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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.