A defence of royalty

My lack of interest in the forthcoming Royal nuptials is about as total as it gets. However, people will keep writing about it, and I don’t always look away from their articles in time…

So Johann Hari has written a fairly boilerplate piece about the monarchy, and why the UK shouldn’t have one. He sensibly and rapidly deals with the fatuous points that monarchists make about tourism and ‘defenders of democracy’.

But there’s also this:

In most countries, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?

Not pride exactly, no: but I prefer the honesty of the UK’s system. In order to be President of the USA, you have to be immensely wealthy, successful and lucky. In order to be immensely wealthy and successful in the USA, you pretty much have to be born to a wealthy and successful family. President Obama is no exception: his parents both had postgraduate degrees, and his maternal grandmother was Vice President of a bank. Obama’s mum did technically live on food stamps while finishing her PhD, but he was living with his banker grandma at the time. His is not a rags-to-riches American Dream story.

The pretence of meritocracy in the US, based on the belief that anyone can become President, breeds a society in which people who end up poor are treated incredibly badly, because they are perceived as having failed. I’d far rather a system that’s honest, under which we accept that someone who’s born in a slum will never have the same chances in life as someone born with a silver spoon, but try and narrow the inequalities in outcome that this creates as much as we possibly can.

Despite the Thatcherites’ and post-Thatcherites’ best efforts, the UK is far better than the US at doing this. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) also tend to be monarchies. The monarch is a permanent symbol that life is unfair, and that if you take credit for your own success – rather than accepting that it’s primarily down to luck and that you owe a duty of care to the less fortunate in society – then you’re an arrogant prick.

17 thoughts on “A defence of royalty

  1. Er, I think you've just argued that because having a monarchy is so obviously unfair – not to mention a bit ridiculous and Ruritanian – it makes everyone near the top of the pile feel a bit guilty about it and thus maximises noblesse oblige (and, by extension I guess, haute bourgeois oblige as well).

    It seems deeply implausible that noblesse oblige is the root cause of the greater equality levels of the Scandinavian monarchies, given that, on your argument, the same casual factor might also have to explain the very high levels of inequality in the UK.

    Republics – or even 'Commonwealths' to use Tony Benn's favourite way of describing the alternative – come in many forms. America is not the only alternative – Ireland and Germany might be more useful sources of lessons for any putative British Republic.

    I can't help thinking that the most emotionally compelling reason for abolishing the monarchy is, as Hari suggests (but using the wrong arguments), that it simply so bloody embarrassing to have one.

  2. Given the differences of outcomes for people (such as brothers who went to the same school) of similar luck, I'd have thought success is a matter of both luck and effort. But it's quite possible to argue that we owe a duty of care to the less fortunate whatever this ratio might be. In other words, the duty of care can easily stand on grounds that have little or nothing to do with your argument.

  3. "I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) also tend to be monarchies."

    Apart from Spain*, there is one heck of an overlap between "Protestant countries" and "North European countries" and "countries with Royal families". Untangling cause, effect, correlation, causation and coincidence is a bit tricky.

    * And Ireland which never had a king – maybe no suitable candidates – and Iceland which was a democracy from Day One.Equality of opportunity is very high in Germany as well, but that's split 50/50 between Protestant North and Catholic South.

    * While I quite like the idea of having a 'royal family' as such, I don't like the present set up because they are just part of the Home-Owner-Ist propaganda exercise, i.e.

    Queen = good
    Queen (and her close relatives) owns lots of land
    Therefore: land owning is good.
    Therefore: it is evil to tax land values.

  4. OK, so first up, this piece is primarily a reaction to Hari's daft argument (which, as with anything which relies on the lie of the American Dream to shore itself up, seriously riles me), not a completely serious advocacy of monarchism.

    And yes, having a US-style president is a terrible idea, which is why most places more recently endowed than the US don't do it, while having an Irish or German style president does indeed seem mostly harmless. And I agree with Mark that you can't really disentangle the various factors that have led to the fact that there is a strong correlation between "is a constitutional monarchy" and "is a liberal and egalitarian place".

    The more serious bit is that I genuinely don't get is the "sheer embarrassment of monarchy" point.

