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Does the monarchy still matter?

Will Self, Eric Hobsbawm, Stephen Bayley, Peter Tatchell and others discuss whether we should call t

Richard Eyre, theatre director
It’s hard to deny our resemblance to devout worshippers of a cult: we crook the neck, we bend the spine, we bob and curtsey, we metaphorically cross ourselves towards the altar of monarchy. And just as religious faith defies the light of reason, so we are reluctant to examine the monarchy with anything more than an irritated shrug. No government will seriously tamper with the “constitution” (whatever that is), so we end up with the monarchy in the position of the monkeys on Gibraltar: a superstitious charm against the decline of our territorial integrity. But we won’t grow up as a democracy until we resist the consolation of the English religion.

AS Byatt, novelist
The monarchy itself is faintly absurd. When I express republican sentiments my husband points out what a huge expenditure of money, parliamentary time and national energy would have to be diverted, from other urgent causes and concerns, to abolishing the monarchy. The other thing I have observed is that the European democracies I find most sympathetic are in fact monarchies – Holland, Norway, Sweden, modern Spain, even Belgium, for all the tensions. So I don’t think about it much, most of the time. There are more important things to get excited about.

Peregrine Worsthorne, journalist
If a majority of the nation wanted to put an end to monarchy, then, of course, it ought to go. But most emphatically a majority does not want that. While a majority would want to kick out the present lot of self-serving politicians, bankers, mandarins and BBC executives, for the Queen they still have great affection and respect. Which is not surprising since of all our great institutions, the monarchy is the only one which actually works. Unlike aristocracy, which divided the nation, monarchy holds it together. In other words, today’s haters of the monarchy are little more than bigots.

Peter Tatchell, human rights activist
Monarchy is incompatible with democracy. According to the elitist values of the monarchical system, the most stupid, immoral royal is more fit to be head of state than the wisest, most ethical commoner. Monarchs get the job for life, no matter how appallingly they behave. The alternative is not a US-style executive president. We could have an elected president, but a low-cost, purely ceremonial one, like the Irish. This would ensure that the people are sovereign, not the royals. And we get an important safeguard: if we don’t like our head of state, we can elect a new one.

Susie Orbach, psychotherapist
A monarch serves a symbolic purpose, as the overarching figure on to which we project the capacity to care for us and go before us as a representative. But that is an idealisation. The monarchy is the representative of a society still riven with class inequalities and the need to position oneself, always. The monarchy creates insecurities in all, of whatever background.

Eric Hobsbawm, historian
Can we disentangle the effect of the monarchy in general from the effect of having lived for almost 60 years under one Queen? In fact, most of the arguments about it take for granted that she is an element of continuity in Britain and a way for most people to identify with the country that is more effective than a national football team, because she is reliably on top all the time. The arguments about monarchy are therefore mostly about the future. Like Queen Victoria, she has seen off republicanism as a serious political force, maybe even in Scotland. There is no reason to believe that constitutional monarchy will be less viable in the 21st century than in the 20th, when it proved to be the most reliable framework of liberal democratic states (Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan and, since 1976, Spain).

Stephen Bayley, critic
I’ve no gripe with constitutional monarchy, but I’m not so very keen on the House of Windsor: I’d love the chance to redesign the whole glum family. Their public face is sullen and anti-intellectual; their values seem more suburban than royal. I suppose there’s something deadly accurate in that observation: you don’t find much wit, optimism or style in the suburbs. Nor, as it happens, in Buckingham Palace.

Amanda Craig, novelist
Monarchy keeps nostalgia high on our cultural agenda: historical fiction dominates our literature, drama and the kind of architecture Prince Charles admires. We turned to modernity too savagely in the 1950s, ripping out much that was good, and to some extent the retro values ascribed to monarchy did help to preserve an essential Britishness that I love. That said, the monarchy invests nostalgia with an authenticity I resent, artistically. As a taxpayer, I think any further financial support and police protection for the Queen’s other children and many grandchildren, plus her request for a new private jet or a pay rise, should be funded by the sale of a palace or two.

Michael Rosen, poet
The monarchy makes fools of us. It demands and receives deference for reasons of birth. This skews our ability to devise ceremonies and honours for ourselves and blights the running of the state with silly bowing and scraping. More seriously, the politics of monarchy creates a false unity of nation even as our real rulers play roulette with billions while millions of “subjects” worry about their homes and bills.

A L Kennedy, novelist
When I was invited to meet the Queen at a garden party, I felt that I couldn’t go, because the monarchy represents so many awful things – not that I think the Queen is an awful woman. She does the best job that you probably could do.

Darcus Howe, journalist
For former colonial citizens, the monarchy has irretrievably declined in status, ever since the international struggle for independence. In Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born, the anti-colonials’ slogan was “massa day done”, meaning the role of the master is over. We came ashore in the mass immigration of the Sixties with a strong republican sentiment, which resides in our heads and hearts until this day. Bring on the republic.

Roy Hattersley, politician
The monarchy has three detrimental effects on society: it epitomises and encourages the idea of a social hierarchy; it is based on the belief that blood and birth, rather than personal merit, are enough to justify respect or even admiration; it encourages nostalgia for the past, in which it is firmly rooted, rather than hope for the future. It is also very expensive. But that is a trivial detriment compared with the other damaging effects.

Catherine Fieschi, think tank director
I’m no natural monarchist, but the monarchy has made two huge contributions to British culture and identity. The first is via parliamentary politics, by maintaining a monopoly on pomp and circumstance, which encourages a relatively open political sphere. The second, perhaps paradoxically, is to the UK’s capacity to remain outward-looking and confident. The risks associated with a fast-moving and globalised 21st century seem to be offset by a clever little patch of adaptive timelessness and the reminder of a culture that is eminently resilient.

