I am chatting to two buddies, a couple, Ms A and Mr B. Ms A asks: "Have you seen The Queen? Its fantastic. Helen Mirren is unbelievable, more Elizabeth than the Queen herself. Go see it, you'll see what I mean." I shake my head. Ms A: "Why not? You need to go behind the mask, see how she suffered when Diana died. You are so down on them all the time. Its just bloody prejudice". I reply gently: "It's fiction, fiction, previous an imagined story. How stupid are you? Do you really believe you now know how the Royals felt then?" Mr B enters the fray. "So what if it's fiction? It still gives us her side of the story, the Queen's I mean. At last we get a glimpse into her feelings. How can you understand that if you won't see the film? Who's stupid now?"
No point in answering that last question. Both are high fliers, sceptics and decidedly intelligent. Both are atheists who lecture me often on the idiocy of belief in a higher being. Both now genuflect before the Windsors.
The longer I live here the less I understand the pull of royalism over the British psyche. I concede I am defeated by its power. It is embedded in the nation's DNA, has resonance for millions beyond words or thought, is a faith that never wavers. According to one survey, having tea with the Queen is the most prevalent British dream. The blessed who find themselves within two feet of the old lady later say they turned to jelly. Some confess to feelings of unworthiness when in the presence of Prince Charles.
We republicans can summon up rational arguments, point out absurdities, expose the follies of our aristocracy, slam the idea of inherited privilege and it can have no effect. It is like Richard Dawkins trying to talk the Archbishop out of his christianity. Until recently my two friends above showed no symptoms of royal fever and when Diana died condemned the "cold" reactions of her in-laws. Now they regularly join in the malicious trashing of Diana (a new blood sport for monarchists) and are fervent subjects of Her Majesty.
It seems to happen an awful lot, most dramatically in the generation that grew up in the sixties and supposedly dumped class-ridden traditions and binned deference. Only for a brief fun time. They grew up, grew older, grew into the establishment and lo! now they love and zealously defend the monarchy, which they simultaneously argue is without any real power and yet is the most indispensable institution we have, more precious than parliament (full of low grade, shouty people) and democracy. Listen to this thinking woman's brain-throb, Jeremy Paxman, in his new book, On Royalty: "Do you know who's the president of Germany, or president of Ireland?... We should carry on as we are because the alternatives are hopeless... [The Queen] is a potent symbol, a unifying symbol." (Actually, Jeremy, the smart and personable Mary Robinson made a fine President in Ireland and she got the job on merit, not because she was the daughter of a King.) Paxman reveals right royal idiocies, among them, seven soft boiled eggs served to Prince Charles because he is that particular about the exact consistency one requires. But the sharp broadcaster is still sucked in.
The elderly Queen has done her job fine. Prince Charles can often pleasantly surprise with his thoughts. I was recently much taken with his speech on Islamic arts. Princess Anne is indispensable to some charities, William and Harry are presentable lads. None however are super-human. We are told to ignore their greed and wealth and position (which many have used and abused for centuries) for the sake of historical continuity. Their flaws shouldn't matter but any failures of politicians "prove" that elected alternatives would inevitably take us to a new dark age. Most Britons succumb to this reactionary theology because they fear the untested.
In doing so they assent to the heinous idea that some are born greater than others because of their bloodline, a belief that traduces the central principle of meritocracy or mocks it. How would Charles, Andrew and the brattish Edward fare if they applied for proper jobs and competed with brighter applicants? Years after Thatcherism, new money is still scorned as old money expects and gets unearned esteem. And Etonians are set to take over the country. The class structure can never be dismantled when thick, semi-skilled royals are allowed to lord over us.
But this is a losing position in today's world. The staunchest republics are desperately seeking out aristocrats, exhuming them from obscurity to fill a longing for pomp and circumstance. Americans and the French are even more bewitched by our royals than Brits. In France Marie Antoinette is being rehabilitated and a new film, Les Aristos about an impoverished countess is drawing enthusiastic crowds. In post-Communist Russia a new class of the mega-rich replicate the hedonism of the old aristocrats, now once again much admired by high and low. Japan is joyful now a male heir is born to take over the ancient throne. In India where the Maharajas were dislodged after independence, there is a new romance with the descendents, their decadent palaces and lifestyles.
Maybe as the world becomes more chaotic we want to shelter in nursery fairy stories. Or it could just be Walter Bagehot, Victorian writer on the English constitution was right when he said "[the monarchy] is intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it and they hardly anywhere in the world understand anything else."
We republicans can never win.Reuse content