    Sure, we should be embarrassed that low-income individuals in the UK are poorer, sicker, worse-educated and likely to die younger than those in Sweden. And proud that they're wealthier, healthier, better-educated and likely to live longer than those in the US. But should we and the Swedes be embarrassed that our democracies happen to feature a powerless, ceremonial head of state – very much along the same lines as the Irish and German ones, in fact – who isn't chosen through a popularity contest? Buggered if I can see why.

  5. Specifically to Charlie: not sure about the term 'Commonwealths', after all, I'm currently living in a Commonwealth that is a monarchy. Also, I don't think "noblesse oblige" is quite the right term – the attitude I'm thinking of, which the US doesn't have, the UK has somewhat and used to have more, and that Scandinavia has lots, is about *everyone*, including people on the median income or less, not viewing people who've done worse out of life than themselves as moral failures.

  6. 'Commonwealth', as used by Benn, is a useful word because it both manages to refer to the 'fusty, dull and assumed boring' ex-Empire club we've all grown up with and also to the experiences of 1649-1651. But I'm not going to particularly fight for the word: a good part of its' attraction was always in it being perceived as carrying a a more reassuring and less 'foreign' ring to it than the word 'Republic'. But I'm not sure that's true any more, even if it ever was.

    So you're suggesting that monarchies create a social solidarity, not that they are sustained by an implicit noblesse oblige.Even taking account of the Nordic examples, I can't help but think this is a case of correlation, not causation. & even that correlation isn't that good, given that Britain is a very unequal society.

    I suppose it partly depends on how important you think monarchies are. Mainly, I think they 'float above' more fundamental matters of national political sociology which determine the density of social cohesion and the like. They're not unimportant – particularity not in Britain where, absent the Crown, quite a lot of awkward questions might come floating to the surface: the existence of a state Church, the weird status of the House of Lords, the massive power concentrated in no.10, and even, perhaps, the nature and continued existence of the Union as we currently know it.

    But I can't see how, at root, monarchies per se aren't simply an accidental survival of history. I don't think they routinely affect how wee live in any meaningful sense, and certainly not in increasing social solidarity.

  7. Just to be clear, I currently live in the Commonwealth of Australia. Which I think was named thus because they were trying to think of a word for "democratic federal place that isn't a republic but which is properly federal so that the states who've signed up for it aren't admitting they're giving up sovereignty". Although obviously they actually did.

    I agree both that the correlation is probably accidental, and that it's probably more correlation than causation. But at the same time, I genuinely don't think it does any harm to be reminded of the importance of caprice in life, and I'd be interested to know whether you think that a Swede or Dane should be embarrassed about their system of governance in a way that an American or Frenchman shouldn't.

  8. The Swedish republicans seem less embarrassed than the British ones, partly becasue their constitution makes them citizens and, at the level of constitutional principle, all power flows from the people, which is obviously not true in my country.

    You can check their position on their English language page.

  9. The UK's constitution makes us all citizens. It's not codified in a single constitutional document, but it's embodied strongly in law – check your passport. It's only tedious Americans and people who read pre-1980 pro-republic tracts who think we're still 'subjects'.

  10. Should the UK have a single constitutional document that codifies our constitution? Maybe. Would that make a blind bit of difference to the monarchical question? No.

  11. I'm no lawyer, so am quite prepared to accept your assurance that I am a citizen.(though there are people with British passports who aren't 'citizens' of course). I agree a unified constitution would be useful but isn't directly related to the question of the monarchy. Yet the nature of those constitutions can influence

    My point was simply to answer your perhaps rhetorical question about how different countries, or different countries' Republicans anyway, feel about their monarchies. I suspect from a brief glance at the Swedish website they don't feel the same level of active embarrassment as many Brit Republicans, as the Swedes claim,
    "The Swedish constitution was democratized during the last century, and the Instrument of Government from 1974, which is one of Sweden's four fundamental laws and deals with the way in which Sweden is to be governed, is still one of the most modern constitutions in the world. Its first paragraph establishes that all public power in Sweden proceeds from the people and that Swedish democracy is founded on the free formation of opinion and on universal and equal suffrage. This shall be realized through a representative and parliamentary polity and through local self-government. The public power is exercised under the law. There is a solid popular support for the democratic institutions in Sweden.

    Nevertheless, one serious restriction of the Swedish democracy still remains, a historical remainder unacceptable to any modern democratic society – the monarchy."

    In others words, they seem to see their monarchy as being an blemish on an otherwise sound system of democratic governance. & by 'sound' I mean non Ruritanian.

