Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Monarchy and the "Left" Blogs

For those of any kind of republican disposition, whether mild or fierce, the last few days in the UK have been depressing. Not only has the Royal Wedding of William and Catherine (or "WC" to their friends) been so widely and comprehensively played and replayed across the air-waves and all attempts at dissent resolutely and comprehensively crushed but there has been a parallel corralling of even normally dissident media to adopt the same view. All the three major apparently "Left" blog sites have published responses to the events that have been broadly pro-monarchy.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy Chris Dillow has argued that monarchy is "great" and his reasons for thinking so are revealing. Tackling the case head-on he lists the qualities that might be thought to count against it - namely, that it is, in his words "irrational, out-of-date and absurd" - as qualities in its favour. The fact that it is these things shows not that monarchy is problematic but, apparently, that it is false to judge institutions by a criteria of rationality. This is hardly an argument, as is perhaps not to be expected by someone who has such a light opinion of rationality, as a suggestion that we look for other supports for institutions than reason alone. As such, it will be addressed in more detail below but, as a first thrust it is hardly successful alone without more detail. The second point made by Dillow is that Scandinavian societies,  Japan and the Netherlands are all generally better at producing more egalitarian outcomes and are all monarchies. This "correlation" hardly shows a causative connection but is instead again purely a suggestion, one whose real force is revealed in Dillow's point that monarchy shows that "luck" is as much a factor in life as "merit" and, in any case, that meritocracy alone has inherent flaws. To point to the potential flaws in meritocracy is one thing however, to use this to support a regime of inherited privilege is surely quite another. Dillow's third and final argument is that replacing the monarchy would lead to a head of state who would be chosen for individual qualities which would, apparently, be a bad thing as it would reinforce our "culture of ego" whereas, it appears, foisting upon us a family who exist in their role for no particular individual reasons but as simply as incarnations of it, is, apparently, better. This argument is bizarre on a number of levels. There is no reason why a president or elected head of state would have to be regarded in the way Dillow suggests. Has this happened for example in the Republic of Ireland, a case quite close to hand? Has it happened in Germany? Or in Italy? All examples of republics. The examples of France and the US are implied in Dillow's argument but not directly referred to but there is no reason at all why an elected head of state has to have anything like the positions in these cases. Further, to argue that it is better to have people fill a key role who have to have no discernible individual qualities is a completely strange argument. Perhaps we could extend this argument and replace all prominent positions with people who weren't chosen by such "modern" methods and have all the key roles filled by inheritance? Why not try feudalism in other words??

If Dillow's arguments were bad enough it is all the more depressing to find the position he articulated also followed in variant ways at the two other most prominent British "left" blogs. Over at Next Left Sunder Katwala, the current head of the Fabian Society, gives a biographical account of moving away from his youthful republican position. Katwala makes the general point that there appears to exist no democratic majority for a republican constitution in Britain. This is true enough if the evidence of polling is anything to go by but hardly gives a case for failing to campaign for such a change. Katwala then moves on to historical ground, claiming that no particular progressive change in Britain was prevented by the monarchy. Since it is, after all, a constitutional monarchy this is hardly surprising though it is does not detract from the point, grasped clearly enough by Dillow, that the institution does symbolize inequality in a direct way. Addressing the point that all the media apparently support monarchy so there is little chance of a republican case being put Katwala suggests this is purely a "commercial" decision which is odd since, by his own counting there are at least a substantial minority of republicans in the country so you'd think some budding media magnate might be interested in attracting their custom. Katwala also suggests that it is not irrational in itself to want to hold on to distinctive traditions, suggesting that he, unlike Dillow, doesn't lionise irrationality for its own sake. This appeal to tradition, like Dillow's appeal to other considerations than reason, deserves consideration at greater length. However, simply to cite it like this is, again, hardly more than to make a suggestive comment, not to make an argument. The core of Katwala's argument turns on an appeal to George Orwell who seemed to think that keeping monarchy wouldn't be such a bad thing. It is, however, true, as Katwala doesn't add, that Orwell was generally very conservative in quite a lot of his attitudes and if we adopted him as an overall guide we might find it necessary to follow examples that we would generally eschew.

