History

The monarchy: pythonesque absurdity or something more sinister?

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What is it about the English character that idealises the remnants of a medieval system which symbolises supine submission to aristocratic authority? The monarchy may appear as a quaint link to our past, an institution which binds the living to the dead in an eternal Burkean contract. But it manipulates and distorts our national psyche.

It is an institution which inculcates dull obedience and sickly hysteria. It mythologises our history. It drives the dangerous myth that national identity can be realised in subservience to a largely dysfunctional family. 

Too often, the debate over the monarchy, periodically emergent as a talking point in the media – this time owing to revelations over historic lobbying by the Crown – concerns its immediate political influence.

But the power of the monarchy rests primarily in its symbolism. As a symbol, therefore, what does it say about our nation that as subjects, we are compelled to fawn over the faded remnants of an era of eulogised greatness that never really existed? 

We must not deny that there is a certain power in the ‘sacral’ vows of the investiture or a particular ‘magic’ that Edmund Burke described – incidentally, magic which disappears as soon as you pull back the curtain.

His romanticisation of the monarchy ironically conceded a particular point: that you’d have to be ignorant or mad to believe that there is anything other than a flawed person and a maladjusted family beneath the gilded crown. 

I’d go further than this. Pull back the curtain, and it isn’t merely that the magic disappears. The institution is revealed as fundamentally opposed to the progressive ideas which have built the modern world.

The monarchy is necessarily opposed to meritocracy. If it is to represent anything, it is unearned and unjustified opulence. Patriotism warped and misused to justify sending the poor to die in wars declared by their feudal masters: ‘the masterclass has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose’, Eugene Debs declared, ‘yours not to reason why, yours to do and die’. 

If the monarchy is capable of binding a citizenry together, whether through the adoration it demands from its subjects – for whom the feudal aristocracy reserved a healthy portion of contempt – it is in convincing ignorant people that at their highest aspiration, their identity lies in dull conformity and the insipid acceptance of a structure rigged against them.

What Benjamin Disraeli and the Young England Movement romanticised as an era where ‘every man knew his place’ rested upon delusion and ideological subterfuge. 

Of course, I am not claiming that the modern monarchy still wields unjustified authority to any significant degree. I would concede that insofar as the authority it does wield is arbitrary, it wields virtually none in a structural context – though following the recent revelation that Elizabeth II successfully lobbied the Heath government to amend a wealth transparency act, we may call this into question.

I would further accept that the monarchy at its best represents a bulwark against the rapid cultural change which financialised capitalism has accelerated: it may have facilitated a sense of community and togetherness which can act against the psychological ravages of economic alienation and social anomie. 

So what’s the problem? It isn’t so much that when you pull back the mask of togetherness you find a scarred face of arbitrary tyranny and medieval subservience; or even that the monarchy facilitates a togetherness which is itself reductive and delusional.

You don’t have to pull back the curtain – or the mask, or any metaphorical Wizard of Oz style emerald city which collapses into nothing – to realise that the monarchy is outrageously, comically absurd in the claim that it sustains as a necessary part of its existence.  

In one instance, the vow taken at the investiture, the sacral moment, derives the ‘sublime ceremonial’ ‘from Zadok the priest, who anointed Solomon as King of the Jews, and the ceremony follows the old Saxon ritual, and that the moment is to be accompanied by the singing of Handel’.

Monty Python’s constitutional peasant sketch accurately describes the contradictory mess of pseudo-romantic aspiration: ‘strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government’. 

Burke idealised the organic accumulated wisdom in institutions, but the Crown certainly hasn’t passed any of that down the generations; only self-delusion, pretence and a collective hysteria which blinds us to the hierarchies and arbitrary authority it implicitly idealises as the basis of our identity.

Once again, Thomas Paine pips Burke to the mark: ‘it is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accomodated’. We have clung to the last vestige of imperial grandeur to paper over the contradictions in our identity, and we will come to realise that our handhold is rotted through.

Cover image: Carfax2 via Wikimedia Commons. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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