  12. Indeed on passports – the only remaining 'British subjects' are people with British passports who aren't citizens. Although that's solely down to Mrs T's disgraceful and revolting sell-out of the people of Hong Kong. Our law on this front is now reasonably liberal: if you're living in a country that's *still* a British dependency, then you're either a citizen or eligible to be one. Which is as it should be, and also as it should have been before.

    On the Swedish republican front – you're right about how they come across versus UK republicans. While it wouldn't make a blind bit of non-symbolic difference, I'd be pleased if UK were to codify the rights that it's already been established that We The People have into a single document.

  13. Glad you're not making a completely serious argument for the monarchy, just an argument why it doesn't embarrass you all that much… Well, that's good for your blood pressure. Mine, meanwhile, is boiling over as the wedding approaches… (Or is it a partially serious argument for the monarchy? Come on JB, give us a percentage of seriousness to work with…)

    We should be embarrassed precisely because the monarch is a permanent symbol that life is unfair, as you said. It's having a head of state chosen by the hereditary principle which is outright wrong, rather than having a head of state which is largely ceremonial… because we're trying to move away from the hereditary principal towards something more meritocratic – duh.

    As someone wrote in the Guardian today, "It is to easy forget what a strange view of Britain and the British the rest of the world has. This view, reinforced by countless films and costume dramas from The King's Speech to Four Weddings and a Funeral, has its apotheosis in our royal family. While most Britons view the royals as an unproblematic but largely irrelevant part of the fabric of modern day Britain, many outsiders see them as the embodiment of our nation with its rich history, amusing accents and unfathomable class system." http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/

    This for me is the primary reason we have to get rid of these bastards. They are THE symbol of this country, and they are a symbol which represents the worst sides of this country. A totally anachronistic symbol. They do not represent us, at a fundamental level… they represent some twisted parody of the upper classes. And yet they are taken to represent us. Many people think of them first when they think of the UK. That's embarrassing.

    Also RE "if you take credit for your own success – rather than accepting that it’s primarily down to luck and that you owe a duty of care to the less fortunate in society – then you’re an arrogant prick" – well, probably you're an American. You're almost certainly not Japanese, as then you'd assume your failure is due to your lack of skill and your success is entirely down to luck… Whereas the reality is that both play a part. Again, inequality. (REF: the Spirit Level). And bugger all to do with the monarchy, I'm sure. Saudi, the UAE and a whole bunch of gulf states are monarchies, constitutional or otherwise. And they didn't manage to turn out much like Sweden.

  14. As the European system falters I begin to wonder if the lefts latest fad ( after the Soviet Union)is as chimerical after all. The assumption has been that as a country like Sweden is redistributive ( almost as much as Britain …yes its that bad) and yet functioning that redistribution was ok.
    It seems more like to me that economies with a huge head start formed by a ferociously competitive capitalistic system have been able to sustain redistribution better The metaphor would be of a healthy animal sustaining life infested with parasites when a weaker one would die

    As to the meaning of monarchy , its nothing to do with anything you have spoken of

    Btw I saw Laurie Penny described in the Times as the voice of her generation the other day . The Times John ….

  15. JB: I never answered your first point: I genuinely don’t get is the “sheer embarrassment of monarchy” point.

    Three possible answers spring to mind:

    1, Because it is just so uncool to have had an unfinished bourgeois revolution, don'tcha know? (the Perry Anderson/Tom Nairn answer).

    2. Because, after all, they do own quite a lot of the country despite 'not having any real power' (sic), don't they? Who gave them that then? Aren't we a bit pathetic for not sorting that stuff out?(the entry level left-Republican argument)

    3. Because other countries – yes, I'm looking at you, North America – treat the whole thing as a really kitsch soap opera. A sort of 'Dallas' with corgis and more divorces if you like. Which, to be fair, is exactly what it is at the level of PR/pomp and circumstance. (I think of this as the 'cringing with embarrassment at people asking you a 'welcoming' question to put you at ease oncve they've worked out your a Brit' argument)

  16. @Mark Wadsworth
    Ireland which never had a king – maybe no suitable candidates

    Eh? Ireland's been positively overrun with kings throughout its history. Even if you don't count every English and later British monarch between Henry VIII (or possibly Henry II) and George V, there's still about 20 High Kings of Ireland before the Normans got involved, and all the lesser kings of Leinster and Munster and Connaught and so forth.

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