I have never been doorstepped by journalists. Until this week, that is. I opened my door last Wednesday to find two journalists from the National News press agency (an agency that apparently the Daily Mail and the Sun employ a lot). They demanded an interview ‘about the controversial article you wrote for the New York Times’.
Ah, that controversial article for the New York Times. I have over the years written many controversial articles. The New York Times essay on the Queen’s finances published last week was not one of them. Or so I had thought. Sure, it ran under a provocative headline (‘Britain’s welfare queen’), but it was a fairly sober, even dry, analysis. The article set out the facts and figures and gave a potted history of the constitutional fudge at the heart of the British monarchy. Its most controversial line was the suggestion that, far from being an apolitical institution, the very existence of the monarchy was a political statement, proclaiming ‘that an accident of birth matters more than the democratic will’. There was no fact that was not already in the public domain, no opinion that would not be held by any self-respecting democrat. I had not reckoned, however, with the sensitivities of Britain’s monarchists.
I told the doorstepping journalists to go fly, and to email me if they wanted to arrange an interview. Half an hour later they phoned me. ‘We’re at a café down the road. Can you come down for an interview?’ I declined the offer. They tried again and again on the phone to get me to say ‘I hate the Queen’. They were most disappointed when all I would say was ‘What’s so controversial about wanting a non-hereditary head of state?’. They asked me, too, whether I hated the Queen because I was a communist. ‘Does it take a communist these days’, I asked them, ‘to defend democracy or to argue for an elected head of state?’
The Times had in fact already run a full-page spread on my lèse-majesté:
The Queen was told by the Sex Pistols that she was “no human being” in their Jubilee single God Save the Queen, but it has taken the New York Times to call her a benefit claimant.
Kenan Malik, a British-based author, has criticised Britain for having a “welfare Queen” as head of state who “publicly pleads poverty” despite having a vast personal fortune, in a column for the US newspaper.
Mr Malik argued that the monarchy was “preposterous” as an apolitical institution and was popular only because of public cynicism about politicians. “As long as the public despises politicians and favours the royals, one of the richest families in the world will continue to live luxuriously at the taxpayers’ expense,” he wrote.
The article included outraged responses from the historian and royal biographer Hugo Vickers who insisted that ‘The Queen is very parsimonious. Her private lifestyle, apart from racehorses, is very modest.’ He also suggested that ‘The monarch is above politics and we can all expect him or her to look after our interests. They’re trained for the job from the beginning. They haven’t had to climb the greasy pole.’ Which is another way of saying that the Queen rules merely because of the privilege of birth.
Among others denouncing my article were Christopher Lee, the author of This Sceptred Isle and Monarchy (‘The Royal Family creates an awareness of the nation 365 days a year, it hands out more than 3,000 honours — the whole industry of that firm is hard work. It’s not lavish’) and Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg (‘The Queen is more highly taxed than any of her subjects’).
The Times, like the agency journalists, tried also to play on the red scare, observing that I had once been a ‘contributor to Living Marxism‘. It failed to observe that I have also been a contributor, and far more frequently, to the op ed pages of the Times. It is not difficult to spot the irony. People rightly condemn Cuba or China or North Korea for the expunging of democracy. But here I was arguing for a properly democratic system, and for an elected head of state, and getting condemned as a ‘communist’.
The Daily Star was also suitably outraged:
Left-wing author Kenan Malik caused outrage by dubbing the 87-year-old Monarch “Britain’s welfare queen”.
Writing in the New York Times, Indian born Malik commented: “Trying to make sense of the royal finances is like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon. If the Queen is so wealthy, how can she be strapped for cash?”
Malik, brought up in Manchester, also attacked claims made last year that the Queen was down to her last million, accusing her of “publicly pleading poverty”.
He highlighted how Her Maj has her own private £500m fortune, including her Scottish holiday home in Balmoral.
And then the Sunday Times phoned up for an interview, which ended as part of a News Review profile, and which actually set out fairly my argument (and my bafflement at all the attention):
Kenan Malik is bemused. Last week the left-wing author and academic wrote what he thought was a fairly reasonable column in The New York Times about the British monarchy’s recent financial troubles, entitled “Britain’s welfare queen”.
In it he bemoaned the fact that one of the richest families in the world continues to “live luxuriously at the taxpayers’ expense”. He also pointed out the “constitutional fudge” that led to some in the royal family viewing the Crown Estate — whose revenue is controlled by the taxpayer — as “their personal property”.
The response in many quarters was outrage. Malik had reporters at his door asking him if he hates the Queen. The Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called his article “silly”.
When I meet Malik a few days later in a cafe in Covent Garden, central London, he remains puzzled at the fuss his republican sentiments have caused. “It just seems bizarre to me that you have to be ‘another mad leftie’, as one of the critics put it, in order to argue for a non-hereditary head of state,” he says. “All I did in the article was set out the facts and figures.”
He believes that much of the response to his article was emotional rather than considered: “The monarchy is to the right what the welfare state is to the left. Rather than having a rational, reasonable debate, we have an emotion-filled row.”
At first glance the Indian-born Malik, 50, might be mistaken for “another leftie”. He certainly has the credentials. After growing up near Stockport, where it was “normal” to come home with a bloody nose or a black eye because of race-related violence, he became associated with far-left groups such as the Socialist Workers party and the Revolutionary Communist party. Is he still a Marxist? “The world’s moved on, politics has moved on and I’ve moved on. The old categories don’t make sense. A lot of people can’t situate themselves on the political map any more.”
Nonetheless, his views on monarchy still reflect some of that old anti-establishment ardour. He describes the system as a “feudal relic” and believes it “symbolises a certain image of Britain that’s very anachronistic”.
Can he really imagine Britain without the royals as part of our national identity? Simple answer: “Yes. Fifty years ago people would probably have said, ‘I can’t imagine black people being part of British national identity.’ Today they are central. Things change.”
The article ran under the headline ‘Yell all you like. Britain will be a republic’ – which referred to nothing either that I said in the interview nor had written in the original. It was also accompanied by a strange photo of me holding a large card reading ‘Let ’em all in’. This was in fact a publicity shot for a Channel 4 documentary about immigration that I had made a decade ago. What it had to do with the monarchy, I am not sure. Perhaps the picture editor thought it expressed my ‘mad leftiness’. I can only assume that the Sunday Times had expected a ranty, raving interview, did not get what it wanted, but went along anyway with its original headline and photo.
There has been something quite surreal about all the attention and outrage generated by what was, and remains, a fairly innocuous essay. Outrage, of course, has become the currency of our age, and monarchists are not the only group to reveal thin skins. Just as religious outrage about ‘blasphemy’ reveals not the strength but the weakness of contemporary belief, so the ease with which monarchists are offended by any criticism of royalty suggests much greater anxiety about the hereditary system than they deign to admit.
The response to my lèse-majesté reveals also something about the character of public debates. The monarchy debate is, in one sense, a bit like the immigration debate. In both cases there is a desperate need for a proper public discussion, but that is never the one we actually have. Instead of a passionate, but reasoned, debate that tackles the key issues – in the case of the monarchy, issues about democracy and privilege – we end up with an emotion-filled row where the very fact of taking a different viewpoint is seen as unacceptable.