Friday, April 29, 2011

On this wedding thing, and royals

Christopher Hitchens, from 2000:

"This country for some reason does not have a name. Britain doesn't quite cover it (Ulster is part of the UK but not of Great Britain), England clearly doesn't cover it, and terms such as Albion or Britannia are part of the lost world of the Punch cartoon. Instead we have - like the recipient of some outmoded honour - a title: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Other countries have titles which express ideas - "the United States of America" was proudly coined by that great English republican Thomas Paine, and at a time when there were fewer than 20 states - but ours is more a mode of address for a slightly iffy constitutional compromise that is now drawing peacefully towards its close.

And at the apex of this compromise is, fittingly enough, an absurdity. If it were not for the regal fog - the mist of state openings and birthday honours and Christmas broadcasts and fairytale weddings - we could have begun to confront this reality long before it was thrust upon us.

The argument of practicality - of the obvious need to evolve a secular constitution that separates church from state, replaces the hereditary principle and in other ways reflects the modern Euro-American world of human rights and civil society - ought not to be allowed to obscure the argument of principle. At bottom, the republican idea contains a different concept of citizenship itself. Not only does monarchy have a bad effect on our elite, it has a dire effect on our popular and public opinion.

...the monarchic principle constitutes an obstacle to precisely that sense of responsibility about which we hear so much. It can't be good for people to lead vicarious lives, made up partly of prurience and partly of deference, and fixated on the doings of an undistinguished and spoiled family.

In case I should seem snobbish about this, I can speak of the section of the public with which I am best acquainted: the humble drudges who bring out the nation's newspapers. The "royal" theme operates with the intensity of Gresham's law in this sector, encouraging laziness and sentimentality and salacity by making it too easy to fill page upon page with brainless twaddle, and encouraging contempt for the readership that makes itself such an easy target.

There have been times in our history - the stupid adulation of the loath some Edward VIII as "one of us" - when such manipulated populism was positively dangerous. But at no time is this conditioning of mild hysteria and personality cult a wholesome thing.

What one wants to propose, therefore, is not that we abolish monarchy but that we transcend it or, to put it in more old-fashioned terms, that we grow out of it. To remove the Windsors by the stroke of a legislative pen would be highly satisfying in one way, but disappointing in another. The infantilism and cretinism of the press, for example, can't be cured just by a fiat. What should now begin is the process of emancipating ourselves from the mental habits of royalism, and the many supports it provides to unthinking attitudes and dysfunctional practices.

The last-ditchers are right in one way: it would scarcely be progress if we scrapped the Windsors and then prostrated ourselves at the feet of an imperial presidency. But if the argument is rightly conducted then the attitudes required to see us through to a democratic republic - or federation of democratic republics - would be their own insurance. We even begin to think as democratic republicans, and culti vate and reward democratic republican virtues.

Those who really wanted to would not be prevented from idolising Prince William or from gurgling at the Queen Mum. There will be room for royalists and restorationists in a democratic republic, and there will no doubt be tabloids and glossies to gratify them. But the large and growing number of republicans and democrats will not have to witness this spectacle as if we were all a part of it, and it was all a part of us


  1. There was this one time when Nigel Farage didn't clap after Prince Charles' speech, and one prominent Labour Party member was outraged. Outraged! How dare he not clap after a speech by a Royal?

    I find it ironic, that into the late 20th century, and early 21st century, the roles have reversed.

    So-called conservatives have become rebels against the ancien regime and the current established order. Social democratic people have become fossilized dinosaurs of the past, no longer radicals, but apologists for the system, and the ones outraged when somebody doesn't pay proper respects to a royal.


    Anyway, enjoy this short film from the HP Lovecraft Film Festival.

  2. Wait, did Hitchens invoke Gresham's Law?

    Hmmm, the man knew his economics!

  3. There have been some great chirps about this whole wedding thing on Twitter. (I have recently been assimilated.) E.g.:

    "Pomp? Circumstance? Cute kids? Glass carriages? Aww. You had at me 'We're you're divinely ordained overlords for the rest of eternity'."

  4. The "British" tried having a republic once; it ended in a quite bloody manner with Cromwell setting himself up as a quasi-Monarch/dictator.

  5. As my friend Mike Morrissey on facebook writes:

    "I don't know what's more sad: the fascination people have by this royal wedding or the fact that people today still tolerate monarchies, be it absolute or ceremonial."

  6. Article on anti-royalists:

  7. This is very good evidence that whatever position the great drunken bloviator takes is pretty much guaranteed to be wrong.


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