Will Self – Prospect Magazine March 23, 2011
I haven’t seen The King’s Speech yet. This isn’t just because I’m a republican. I’m not such a zealot that I think ideologies which I have no sympathy with cannot still form the backdrop to compelling drama—I loved Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, so why shouldn’t I enjoy Colin Firth’s Georgian shtick? No, I haven’t seen it because whatever the disavowals of its makers, it serves royalist interests in an infuriatingly ingenuous way. It doesn’t matter if it portrays the Windsors as individuals, the net result is that its audience is more inclined to acquiesce to an institution that has a stultifying effect on our political culture.
Even watching the trailer, I could feel it wreaking this sinister effect on me: as Colin-cum-George stammered in front of an expectant crowd I could feel tears pricking my eyes; this was, I realised, exactly the sensation Winston Smith must have had as he looked up at the poster of Big Brother and realised he loved him. But at least Orwell’s protagonist had rats applied to his face before giving in. We Britons are conditioned from birth to accept there’s only one form of government being held up for us—constitutional monarchy—no matter how many others we can see.
Monarchism is the default setting for the way we think about our constitutional settlement. Those of us who question it are subjected to the usual blah-blah about the evolutionary character of the British constitution: the way our law is based on concrete precedent rather than Frenchified abstract principle, the way our democracy has grown incrementally and organically from Runnymede to the present day, the way our Queen’s prerogative exists as a means of negatively inferring the real source of executive power, and so on. The overall message is: see that noble oak over there? That’s our system of government. What kind of a foul oik are you to chop it down with your regicidal axe?
Another favoured argument of the default royalists is: Ooh, I know it’s not a perfect system, but what would you have instead? I mean, imagine having a head of state like Sarkozy/Bush/Gaddafi (delete where appropriate). This is another appeal to inertia. The political classes often agonise as to why there’s so little popular interest or enthusiasm for politics but part of the answer, surely, is this unreal counterfactual constantly waved in the air. We cannot, after all, have any of these heads of state because we aren’t France, the US, or Libya.
After years of espousing republicanism, I know that trying to dig out the suppressed premises from this Duchy Originals mulch is a wearying and thankless task. Besides, the default royalists don’t really want to debate the issue at all. That’s the nature of the default: a get-out-of-thinking-about-it card for constitutional change in general, not simply the monarchy. “Oh, a republic—we’ve had one of those already,” the default royalist smiles her patronising smile, as if truly representative rule, embodying popular sovereignty at every level, were some kind of teenage fad. And so the West Lothian question comes into being, and so we slide towards greater European integration with less democratic accountability, and so we have a pig’s ear of a second chamber.
I’m not going to engage here with the true-blue royalists who actually believe that the congenital characteristics of the Windsor family make them fit to be our heads of state; they’re too silly to waste words on. Far more influential are the politically savvy but lazy who, while acknowledging the royals are about as dysfunctional a mob as ever took part in a reality television show, nonetheless insist that monarchy is a necessary cynosure for the patriotic feelings of the citizenry. The not especially covert assumption here is a ghastly, patronising, de haut en bas attitude: we all know they’re ciphers, but Mr & Mrs Little-People need decorative mugs, street parties and all that palaver. It’s an attitude that makes a mockery of our pretensions to democracy.
It is, of course, the ever-closer convergence between the home life of the Windsors and shows such as I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother that has allowed the monarchy to adapt, survive and grow even stronger: Diana Spencer was their preeminent saviour, their Peter Bazalgette. Post-Diana, the Windsors are the foremost example of people who are feted in the media for accidental reasons, and not by virtue of any talent, let alone determination to succeed. People unconsciously understand this: for them, marrying into the Windsors is the genealogical equivalent of winning the lottery: the odds are virtually nonexistent, but wouldn’t it be amazing.
This abandonment to Goddess Fortuna masks the extent to which the monarchy infantilises the public and squats like a fat toad atop the still-existent hierarchy of class in British society. Think on it: without royal titles, the existence of other forms of ennoblement become utterly redundant. The great success of the establishment in co-opting those who might otherwise be critical of it rests in the handing out of such baubles to commoners. No monarchy means no more of those most egregious solecisms, “Labour lords,” let alone the equally ridiculous spectacle of religious leaders sitting in the upper chamber. And frankly, if you can think of a more asinine sight in the known world than John Prescott or Peter Mandelson caparisoned in ermine, answers on a card please. In the current political climate, we could all do with a rich belly laugh.
Lastly, to return to the King’s Speech principle. In the last few months (Andrew’s blunders aside) the Windsors have pulled off two spectacular PR coups: the upcoming commoner marriage, and, equally influential, the Duchess of Cornwall’s walk-on part in The Archers. The Windsors—or their savvy advisers—understand full well the virtues of soft marketing. I’ve known plenty of people who should know better who’ve relapsed into the default position purely because they’ve been exposed to the Windsors’ soft offensive: they’ve pitched up for a garden party, accepted a gong, or stood for the loyal toast, because not to do so would seem somehow ill-mannered, and therefore un-British. But you have to ask yourself, if your principle of government is determined by not wishing to violate social etiquette, how can it ever hope to cope with rude truth of the contemporary world?