There’s an elderly woman, usually resident in London but also often to be found travelling around the UK and occasionally further afield, who goes by this mouthful of a title:
Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
This lady is constitutional monarch of sixteen countries in total, as well as being Head of the Commonwealth and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
She has also quite a collection of honours and decorations. Some of the more interesting, given international developments in recent decades, are these:
- Grand Collar of the Order of the Liberator General San Martin, awarded by Argentina
- Member with Chain of the Grand Order of the Hashimi, awarded by Iraq
- Member First Class of the Order of the Star of the Socialist Republic of Romania
As for me, I’m with Thomas Paine, who wrote this in 1776:
“. . . the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS . . . how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
. . . To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession . . . no ONE by BIRTH could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever . . . One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.
. . . This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honourable origin; whereas it is more than probable . . . that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang . . .”.
I am a committed republican. I shake my head in wonderment at the absurd deference and grovelling that goes on in the UK and is expected – demanded – from everyone. I do not and will not stand for a Loyal Toast; not because I’m a Jacobite, but rather because I find the notion wholly objectionable.
That said, I’ve never advocated expending much effort on campaigning for abolition of the monarchy. It’s always been clear to me that there has never been any realistic chance of securing popular support for that. Like it or lump it, the great British public is attached to this institution. The question is, however: will the undoubted feeling for the current Queen be inherited by her successors?
In late 1992, in a speech to mark the fortieth anniversary of her accession, Queen Elizabeth called that year her “annus horribilis”. She had been seen shedding a tear publicly over the fire at Windsor Castle, but everyone knew that what she was really referring to was the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Andrew Morton’s sensationalist biography of her daughter-in-law, the release of tape recordings of intimate conversations between Diana and someone not her spouse, the same thing for Charles, the divorce of the Princess Royal and the splashing across the tabloids of photographs of the Queen’s other daughter-in-law in unseemly circumstances.
The public reaction to the antics of the Queen’s children has not been favourable. Divorce and related scandal is hardly uncommon in the modern UK. Still, three out of the four is a particularly high incidence and adultery doesn’t sit well with fitness for being head of the Church of England. There may be popular affection for the current monarch, but there’s precious little evidence of that having transferred to the next generation.
What of the generation after that? Diana’s two sons were made to confront their loss in the most public of arenas. Her funeral took place in Westminster Abbey, being televised across the world. The boys were made to walk in procession behind their mother’s coffin, for all to see and inspect. At the service, Charles Spencer, Diana’s brother, delivered a funeral oration which built up to this barely disguised side-swipe at the upbringing his nephews were being subjected to:
“. . . on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned”.
I’m not in a position to say what kind of people the two princes have actually turned out to be. Certainly, there is no serious scandal I’m aware of. Although Harry has found a place in the tabloids’ pantheon of party animals, he hasn’t yet done anything that he can’t ever live down. (No Chappaquiddick, at least so far.)
Still, you have to wonder at the effect on them of the lives they lead. William and his wife cannot have a sunbathing session in private without some peeping tom with an absurdly long-distance lens taking pictures of her topless and those ending up on magazine covers across Europe. Harry must be on a perpetual knife-edge, especially when he goes out to socialise, lest something happens to catch the attention of the paps. Now that his brother has reproduced, he is forever condemned to a dutiful but pointless role in things. It’s not a normal existence at all and not to be envied in any way.
Many in our celebrity-obsessed culture suffer the same fate, of course. The difference is that, by and large, they have consciously opted for living in the fish bowl and can likewise choose to retire from it. Our hereditary Royal Family cannot do that.
Tom Paine again:
“There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of monarchy . . . The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore . . . prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.”
That shutting off from the world is not just “absurd and useless”; it’s also a form of cruelty. Being forced to live as a member of the Royal Family is a denial of the basic human rights afforded to others.
Earl Spencer did not keep to his promise that Diana’s sons would be able to “sing openly”; the truth is that it was never likely that he was going to be able to manage that. Without any intervention, it may be that their souls are indeed destined to be “simply immersed by duty and tradition”.
As explained above, I’ve previously thought it not worth campaigning for abolition of the monarchy because of the popularity of the current Queen. From another point of view, she and her children are too far gone to be worth rescuing in any case. It does occur to me, however, that the same is not true for all of her younger descendants. In particular, her great-grandchildren are young enough to have a chance of leading normal lives.
I suggest instead that the campaign should be to liberate the younger members of the Royal Family from their current oppressed state. The Queen would continue as monarch, but the position would be retired on her eventual passing away, as fitting tribute to her gloriously unrivalled reign if you choose to see it that way. Her children and grandchildren would be pensioned off, for their own good and care. No inherited rights or obligations would persist beyond that.
Her great-grandchildren would have lives unencumbered by the miserable legacy of their forebears. They would have a real chance to “sing openly”, just as other human beings can do.
My plea is this: freedom for George (and his soon-to-be sibling).
2. This was returned to Romania in protest at Ceaușescu’s human rights violations, albeit not before he was already on the way out. A request was made for Romania to send back the ornate insignia, made with gold and sapphires, of the dictator’s honorary British knighthood (the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath), but this seems to have disappeared without trace in the confusion of the revolution of 1989.