It is anachronistic, so we are told, to still have a Monarchy. It’s 2022 for goodness sake. In this, her Platinum Jubilee, is it time to review whether we should remove the monarchy, and have an elected Head of State?
Whatever your thoughts are, clearly the Head of State is a fundamental expression of who we are as a country. I’m not going to threaten anyone with President Blair, although that would have been a distinct possibility 15 years ago. But who would the alternatives be now? John Major? Sadiq Khan? Boris Johnson? Gordon Brown? Nick Clegg? Theresa May?
Everyone would have their choice – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dems are likely to choose one of their own. They would be a Conservative or Labour President, just like the United States has a Democrat or Republican President. Where did crowds gather on VE Day? Buckingham Palace. They weren’t invited, they just gathered. Would they all do so with a politically partisan Head of State? Would people cheer to see President Blair waving from the balcony? No, like it or not, a politically partisan Head of State would be cease to be a unifying focal point of national celebration or remembrance. Maybe we don’t need one?
Perhaps the Head of State should be someone who represents the best of the UK today, someone who hasn’t officially declared themselves to a particular political persuasion?
Perhaps a prominent figure head from the Sporting or Entertainment world? One of the Garys…Lineker, Neville, Barlow. The most popular current Briton, I’m informed, is Sir David Attenborough. Rowan Atkinson is not far behind. David Tennant? Idris Elba? Should it be a businessman? Lord Sugar? Sir Richard Branson? What about JK Rowling?
I’m not sure if any of these individuals could have done a more remarkable job as Queen Elizabeth II has done. The Queen has indeed been a remarkable figure, but that’s just luck, isn’t it? If Andrew and Charles had been born the other way around, Prince Andrew would be the heir to the throne which may have been…awkward. Can we keep riding our luck? What happens if we end up with a Head of State we don’t like?
Is that all the Monarchists have in any case? There isn’t an obvious alternative, so stick with the status quo? That isn’t a good enough argument – what is the positive case for the Monarchy?
To reflect my own views, I often go back to a passage by Edmund Burke. Even without having read it, the principle forms the bedrock of all conservatives. If you see an old building bulldozed to make room for a new out of town shopping centre and you think, “that’s such a shame”, but why do you say that? If it was useful it would have been kept – it was clearly of no value, or at least not as much value as a new Next and Nando’s with ample parking. The reason you say that follows this description of the country as a partnership:
“As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."
It’s because of how you see the country. For some people the country is a geographical location with a population of people who live there, under a common Government. If you’re a Burkean conservative it is so much more. In addition, it is everyone who has ever lived here, everything they’ve have done, everything they lived and died for, and everyone who has yet to be born and everything they’ll ever do. Our role, our responsibility, is to take everything that has gone before, and pass that legacy on to the future generation. We’re here not just for the betterment of our own lot, but as trustees for the benefit of the next generation. We respect and value our history, remembering it doesn’t belong to us, we are merely custodians. When we decide it's time for a change, we consider what would our ancestors think? Will our descendants regret our choice? They can't vote in any election or referendum, so we must remember our role as trustees. It’s not that things cannot change, but history has value even without utility and that value needs to be part of the analysis of whether we keep the building and the historic vistas, or whether, actually, we really need a TK Maxx. “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot” as the song goes.
It’s impossible to put a value on the Monarchy from that perspective. The Monarchy is older than the country itself. You can’t disentangle our history with the Monarchy. We can’t usually look back through our own ancestry to find our past, but the country can. There isn’t another institution which connects today’s inhabitants of our country with those at its very beginnings. The thread that weaves through every partner in the eternal partnership of our nation is the Monarchy, and only the Monarchy.
It isn’t just a person, it is an institution. Whoever it is, they are just the current keeper of the office, and relatively unimportant. Even the Queen. Her importance is just the continuity she provides. An unrivalled stability where our Head of State can trace her direct ancestry to King Alfred the Great and the House of Wessex a Royal Household, in what became England, which started here 1500 years ago. Not just England, of course. The Queen is a descendent of Kenneth MacAlpin and the beginning of Scotland, and also through William the Conqueror back to Charlemagne. Quite a pedigree.
Republicans say we’ll still have the Palaces, and we can open more of them up to the public without the Monarchy. Think of the gift shops. It may be that we can increase the sale of fridge magnets to Americans and we’ll all be better off. The Palaces aren’t the real value – it’s the institution. Some of our greatest castles are just ruins. The legacy of Alfred the Great doesn’t live on through a building with a gift shop, but through a direct descendent who still sits on the throne today.
Ultimately you might think, “so what?” Well, yes. People have different values. History is in books – we’ll always have books, they’ll say. Of course you will. You may think the value of visiting Stonehenge isn’t important – you can just Google it if you want to see it, right?
“They bring in tourism” isn’t really an argument for the Monarchy, it’s the argument a Monarchist uses when trying to counter a Republican argument that the Monarchy costs money. I don’t care whether they bring in tourism – if you need them to be self-funding give them the income from the Crown Estate and have them pay tax on it. People have estimated the Monarchy creates an economic uplift of £1.8billion, but whether it does or not is debatable and, actually, immaterial. Monarchism is not an argument that relies on economic rationality. Balmoral would, quite possibly, make more money as a Golf retreat and Spa. Windsor Castle is well placed for a theme park, people can make a weekend of it with a Legoland combo. Yes, these are all rationale arguments. Great Britain, living just for today. The logical route of society where rationality is King is a dark, soulless future, where everything is calculated to just make sense, and cities and countries converge, designed by algorithms, and the words “because we just like it like that” have no meaning at all.
Great Britain, our United Kingdom, isn’t based on rationality. “You wouldn’t start from here” as the old Irish joke goes. You would never build the United Kingdom from a blank piece of paper – it makes no sense. The roads are too narrow and winding. The city centres are confusing, and scarcely built in parallel blocks. We have weird measurements, which we seem to like. And we give the role of Head of State to someone depending on who their mum and dad was.
The Monarchy has been with us every step in building what we have today. It’s a country quite literally like no other, and we don’t need to try to be like any other. “Other countries do it this way”. That’s OK. “No country in the World would do that”. That’s still OK.
It might not be rationale, but it’s wonderful. It’s romantic. It’s eccentric. It’s special. It’s the weirdest, greatest place on Earth, where fairy-tales of Kings and castles are real and not just films or theme parks, and we absolutely love it.
In her Jubilee year, and every year, God Save the Queen!