It is a family of dysfunctional souls and disreputable characters. A family that can boast of friendships with some of the world’s most brutal dictators and with any number of convicted criminals. A family that, in an age that places great value upon equality, democracy, and meritocracy, represents by its very existence the claims of inequality, privilege and unearned power. A family that at a time of austerity and hardship is happy to flaunt its wealth and excess.
By any rational account the British royal family should be the BP of the international stage, a toxic brand treated with derision and contempt. And yet, tomorrow, more than a billion people across the globe are expected to watch the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton (twice the TV audience for the marriage in 1981 of William’s parents, Diana and Charles). How has the royal family managed not only to survive but seemingly to thrive? The answer lies, at least in part, in its ability to surf upon two of the key themes of our age: the rise of celebrity culture and the growing disaffection with politics.
We live in the age in which the fact of being famous carries more social weight than the possession of talent or merit. Paris Hilton wins world-wide attention for being the daughter of a billionaire and acting badly in front of a camera. Hugh Grant is remembered less for his floppy-haired acting than for being caught with a prostitute and for the breakdown of his marriage. Is it surprising, then, that so much attention is lavished upon Fergie and Andrew, William and Kate? In the past the mystique of the royals derived from the distance between their lives and those of their subjects and from the secrecy with which they surrounded their affairs. Now, the royals capture the imagination for exactly the opposite reason: they have become a soap opera in which their every sneeze is caught by the paparazzi and splashed across the gossip pages.
The British royal family can trade not just on celebrity but also on something that most non-royal celebrities don’t possess: history, authenticity and tradition. That is why so many non-royal celebrities seem so desperate to play at being wannabe royalty. David and Victoria Beckham’s English manor, derisively dubbed ‘Beckingham Palace’, is a kitsch version of a royal mansion, even including a throne room. And when the couple got married, they sat upon thrones to take their vows. It’s as if you cannot be a true celebrity unless you have the royal touch, even in the most tasteless form.
If obsession with celebrity is one theme of our age, cynicism about politics is another. The political arena has, in recent years, shrunk in size and relevance. Once significant figures with deep social and intellectual roots, politicians have increasingly become either figures of fun, such as Silvio Berlusconi, or bland and irrelevant characters such as David Cameron. Even the one personality who might have seemed a throwback to the old days of politicians with charisma, depth and genuine mass appeal – Barack Obama – has been cut down to size by the experience of power.
Politicians have come to be seen not just as ridiculous and irrelevant but also as venal and corrupt. Few Western democracies have been untouched by political scandal in recent years. In Britain the ‘expenses scandal’ created a widespread sense that politicians care only for themselves and their wallets.
As politics has come to be seen as tarnished and tawdry, so there has been a growing demand for those in authority to rise above politics, to represent not ideological interests but the interests of the community or the nation. It is an argument that has served the royals well. The monarchy, so the argument runs, precisely because it is hereditary and unelected, is an institution that sits above and beyond politics, an institution that is able to provide ‘continuity, tradition and dignity’ to national life as historian and leftwing Labour MP Tristram Hunt recently put it. The British royal family, Hunt suggested in an essay for the Institute for Public Policy Research, has evolved into a ‘service monarchy’ using its inherited privileges not to wield political power but to serve the nation through good works. The Queen and Prince Charles unselfishly and unstintingly represent the interests of Britain and its citizens and, unlike politicians, do so without an ideological axe to grind. William and Kate, Hunt concluded, can follow in their footsteps to maintain and enhance a ‘modern monarchy’.
That a Labour MP, writing for a left-leaning think tank, should so fulsomely back the hereditary principle tells us much about the dismal state of British politics. British politicians willing to call themselves ‘republican’ are these days almost as rare as American leaders coming out as atheists.
The argument that the British monarchy is ‘apolitical’ is about as plausible as the idea that Kate Middleton, the daughter of multi-millionaires, is like ‘the girl next door’, as many in the press insist on describing her. It is true, that in constitutional monarchies, such as that in Britain or Sweden, the king or queen appears to wield little political power. Unlike, say, in the Middle East, where monarchies remain resolutely old-fashioned, absolute and brutal, European royal houses often seem more like harmless national symbols than malevolent political institutions.
But while the power of a constitutional monarch like the British Queen may be constrained compared to that of an absolute ruler like the king of Bahrain, the influence that comes with monarchical privilege remains deep and untrammeled. (It is worth adding that the king of Bahrain’s hand may be dripping with the blood of the hundreds of protestors murdered, beaten up and tortured in his kingdom, but he nevertheless remains a close friend of the royal family and his son, the Crown Prince, who last week praised ‘the relentless efforts of Bahrain’s security forces to maintain security and stability’, has received an invitation to the Royal Wedding.)
More importantly, the monarch holds real power under the British constitution. Through the ‘royal prerogative’ he or she has the power to appoint Prime Ministers, dismiss governments, dissolve Parliament, and withhold assent to any legislation.The monarch also possess the power to recognise foreign states, issue declarations of war and peace, annex territory and form international treaties. He or she can also grant honours, issue pardons and appoint bishops and archbishops. Technically, most of these powers are exercised only on the advice of ministers, and quite a few have lain unused for many years. Nevertheless, they exist. It was through these powers that in 1975 the Australian governor general John Kerr, not an elected official but the Queen’s representative imposed upon Australia, dismissed the democratically elected Labor government of Gough Whitlam and appointed opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, thereby launching a constitutional crisis.
The real impact of the royal prerogative, however, is is not so much to empower the monarch as to allow the executive to bypass parliamentary scrutiny. Through royal prerogative powers, the government is able to declare war, make treaties, conduct diplomacy, govern Britain’s overseas territories and appoint and remove ministers, all without parliamentary approval. In 2003, on the very eve of the Iraq war, and well after it was clear that Britain and America were going to attack Iraq anyway, Parliament debated the issue and approved the attack. But even had it not approved of the action, it could not legally have prevented it – the royal prerogative would have allowed Tony Blair to commit to war without parliamentary approval. It was those powers that allowed David Cameron to attack Libya this month without first consulting parliament. The ability of the executive to bypass Parliament in this fashion is not only deeply undemocratic, it also serves to deepen the sense of the futility of politics.
The very existence of a monarchy is itself a profoundly political statement. It says very loudly that the people cannot be properly trusted, that the head of state must stand above the democratic process, that an accident of birth matters more than democratic will, that someone born into the right family is more fit to represent the nation than someone chosen by that nation itself. Insofar as the monarchy represents ‘continuity, tradition and dignity’, it is continuity with a Britain that no longer and should no longer exist, a tradition that speaks only to privilege and power, a dignity established through a legion of servants and minions.
A monarchy such as Britain’s is more than simply symbolic. But even as a symbol, it is stinks. What the monarchy symbolizes is much of what remains rotten and anachronistic about contemporary Britain. I don’t particularly care about William and Kate’s wedding, or their penchant for grotesque friends, or the fact that they want to invite repellent thugs to celebrate their marriage. I do care about democracy, equality and modernity. And about institutions and practices that make society less equal, less democratic, less modern. A monarchy, however symbolic, however constitutional, remains a feudal relic that should have no place in a 21st century society. Off with their (not so) symbolic heads!