engels solved it with the concept "false consciousness." Now you can either see this as an act of intellectual prestidigitation, or a serious attempt to grapple with why “we” think what we think, which is essentially to do with how hegemonic ideologies are produced and reproduced in society over time. Let’s not kid ourselves here – a majority of people support a system that acts directly in the interests of the minority.

    In Britain the monarchy – and invented tradition more generally – plays a central role in this. Which means two things - one: the country’s political structures are already a testing zone for pure and advanced ideology, albeit an ideology which is about protecting the vested interests of the few at the expense of the interests of the many; and two, much of how this system reproduces itself (via education, media, etc.) is to do with a self-image that defines radical change as somehow ‘un-British’ – a discourse that has been going on since the French Revolution. Now while Britain may not have had a revolution (since the last one) that’s not to say society hasn’t undergone revolutionary changes, such as the abolition of slavery, votes for women, etc. – none of which would have happened if people hadn’t fought for it, and all of which were resisted by the elites of their day.

    A Burkean approach to the “reactive pragmatism that keeps us safe” is one thing, and I think we can all agree that 1789 ended up as a bloody mess. But that belies the fact that social change does happen, and society can change for both the worse and better. As for the “accidental virtues” of the monarchy’s “evolutionary design” – couldn’t it ‘evolve’ into an elected Head of State and serve exactly the same constitutional purpose?

    “Unlike modern European monarchies, the British royal family still controls a vast amount of wealth and land - and this is problematic. And this is to say nothing of the moral symbolism of a hereditary head of state.” – "Problematic" is a bit of underestimate, no? Not to mention we have bishops in the House of Lords. I, for one, am not thrilled to live in the only democratic country in the world to give religious representatives seats in the legislature as of right, any more than I am to live in a country where the sole qualification to be head of state is the royal genes. Because what we're talking about here is democracy - remember, something resisted by elites over the course of the last three hundred or so years at every turn.

    1. But if, as you suggest, the monarchy could "'evolve' into an elected Head of State and serve exactly the same constitutional purpose" doesn't this entail that the monarchy doesn't play the central role in the UK's hegemonic ideology that you claim? i.e. if monarchy could wither away without us really noticing much difference, then it might be the case that it is not the power-wielding ideological bogeyman you make of it. It's sort of a reverse straw man - exaggerating the size of your opponent to make it a worthier target.

      I think most people see quite clearly the fossilized, anomalous nature of royal authority, such as it is. Whereas the power wielded by the Prime Minister or a government minister recognizably replicates the power relation we have to doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers (in terms of function and social status), the authority of the royal family is and should be ineffectual, sterile, symbolic, and remote. It is not really part of a working social structure - symbols are only as powerful as we let them be, and we are not inevitably condemned to an unequal and unfair society because of the symbolic power of that family.

      The abolition of slavery and votes for women came about because they harmed people and better alternatives were possible - not enslaving people, and giving women the vote. It is not clear that a monarchy harms anyone, nor that a republic would be better. I can't stand Richard Branson personally.

      "But to what purpose
      Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
      I do not know."

      Nor is it clear that abolishing monarchy will necessary make us more egalitarian (the USA's wealth-gap is hardly enviable) or that keeping it will make us less so - do you feel the same grievance towards Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden? Hardly notorious bastards any of them.

      I agree that I strayed close to saying that the status quo is natural, unideological, etc., and the republican alternative is an alien imposition - clearly this is ropey. I think it is true to say that republicanism is based on a priori principles, and these might not be suited to shaping a country. But mainly, I would not want to participate in a political system in which I am merely a constituent in someone else's premeditated, executed ideological design. It would make me less than free. Societies and the people that constitute them are not infinitely malleable to our intellectual ambitions. Didn't we learn that, with much woe, from the twentieth century?

  3. Very much agree with those sentiments, WAWW. To get back to the original point, the dishonest thing about The Guardian's filter is that it relies on everybody's knowing about the royal baby already. Which of course they do.