mathematics alone suggests, 25 years on from her Silver Jubilee
in 1977 and the Queen's Golden Jubilee is upon us. However,
the Queen Mother's death was something we all anticipated
and it is typical of the hazards of modern journalism that
events can often overtake the composition of a piece such
as this, as they did. Still on the back of almost two decades
worth of press scandal, the monarchy's PR machine has grown
both in size and necessity and its well-rehearsed plans were
put into action for real on the 30th March.
The nation was duly treated to scenes of sycophancy from
the previously indifferent who now considered themselves to
be loyal subjects, uttering "She was like a mother to
me" to any passing news team that happened to be on the
South Bank while her body lay in state for what seemed like
an eternity. The previously hostile Sun (which had
by now succumbed to its proprietor's well-known republicanism)
went reverential for all things monarchist as columnist Chris
Rycroft-Davis attacked "the modernisers who despise our
past and rewrite our history to make it politically correct."
A few months ago it was all so different and in a few months
time it probably will be again. In February there were dire
predictions of Jubilee Apathy possibly lending itself to being
a non-event of minor proportions, with no 1977-style street
parties. Of course the Tories, who rely on the few remaining
Lord Lieutenants and other such relics as their membership
base, duly chided the Labour government and the socialist
red tape (planning permission, liability insurance etc) that
will prevent Her Maj's loyal subjects from throwing street
parties in her honour.
Predictably, in a series of banal gestures, on-message Ministers
were dispatched to the Today programme to rebut the
very suggestion and the Whips Office urged Labour MPs to write
to the local press in their constituencies to proclaim their
unwavering affection for the decaying institution that is
the British monarchy. Peter Mandelson didn't parade around
with a Bulldog in 1997 for nothing you know. The prime beneficiaries
of this are not the monarchist lobby, an increasingly dwindling
cause, but the same beneficiaries of low turnouts in General
Elections - the great morass of insouciant people too lazy
or busy to even be cynical about these things. Despite the
presence of archaic, crumbling and remote political institutions
such as the monarchy and what passes for a Parliament these
days, 2002 will not see a surge in republicanism.
It is a truism of modern politics that those under 35 won't
vote for a political party at an election, yet will make the
effort to evict a member of the Big Brother household after
a raging discussion of each contestant's merits, demerits
and behaviour down the boozer. This situation can only bode
ill for the unreformed monarchy, for as Burke argued, an institution
without the means of reform is without the means of its conservation.
Similarly, why buy mugs and tea towels of the Windsors when
you can consume the latest goings on of the Beckham family?
Both republicanism and monarchism are destined to battle it
out on the political stage in an almost empty theatre. There
are those of course who claim that being pro-monarchy is the
'new' radical and that in these trendy republican times, being
anti-monarchy is, like, so predictable. For all the
cogent arguments of rationalism and democracy against the
existence of the monarchy and its reliance on the hereditary
principle, when push comes to shove the committed monarchists
in an alliance with the 'Why bothers?' and the multitude of
advocates for the tourist-led economy myth will continue to
triumph in the debate.
Gone are the days when an eye could produce a solitary tear
at the mention of a soldier slain on a foreign field in defence
of King and country. Those who polish their medals on VE Day
may continue to act as ardent advocates of the institution
of monarchy on sentimental grounds but they are as numerous
as the advocates of monarchy on more political grounds. Those
who used to be content to receive the lesser British Empire
Medal for selfless conduct in the frontline public services
saw no irony as those born to rule become Commanders of the
British Empire for mere pen-pushing in Whitehall.
Those who associate new Labour's fervour for modernisation
with any kind of threat to the monarchy should look no further
than Tony Blair's self-proclaimed love affair with the monarchy,
which manifests itself in lukewarm proposals for Lords reform
and the refusal to create a more egalitarian Honours System.
The Parliamentary Labour Party is packed with those who view
the monarchy as the dignified element of our unwritten constitution,
whereas republicans largely keep their views to themselves
for the sake of their careers. Continuing the time-honoured
tradition of stamping out anything remotely radical for fear
of appearing anything but patriotic, a recent All-Party Parliamentary
Republican Group had to hold its meetings in secret for fear
of falling foul of the whips.
