A man walked up to me in a sarong of the Union Jack, making me ponder whether that counted as the desecration of the national flag. I was a part of our determined group of republican protestors by Tower Bridge in London, it was the day of the Jubilee Boat Pageant in June 2012. The man approached me red in the face with an air of determination, like he had something important and incisive to say. Noting my “Don’t wait, abdicate” placard directed at the Queen, he bellowed, “So what do you want instead? Another scummy politician?” I strained to reply to him, but he walked off and the overzealous corporate security would not let me move an inch to reply to the man, keeping us kettled as snugly as battery chickens. Within seconds, he was gone.
While the overly patriotically clothed man didn’t exactly put his argument very eloquently, he did touch on a common dilemma we republican campaigners in the UK face; the British people’s bottomless loathing of politicians. Politicians are not necessarily popular in many western countries, but in this country, their popularity levels seem to lurk just above the depths of taxmen and child molesters. Being a politician is quite simply widely seen as at worst a legal licence to steal and at best a job for non-persons. This tremendous unpopularity has accordingly translated into a declining voter turnout, estimated to be around 37% at the European and local elections in 2014. This presents republicans like myself with a problem; how do we argue in favour of “scummy” politicians over allegedly inspiring royals?
The existence of a Head of State selected by birth and not by the ballot is helped by the longstanding myth that the Royals are above politics. After all, if the British people think so ill of politics, doesn’t it make sense that the monarch as a seemingly unifying figure is seen to have little or nothing to do with it? Well it makes sense to the Queen certainly. Why get involved in a seemingly endless quagmire? The problem is this leaves the Queen and future monarchs in a strange dilemma; they need to find another role for themselves while still remaining relevant. But how? Through the creation of seemingly endless ‘duties’. These range from the state opening of Parliament, jubilees, state visits and charity visits and many others. The monarch is then presented as a kind of innocent spectator of these events and the successes and failures of politics. None of the mud from the successes and failures of politics is allowed to touch her hands.
The very unusual thing is that despite the emphasis her supporters put on her non-involvement in politics, Queen Elizabeth II is regularly credited with the stability of her reign. Times of peace and economic growth are readily associated with her, while politicians take the flack for the bad times. In the narrative of Queen Elizabeth II heralding a time of stability, things like miners’ strikes, The Troubles, credit crunches, Hillsborough are all quietly forgotten or simply blamed on politicians. All of those crises were political events in which MPs were at the forefront, but let us confront the hypocrisy. If the Queen seeks to ride on the wave of enthusiasm for political successes, then surely she should share some responsibility for the failures? In politics, this would be labelled as shameless free riding. The Queen herself does not vocally support this narrative, but her supporters within and outside the media do. Her supporters keep this weak argument alive, hoping that her popularity will prevent people from seeing through it. We have to see through it for the sake of common sense, if nothing else.
A prime example of the Queen’s political free riding happened in 2012 with the allegedly historic handshake between her and Martin McGuinness on her trip to Northern Ireland. Many politicians risked a great deal to bring about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence of The Troubles. The Prime Minister of the time, Tony Blair, risked his party’s first term in government. Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlem, risked her career which was taken from her in favour of Peter Mandelson. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness probably risked their lives and a possible war between republican factions. One has to ask what did the Queen risk by putting one hand in front of the other? And yet this act is talked up almost as important as the Agreement itself. If this symbolism of the Queen doing what she did was so important, then why did she not demand that the Unionist militias lay down their arms for a ceasefire? They were, after all, by their word fighting in her name.
The myth that the Queen has not been involved in politics is a false one. In fairness, her time of making political statements other than the Queen’s speech was brief, because it was so unsuccessful. At the beginning of her reign, she made the kind of speeches about families to right-wing women’s groups which nowadays would be considered as far too socially conservative. Later on in her reign, her views seemed to moderate, as her courtiers changed. This culminated in her signing a resolution at the Commonwealth of Nations, condemning discrimination against homosexuals 2 years ago. Her views seem malleable to popular will. This does raise the question of how much conviction the Queen actually has. To what extent can someone with such changeable views be said to be someone who stands for endurance in the face of constant change?
For myself, the answers to these questions are obvious. The great philosopher, Homer Simpson, once said that “alcohol is the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems”. Replace the word “alcohol” with the word “politics” and the quotation rings very true. Put simply, political problems require political solutions and this requires politicians for good or ill. If a voter has had enough of it all, throws their toys out of the pram and refuses to vote, this will not make the system better. The British Monarchy and the myths that surround it do not inspire us to push for a better system. It perpetuates the message that things will stay as they are, but with the mock reassurance that the monarch is there as a guarantor of stability. But how can anyone stabilise anything when they stand far apart from the system that they are supposed to stabilise? And how is stability reassuring if it comes at the expense of making the British political system something that voters can identify with more? It is time to stop the pretence and allow Britain to become a republic with an elected Head of State.
As Aung San said, “You may not think about politics, but politics thinks about you”. Politics is here to stay, like it or not. Royalists poo-poo the idea of a presidency by pulling out the rogues’ gallery with their Blairs, Bushes and Nixons. But they never seem to mention the Nelson Mandelas, Abraham Lincolns or Mary Robinsons of this world. All political offices are susceptible to abuse and incompetence, including presidencies. But at least presidencies fully admit that human nature is flawed by providing a means of eviction via the ballot of impeachment. The concept of a monarchy, in contrast, perpetuates the greatest lie about human nature; that some people are just born righteous and others are born worthless.
A guest post by Zachary Barker
Local Co-Ordinator for Republic in Bristol and the West Country