Even Left Foot Forward which proudly declares its commitment to "evidence-based" politics has published a statement to the effect that there is no present mandate for a republic (as if that was news). To which it has added the claim that the battles that really matter should be fought, thus just leaving untouched the case that this is a battle that matters.

If all the three most prominent "left" blogs in the UK have published such pro-monarchy lines then it is clearly not a good or easy time to be a republican here. The arguments of Dillow and Katwala that really matter are those that appeal to sentiment and tradition. For here there really is a core argument. The basic point is that the institution of monarchy appeals to a sentimental view of politics in which some shining individuals can be lifted above the fray and still incarnate the essential qualities of the polity. That they do the latter is essential and was shown well in the ceremony, held in the state church and saluted by the Royal Air Force. Further, the basic refrain of the whole day concerned one of how good it is to be British! 

It is true that many people feel an emotional attachment to the Royal Family and that the continued existence of the monarchy depends on this attachment. However, there are equally strong feelings on the other side, some of us, for example, feel nothing but revulsion at the sight of the pompous display of these characters who truly are, as Dillow suggested, without individual qualities. What is there to celebrate about these non-entities who we are asked to admire and who reign over us with all the parade of power and the panoply of privilege? 

The tradition is the answer. Which tradition? The tradition of monarchical exclusivity? An exclusivity of birth that has nothing to support it other than its reference to its continuity. A continuity that is itself rather broken and fake as witness the arrival, rather recently in British history, of the current incumbent family, one of many to have held the role. The appeal to sentiment is at least respectable in the sense that anyone can feel moved by a wedding, a funeral or similar event. However, the ones held by these people are orchestrated displays of state power.

The Royal Family brings together in a unique way all the predominant prevailing tendencies of the society: Heterosexual Privilege (who is allowed to marry in any case?), the predominance of Family over all other personal ties, Religion, the Military, the Police, the Powers that Be, all brought together in a potent cocktail. And yet, somehow, the uncritical minds of the British left, the same people who present to us a campaign in favour of the Alternative Vote as a recipe for the increase of democracy, are unable to voice a protest against this vicious and potent presentation of institutional privilege. At the core of the family is the simple property of institutional inheritance taken to be a great and guiding principle, the very principle against which all who wish to define themselves as "progressive" should take to be the opposite of a desirable political principle. That the British left should have such leaders in this hour is a matter that is a disgrace and a cause for disgust.


Anonymous said...

A very good article indeed.
It is worrying that the political forces that theoretically advocate republicanism and progress align themselves with royalist, anachronistic beliefs.
Royalist beliefs are perhaps deeply rooted in the British society but this should not imply that republican beliefs cannot find fertile ground, since history shows us that no matter how strong a prevailing idea or a regime might be, change is always possible and the French Revolution made this quite tangible...
The way you presented the situation it seems to me that political forces that are self-proclaimed as "left", as progressive in fact deceive public opinion and cause confusion within the ranks of true republican believers. Such cases should be pointed out in order to clarify matters and keep people aware of what's happening. Towards that end your article is very useful.
As for my opinion regarding royalty I wrote an article about the royal wedding in case you might be interested. Thanks. Keep up the good work!

Gary Banham said...

Thanks very much for your comment: really good to receive it! The lock-down in the UK over the last few days has been quite extraordinary and it was depressing indeed to find the official opposition blog sites joining in the 'celebration'. I'll go off and read your piece now!

Anonymous said...

Well I guess something is wrong in the way those official opposition blogs perceive certain ideas. Perhaps their understanding of republican values is quite selective and narrow. Maybe their opposition is limited to a certain number of issues.
Whatever might be the possible explanation, I believe that Britain should at some point put aside the traditions of nobility that permeate its socio-political life. But this will not come on its own though. The people must be actively asking for it otherwise things will stay as they are and the "opposition" will remain a form without substance.

Gary Banham said...

Their opposition remains within some strict bounds. There are, however, others who also agree with the general sentiment I've set out here and it was to embolden them that I wrote this.