Thursday 17 September 2015

Privatise the Monarchy!

Are you a subject or a citizen? You're not alone if you're not sure. Many supposedly liberal democracies - from Britain to the Netherlands to Canada - still live under a constitutional bricolage of medieval and republican institutions.

We deserve better. In our private lives - in the private space for decision-making that citizens enjoy - those who like the monarchy can continue to express that admiration, just as those who wish to worship within a particular religious denomination can do so. But there is no justification for continuing the undignified farce of constitutional monarchy.

The citizens of constitutional monarchies, like Britain and other Western European countries, are in an equivocal position, at once politically and legally equal members of the sovereign body and its feudal vassal. Functionally, most of the time we live in a democracy, but symbolically we still live in Saudi Arabia. We are so used to this that it feels normal.

But there are some moments when the contradiction is particularly hard to avoid. Such as when an anti-racism protester in the Netherlands – not Thailand - is arrested and hauled off a podium for shouting "Fuck the king, fuck the queen, fuck the monarchy". He is still facing charges for Lèse-majesté. (Coverage, in Dutch.)

Monarchy imposes indignity on everything it touches. But I will focus here on my own country, the UK, and the strange experience of becoming a British citizen-subject. New citizens are presently charged £80 to swear an absurd oath of allegiance, originating in the Magna Carta, and updated in 1868, promising to be both subject and citizen:
I (name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.
Who could promise such a thing? What could it even mean?

Apparently the British government recognises the absurdity too. In the very same ceremony new citizens are also required to swear a more conventional republican pledge of citizenship.
I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.
But this hardly solves the problem. Which Britain are they promising loyalty to? Autocratic dynasty or democracy? How can someone who believes in ‘democratic values' also believe in hereditary monarchy? Obviously they can't, without corrupting the meaning of one or both. All we can say for sure is that anyone who swears to two such contradictory statements within 5 minutes must be lying and that this particular lie is imposed on them by Britain's naturalisation law. It seems to me that forcing new citizens to begin their official membership of your society by lying solemnly in public is a particularly repulsive and stupid thing to do. It does not respect the dignity of citizens.

Of course most British people – aside from police, priests, judges, MPs, and soldiers – are never confronted with the oath of allegiance in this way. But I suspect that many citizens who say they love their royals would nevertheless object to having to swear solemn allegiance to them. Then they would have to admit that officially the royals don't belong to us but we to them.

This puts the lie to the ‘democratic' argument for constitutional monarchy – that by being outside the domain of grubby political competition the monarchy is somehow above it, able to represent everyone in general by representing no one in particular. You can't claim democratic support if you aren't willing to accept the sovereignty of the people by letting them choose something else. The monarchy is not a democratic institution but a popular one. Like any celebrity franchise it is sustained by the equivalent of Facebook likes – people who like it can express that, but people who don't like it have no opportunity to vote against it. Like celebrity franchises, the monarchy's only popular mandate is to look pretty and reproduce.

The reason that the monarchy never takes a stand on anything that matters is a sign of its democratic weakness not its strength. Its public support is wider but also much shallower than that of the grubby politicians. Its political power and constitutional role is thus illusory, because if it were ever used - if Elizabeth II ever made a public intervention about a controversial issue of the day like migration - the monarchy would become subject to democratic politics in which dislikes count as well as likes. And the monarchy would never do that because the fundamental interest of the holders of royal office is, as it has always been, to perpetuate their own institution. Not to serve the public good. 

Britain and the Netherlands and Spain and New Zealand and so on are not Saudi Arabia or North Korea. They are only constitutional monarchies. Functionally, these are democratic republics with a bit of tinsel draped around the top to make them look a bit more cheerful. It certainly makes an aged rainy country like Britain look sexier to tourists. And the people like a bit of dress up too – even proper republics like America find they have to do a lot of pageantry. Prime minister Cameron can outsource some of the ceremonial rigamarole of power that president Obama has to do for himself.

On the one hand it is reassuring that almost no one who supports the surviving European monarchies is really a monarchist. No one believes the oldest child in this family to outlive its parent is a legitimate source of law or political obligations. If monarchy ever had anything going for it it was that primogeniture somewhat limited the destructiveness of the political competition for power. But it was never very reliable, and democratic elections are not only better at managing competition but also at ensuring accountable rule by those who win power.

Defenders and opponents alike instinctively assess the monarchy in a republican way, in terms of the service that the institution of the monarchy provides to the state rather than vice versa. It's just that some see more value in it than others, or hold to a Burkean precautionary principle about the risks of constitutional reform. So called monarchists thereby presume an authority to themselves that no proper subject should. They treat the issue of monarchy as one on which they are entitled to come to their own opinions one way or another, and in which it matters that they have this opinion. This is the attitude of the citizen, not a subject. The monarchist's very way of engaging with the debate presumes that the state and its institutions are a res publica (a "public matter") rather than the private concern or property of their monarch.