For some reason, the local Labour Parties that submit republican
resolutions to Labour Conference year on year, never get to
see their Delegate step up to the platform and utter the words
"Conference, the British monarchy is an outdated institution."
Even supposed leftwing maverick MP Austin Mitchell was led
to add his name to the shameless recent EDM that called on
the BBC to bring back the national anthem at the close of
programming every evening, despite the fact that it is now
a 24/7 channel. Following the Queen Mum's death, it has become
fashionable to espouse 'Republicanism Lite' (see Michael Jacobs's
numerous opinion pieces in The Guardian and Independent
advocating the Scandanavianisation of the monarchy), which
allows progressive sorts to appear in touch with the public
mood on the monarchy but acknowledge that change is overdue.
The monarchy's hold on Fleet Street has been on the wane
since it succumbed to the temptation to write up the troubled
marriages of Princes Charles and Andrew, or report on the
peccadilloes of the minor royals, in the 1980s. The red top
tabloids vacillate between republican condescension of royal
behaviour and the cost to the nation of their upkeep, and
the promotion of rabble-rousing royalism such as Jubilee street
parties in the name of winding up "lefty councils"
(The Sun, 23/1/02). Other representatives of the fourth
estate such as the Mail and Express are firmly
wedded to monarchism and the spewing of its propaganda and
find it their duty to sniff out the "Republican tendency"
in the Labour Party, despite an occasional rebuff of the odd
royal for their lack of dignity. Following the furore that
surrounded the BBC's perceived lack of respect for the Queen
Mother upon her death (the absence of a black tie around Peter
Sissons's neck), the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts even
went so far as to argue that the socialist influence of those
renowned revolutionaries Gavin Davies and Greg Dyke was at
hand. And where would we be without the Telegraph and
its Court Circular of royal engagements, read daily with toast
and marmalade by retired Colonels in Bagshot and Esher?
The monarchist lobby has been reduced to a rump of organisations
gathered around the Right - the Monarchist League and Teresa
Gorman's Freedom Association. Without a base in Britain's
political parties, Britain's republicans congregate around
organisations such as Republic, the campaign founded in the
1980s when proclaiming the virtues of a republic could get
you a broken nose in any East End boozer, and find solace
in Guardian editorials. The Guardian's campaign
to repeal the Act of Settlement, surely a measure favourable
to the touchy-feely multi-faith leanings of new Labour, is
viewed by the government as not being worthy of priority legislation,
lest it open the Pandora's Box that is the absurd nature of
the monarchy and everything it represents.
Pub bores the nation over can point to examples of obsolete
legislation that permits husbands to dunk their wives in the
Thames for adultery or bear arms in the City of York, yet
no legislation is as patently absurd as some of the Acts designed
to prohibit republicanism in Britain. Admittedly the bulk
of this was conceived in the Middle Ages during the era of
absolute monarchy when far worse things were on the statute
books, but even in post-Enlightenment Victorian Britain the
armed forces were given the privilege to kill in order to
quell republican assemblies and in fact still hold that privilege.
New Labour's love affair with the monarchy isn't about patriotism
or loyalty to the Crown but simply a tap that can be turned
on and off to suit the popular mood in order to reflect in
glory or dole out criticism. The arguments against monarchy
are not predicated in modernity but an enduring belief in
government of the people, for the people and by the people,
rather than the fairytale notion of any divine right to rule.
Like atheism, republicanism is something growing in adherence,
but whose adherents (unlike Christians) find no reason to
belong to any kind of collective body. Doubtless, many a republican
parent will feel obligated to allow their children to participate
in an episode of involuntary monarchism this summer.
My advice is to resist the peer pressure of more impressionable
parents, avoid the deference fest and buy the child a copy
of Tom Paine's Common Sense instead - the lack
of embarrassing photos will be appreciated immensely a few
years down the line.