Monday, 12 September 2022

Like it or not, there will be change


Even for a hardened old republican like me, it is clear that last week marked the end of an era. TV news references to “The King” felt a bit like watching crackly old black-and-white Pathé newsreels, and similar references in the print media felt like being trapped in a newspaper archive. The very word "king" seems out of place and out of date, reflecting those same attributes back onto the institution of monarchy in a way that references to “The Queen” somehow never did. The sense of anachronism is heightened by the arcane rituals surrounding the succession – the fancy dress, the archaic wording, the trumpet fanfares, the displays of subservience – coupled with what feels like an attempt almost to compel people to mourn, and the rush of politicians to take a wholly unnecessary renewed semi-feudal oath of loyalty. The BBC’s coverage seems designed to suggest that the only thing that has changed since the last time it happened, at the beginning of the 1950s, is the more ubiquitous presence of cameras. In truth, however, very much more than that has changed over the past 70 years – a reign being presented as one of stability and continuity has actually occurred in parallel with the fastest period of change – technical, social and economic – in human history, even if none of that change has had anything much to do with either the institution of monarchy or the person of the monarch.

In any rational world, the end of such a long era would be an ideal time for reflection about the future (rather than just about the past, which is where most of the coverage seems to be stuck); the future, after all, is where we are all going to be living, no matter how much some would apparently prefer to live in their own, somewhat rose-tinted, version of the past. Many have questioned whether the new king should really have rushed into ‘giving’ Wales a new prince. Whilst that questioning is an entirely rational response, it ignores the reality that rationality has no role here: the point about a hereditary monarchy is that what the people choose doesn’t enter the equation. The mechanics of primogeniture have a logic of their own in appointing the monarch, and the dispensation of titles thereafter is solely a matter for the monarch himself. The idea that ‘Wales’ – whatever its collective opinion might be, and however that is expressed – could choose whether to not to have a new prince, let alone who it might be, would undermine the whole principle of a hereditary monarchy. That also explains why the institution could never allow the end of one era to become an opportunity to discuss roles and purposes: merely asking questions about its role and purpose endangers the institution itself, since it would struggle to justify its existence on rational grounds. Instead, the imperative is to rush on, and do what they can to ensure that what happens is presented as an entirely natural and normal phenomenon, to which there can be no challenge. The unwritten constitution declares that the monarch is appointed by God himself, and not just any old god at that: it is very much the Protestant God whose divine will gives Charles his status and powers. That is illustrated by the fact that the coronation is a religious service in which an archbishop of one denomination of one of the world’s faiths anoints the monarch in the name of his god, whilst members of another denomination of the same religion are barred absolutely from the throne because of a religious dispute which occurred more than three centuries ago.

Does it matter? At one level, no, not really. I’ve always been clear in my own mind that independence means that sovereignty lies with the people and is expressed through a democratically elected parliament rather than with the monarch on whose behalf parliament exercises it, and as long as the transfer of power does not lead to any retained ‘royal prerogatives’, it is the practicality of where power lies which is more important than the constitutional myth underlying it. At another level, though, it does matter. Hereditary power and influence based on the assumption of a divine right to rule is a negation of the concept of popular sovereignty, to say nothing of the idea of a meritocracy. For those who rather like the idea of a divine right to rule – and that includes not only the monarchy itself, but also the political rulers who depend on the power that it gives them – now is not the time to debate the issue. But that’s hiding behind the events of the day – there will never be a ‘right’ time as far as they are concerned; there will always be some excuse to postpone any discussion.

The English/British establishment are proceeding on the basis that the succession is done and dusted; there may be a few ceremonials to follow over the next year or so, but the accession of a new monarch is now safely accomplished. I doubt that history will record that things are as simple as that: they confuse affection – or, at the very least, acceptance – of an individual with affection for the institution itself, but there is a significant gulf between the two. The unravelling will be slow, and is likely to start outside the UK itself as the various dominions and possessions begin to question how independent they really are if someone else appoints their head of state. The process of converting to republics is likely to accelerate; for those states which will need to change their constitution to reflect the accession of a new monarch, the opportunity for that conversation is both immediate and pressing. The bad news for Charles III is that there is little he can do to stop the inevitable drift towards republicanism; the good news for him as an individual is that at least the process will not require the separation of his head from the rest of his body as happened to the first monarch to rule as Charles as well as many foreign monarchs. There are suggestions that we should not even discuss such issues out of ‘respect’ for the deceased queen. But there’s nothing at all disrespectful about noting that change is coming, whether they like it or not – or in hoping that her successor will enjoy a long, happy, and preferably early, retirement.

1 comment:

dafis said...

Watching the government, ruling elites, others with vested interest and a big chunk of the populace get into a frenzy over the last few days is an education. The country is by common consent in difficulty with crises in the energy/fuel markets, the general cost of living, its internal politics crumbling and its international relations creaking at several points. Yet the consensus seems to enable a waste of resources on yet another pumped up circus only months after the platinum jubilee. Pavlov's dogs were never this intensely conditioned.