In defence of monarchy

The revolution will not be televised – but the Queen’s Christmas Message will.

Tomorrow, as every December, I will fail to take part in a ritual that is dear, sacred even, to the hearts of many Britons. I will not join them when they make their annual act of implicit homage to a higher authority to whom, for most of the rest of the year, they pay little material allegiance.

The language involved in this ceremony is arcane, the accents and pronunciation frequently antique, and to those not brought up with due reverence, it seems bizarre, not to say totally irrational, that anyone should bow their heads in obeisance to this mystical, regal presence. Still millions will clear time from their day to be faithful to this time-honoured practice.

I, on the other hand, will not be watching the Queen's Christmas Message. Neither will I be buying any of the tastefully designed porcelain and china already being produced to mark next year's wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. To me, the most sensible attitude towards the monarchy was summed up succinctly by the late Leslie Nielsen in the first Naked Gun film. Nielsen's character, Lt Frank Drebin, is asked to explain at a press conference how the Los Angeles Police Department will deal with a forthcoming royal visit. "Protecting the Queen's safety is a task that is gladly accepted by Police Squad," he says. "For no matter how silly the idea of having a queen might be to us, as Americans we must be gracious and considerate hosts."

It is, indeed, a silly notion that an accident of birth should endow anyone with the hereditary right to be a head of state, and even sillier that the holder of that office should therefore be paid any particular respect, or even attention, because of his or her unearned position. Nevertheless, one of the batches of WikiLeaks had me entertaining what is, for a republican, a heretical thought: should we be glad to be reigned over by the House of Windsor?

The subject of the US embassy cable to which I refer was the Crown Prince of Thailand, the prospect of whose ascension to the throne caused several very senior figures to express concern. The members of the Thai Privy Council supposedly quoted did not, however, suggest that the Thai monarchy come to an end when King Bhumibol dies; rather, that it would be better "if other arrangements could be made". This was thought to mean that the Crown Prince's sister would make a better successor.

In a country that has alternated between fledgling democracy and military dictatorship, republicanism is a minority taste. The constitutional monarchy that replaced the absolute rule of the king in 1932 is widely regarded as having been pretty much the only stabilising factor ever since.

The fate of neighbouring Burma might well have been different in the decades since 1962, when the generals took over, had the British not exiled the last king, Thibaw, in 1885, and formally annexed the country to the Raj the following year. As Justin Wintle wrote in his biography of Aung San Suu Kyi:

The British may have done Burma a disservice by arbitrarily getting rid of its throne, however rotten it appeared both to the outside world and to many of its own subjects. With the throne went an entire societal matrix that at least held the Burmese people together. As in Thailand, in time this might have furnished a broader cohesion.

Instead, the only national institution left in Burma is the armed forces, the Tatmadaw, which are both the country's oppressor but also the vessel of its pride, having been founded by Burma's greatest hero (and Suu Kyi's father), the independence leader General Aung San.

This is not to say that there have not been many cases of kings or princes acting in bad, repulsive or even illegal ways. But as Bernard Lewis, the distinguished (and controversial) historian of the Middle East and Islam, told me when I interviewed him a few months ago: "Of the democracies that have been democracies for a long time and continue to be so, most are monarchies."

Such continuity is obviously a virtue. Yet couldn't we in Britain manage perfectly well to retain our democracy without the Windsors? Couldn't we have an elected head of state? While the late Roy Jenkins was still alive, we had the perfect candidate – witty, urbane, statesmanlike, with cross-party appeal, and a man who could be relied on to impart due gravitas to the ceremonial aspects of the job.

Who, though, would we end up with if we elected a president as figurehead today? It is hard to imagine a situation in which the winner was not either terribly divisive (Tony Blair – with New Labour hold-outs plus his natural constituency, the conservative vote, he'd walk it) or ludicrous (President Brucie? Don't count it out in this age when being a celebrity is all that counts).

Some readers will doubtless find even such a limited defence of monarchy unpalatable. I would argue, however, that it is in the true Fabian spirit, if not quite that of the NS's founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. For the Roman general after whom the movement was named, Fabius Cunctator – the Delayer – won his sobriquet for his habit of not striking until victory was assured. Ridding ourselves of the monarchy, only to find we ended up with something worse than the Windsors, who may be dull but have at least mostly been fairly worthy on the throne, would be just the kind of Pyrrhic victory the Cunctator would have avoided.

This kind of gradualism is, in fact, a very deeply ingrained British trait. And that is why tomorrow, and on Christmas days to come, the revolution will not be televised – but the Queen's Message will. I trust you will join me in not watching.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.