On the other hand, however pathetic its formal power, constitutional monarchy still distorts a democratic republic. It renders our system of government mysterious to us. We have not government in the name of the people, but in the name of the monarch, and a series of opaque rituals in the constitution where formal checks, balances and accountability should be.

In Britain, for example, ancient feudal prerogatives to wage war, issue decrees, dissolve parliament, appoint cabinet ministers, and so on have simply been transferred to the British prime minister, who, in the name of the monarch, may do just as he pleases and as his parliamentary majority allows. As we can see from the recent British election, that means the leader of a party with 37% of the vote (25% of the electorate) has many of the powers of an absolute monarch – certainly far more than the winner of a US presidential election.

Tony Benn channelled his indignation about this constitutional farrago rather well back in 1988 (Hansard, July 7). Among other things he noted:
When one looks at the oaths of a Privy Councillor, a Member of Parliament and the Sovereign at the coronation, they throw an interesting light on the obligations by which we are bound. The reality is that nobody takes an oath to uphold democracy in Britain. The Queen takes an oath to govern the country and uphold the rights of the bishops. We take an oath to the Queen. Nobody in the House takes an oath to uphold democracy in Britain.
Indeed, it may be that the only people in Britain who do solemnly swear to uphold democracy are immigrants.

The monarchy is eminently not an institution that respects or supports the sovereignty of the people, i.e. democracy. How could it be? It is a vestige of pre-democratic ideals and feudal governance arrangements that is allowed to persist alongside, inside, over and against our democratic institutions and values. It must be kept, the Burkeans tell us, because we can't just jump into radical constitutional reform and put everything we have at risk. It's still too early to say whether the modern democratic republic inaugurated by America will work out.

There is another dimension to the indignity of monarchy that isn't always noted by republicans. This ridiculous institution of inherited celebrity puts an astonishing strain on the poor creatures who occupy it. That is no way for human beings to have to live, or to think they have to live from some misguided sense of genetic duty. Hilary Mantel explains this point so well in her extraordinary lecture on Royal Bodies that I will simply leave it to her.
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn't have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren't they interesting? Aren't they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it's still a cage.
The strongest argument for the monarchy these days is that it doesn't really matter, so why fix it.
I do not pretend that the British monarchy and its European cousins are a particularly urgent problem. Monarchy is an insidious parasitical institution, a tapeworm in the body politic, but unlike climate change it isn't going anywhere. Its only real interest is in maintaining its present dispensation. While it is demeaning to be misrecognised as a subject, there are undoubtedly far more significant issues of political inequality to address, like poverty and hostility to immigrants (the ones who swear the oaths we don't have to). And, as America and various other republics demonstrate, it's not as if shutting down the monarchy will automatically create a more democratically equal society.

Nonetheless, at some point this excuse wears out. We've been waiting several hundred years to be treated like adults and free citizens – in Britain at least since the American rebellion in the name of English liberties and against English monarchy. A modern liberal democratic state is quite capable of doing several things at once. We can walk and talk at the same time. If Britain can run a public health service and an education system during a Great Recession, and still find the political attention and money for extravagant idiocies like organising an Olympic Games and glory-seeking wars, I'm pretty sure it would also be capable of finishing the republican project if it tried.

There are no good reasons to put up with monarchy anymore. We should cut the royals loose from the constitution, for their own benefit as well as ours. A private family has no business mixed up in the governance of a democratic state. That doesn't imply any particular animus towards them. There is no reason to take away their extensive property holdings (taxing it properly is another matter) or even stopping them from calling themselves royals. Instead we should simply privatise the institution, as we did other industries like the postal and telecoms system, trains, and the steel industry that we came to recognise are not the proper business of the state.

If the monarchy is really as valuable to the tourism industry as is claimed (at least for Britain), then the government can contract with them to keep putting on a show. The royals can bid against other celebrities for ceremonial roles like opening schools and bridges. Freed from the twin traps of state-welfare and misplaced duty, individual royals could pursue careers and private lives that are more meaningful than asking endless lines of people 'And what do you do?'. Or they could stay in the family franchise and make a lot more money from their fans more honestly than their predatory ancestors did from frightened peasants. I see a glorious future for the royal families of Europe: theme parks in sentimental countries like America and Japan; heavily merchandised animated children's TV shows; an endless stream of ghost-written airport bestsellers. Good luck to them!

A previous version of this essay was originally published on 3 Quarks Daily.