Ben Dunant on British republicanism and the future of the monarchy

In search of deference

‘I just don’t care about the Royal wedding’ has become the standard dinner party line of early 2011. Expressing a contemptuous, or at least weary, indifference towards the upcoming wedding of Prince William to his uni girlfriend Kate Middleton has become an article faith among enlightened British society. In neat conversational shorthand, the speaker establishes his or her liberal, cosmopolitan, freedom-loving credentials, lest it be doubted by their liberal, cosmopolitan, freedom-loving friends. Above all, it lays down the gaping intellectual chasm that separates them from the Daily Mail-reading ‘plebs’ who find meaning and emotional sustenance in the expensive marriage of a hereditary toff to a presumably vapid brunette.

At times like these, the liberal elite is given the chance to demonstrate its superiority over the ignorant, bigoted, great unwashed, who rush out to buy Wills’n’Kate tea-towels – and they seize on it greedily. A similar rhetorical stunt is at work among those who, in the summer of 2010, declared their heroic lack of interest in the football World Cup, and among those who profess to be mystified by the appeal of Top Gear. They, you see, are not like ‘them’ down below on the social ladder; their thoughts are set on an altogether higher plane, and they would much sooner be practicing the piano or reading an Ian McEwen novel than poring over Hello photo-spreads of the engaged couple.

This pseudo-cheeky iconoclasm, itself a modern secular orthodoxy set against a make-believe Royalist consensus, is at play in the commentary pages of Britain’s broadsheet newspapers. ‘I’m afraid I just can’t get excited about the royal wedding but, unfortunately, if [the] media frenzy is anything to go by, it seems I am in the minority,’ writes journalist Molly Lynch. In the Guardian Tanya Gold pipes in, ‘I am going to be tried for saying this, but a Royal wedding will make idiots of us Brits.’ Quite who this embattled minority of far-sighted opinion-makers is going to be ‘tried’ by is not altogether clear. But never mind: the liberal commentariat could not care less about the big Royal do, and they are ever so keen for us to know this. They intend to ignore the coming wedding, and so write endless column inches on the necessity of ignoring it (the irony having blissfully escaped them).

Yet this trendy republicanism is not as embedded as one might think – something attested to by the formidable commercial and critical success of The King’s Speech, which was showered with gongs in the recent Bafta awards ceremony, and received favourable reviews in the very same papers that declared their noble disdain for the Royal wedding. This handsomely made film is so staunchly and persuasively monarchist, you’d be forgiven for expecting to discover Prince Phillip among its executive producers. Not only is the shy, impenetrable historical figure of King George VI successfully ‘humanised’, but his role as a pillar of historical continuity and a repository of national sentiment, given a fresh lease with the advent of World War Two, is not left in doubt. This defence of the Royal office is made partially through a simplified, although narratively satisfying, division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Royals. Edward VIII, or ‘David’, as played by the Australian Guy Pearce, is a ‘bad’ Royal, whose irresponsible playboy lifestyle, and childish insistence on wedding the divorcee harpy Wallace Simpson, precipitates his early abdication – a travesty of the kingly virtues of duty and self-sacrifice which George VI, or ‘Bertie’, as played by the ever-sympathetic Colin Firth, comes to embody as he masters his stammer and delivers a rousing speech to the nation on the eve of war. Bertie is the very archetype of the ‘good’ Royal.

This good/bad distinction – analogous to the similarly vapid distinction between ‘good’ (moderate) and ‘bad’ (extreme) Islam insisted on in debates over multiculturalism – nonetheless neatly captures the schizophrenic attitude of the chattering classes towards the monarchy, and the half-baked radicalism which can never quite rouse itself into a genuine political movement. Our Queen, for instance, is unanimously deemed a ‘good’ Royal, carrying out her ‘job’ as head of state with a dignity and sense of duty she is said to have inherited from her dad, the protagonist of The King’s Speech. Even the shoutiest republicans find it impossible to work up an appropriate rage about the dear old lady. How could anyone?

The Crown Prince Charles, however, generally sits on the ‘bad’ end of the divide. He is considered fair sport by journalists on both the left and right, who find bottomless good copy in his publicly vented opinions on modern architecture, environmentalism, and the evils of foie gras. Veteran political commentator Christopher Hitchens, for instance, known for his appetite for taking on the big issues – contemporary warfare, international diplomacy, God – threw himself into an baffling rage over ‘the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts [becoming] head of state, head of the armed forces, and head of the Church of England.’

This contempt is shared by many in Britain today. The ascension of a ‘bad’ Royal to the head of the nation will likely overturn the British public’s affection and tolerance towards hereditary ‘rule’, bound up as all ceremonial posts are with personality. The sudden appearance of Charles’ ‘bat-eared and chinless’ visage on our pennies and five pound notes could prove the point where festering republican angst develops into an organized campaign with mass support. The monarchy, politically impotent as it is, rests on the mercy of public opinion, and it is hard to see how it could withstand any kind of popular, coordinated opposition. With an elderly Queen, we might well be within the twilight years of the British monarchy. It’s abolition in the next decade cannot be ruled out, ushering in a slew of name changes among our public services and forces (the Royal Mail, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Royal Air Force, to name but a few), and the installation of a presidency, or something like it. Remember, it’s happened before.

Ben Dunant