D B C Pierre, novelist
Monarchy remains the only metronome in the land not fibrillating at a thousand beats per second. It’s our keeper of continuity, anchoring us to a historical identity impervious to the next Windows upgrade; and that in an age when much that was culturally familiar has gone, been disconnected, or usurped for profit. While for now monarchy may seem more a pathway into the past than the future, there’s a sense that it’s a contingent blessing yet to find new definition, in a similar limbo to the culture itself, between empire and whatever comes next. This century is one of bold rolling of the dice, and for now the monarchy sits tight. But history is despotic – and the Crown still has its dice to play.

Will Self, novelist
Despite people’s general willingness to accept the monarchy uncritically – as a species of constitutional wallpaper, the alleged undercoat of our tolerant settlement – the fact remains that it lies at the very apex of a pyramid of hierarchy, one that is mostly comprised of people who have unearned wealth, undemocratic power, undeserved prestige – or all three. Anyone who accepts an honour from the British government, or an invitation to tea at Buck House; anyone who shows deference to the monarchy, or even subscribes to an institution with royal patrons, partakes of this mass delusion: that the only way a modern democracy can be governed is by profoundly anti-democratic means; that the only way to treat citizens is as subjects. In my view, the British people will only come of political age with the abolition of the monarchy.

Melissa Benn, writer
The monarchy reflects and reinforces a paralysis at the heart of our political culture. The charm or idiocy of individual royals is merely a distraction from this, although royal antics feed very conveniently into an increasingly trashy culture. We rant against the dodgy expenses claims of MPs but say nothing about millions shelled out by taxpayers to this unaccountable institution. Just ask Richard Rogers if the monarchy wields only token power.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster
The royal family has very little impact now. They contribute a sense of background continuity simply by being there, and that reassures many people. But what is really dynamic and important in today’s world passes them by.

Marina Lewycka, novelist
I think the monarchy has become a sort of beloved national soap opera, along the lines of an ermine-trimmed Corrie, but a bit more expensive to run. I must confess to finding it highly entertaining, despite my aspirations to high-mindedness. It presses all the right (very British) buttons: social class, inheritance, wealth, family intrigue and bad behaviour, among others. But it gets a bit repetitive and it can’t be very nice for the actors, who are stuck in roles they can’t escape from. Maybe it’s time to draw the series to a close.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director, Kids Company
Blooming marvellous, and why not.

Roger Scruton, philosopher
The monarchy has been effective in providing a focus of loyalty above politics. It has made it possible for people who disagree radically about how the nation should be governed nevertheless to share an object of affection by which the nation as a whole is symbolised. In a world of mass media and screen addiction, however, in which visible celebrities attract more attention than invisible royals, monarchy finds it hard to compete. In a crisis, things might change, and it is certain that there will be plenty of crises in the years to come during which symbols of national loyalty will be needed. In such crises Americans turn to the constitution; we turn to the monarchy, which is our constitution-substitute. It seems to me to be a better solution, since it has the vagueness, and open-ness to interpretation, of history itself.

Agnes Poirier, journalist
It may have learned to live in harmony with a solid parliamentary regime, but the monarchy in has had many pernicious effects on British culture: most of all it has infantilised its subjects who think very little about citizenship in general and what it is to be a citizen in particular. The fact that the head of State, the monarch, is also the head of the Church has entailed a culture where religion pervades every aspect of society: it is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It is high time the British grew up and abolished once and for all the Ancien Régime under which they live.

Billy Bragg, musician
The most pernicious effect of the monarchy on our society is to be seen in the concept of the Crown in Parliament. It allows the Prime Minister to declare war, sign treaties and appoint cronies to the legislature, among other things, without first consulting MPs. A new constitutional settlement is needed to remove the monarchy from the legislative process and make the people sovereign in their own parliament. Would this necessitate the abolition of the monarchy? I don’t think so. Living in a multicultural society means that you have to show respect for beliefs and practices that you yourself may not adhere to. That includes the monarchy, morris dancing and the Church of England.

Maggie Gee, novelist
If the monarchy didn’t exist, you might not invent it, but in these islands it has evolved its rituals and its constraints through a long history of popular struggle. I definitely prefer what we have – a wise and rather witty female head of state who is part of our global identity, recognised in Africa, Asia, the Americas – to the boredom of, say, a President Kinnock or President Clarke. Elizabeth II has tried to be the Queen of all the people, and Charles is serious about the big things: education, global warming, conservation. Would we be better off with a series of heads of state tied to the barren two-party system?

David Cannadine
In The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot famously distinguished between the ‘dignified’ parts, which were largely ceremonial, and the ‘efficient parts’, where governing was actually carried on. In the former category came the monarchy and the House of Lords, in the latter the Cabinet and the House of Commons. It’s a perceptive formulation, which describes many aspects of British institutional life, but scarcely our constitution in these febrile times. The ‘efficient’ part no longer seems efficient (and is certainly not dignified), while the ‘dignified’ part still seems dignified (and is also quite efficient). Whatever would Bagehot have made of that?

Alain de Botton, philosopher
The monarchy is an embodiment of history. In this sense, it runs entirely counter to the pace of the media and of technology; which scours relentlessly around for symbols of modernity and advance. It is also a somewhat irrational institution, something for which it seems loved and hated by different sections of society. It asks us to entertain the idea that people could rule over us not because we voted for them, but just because they and their descendants put their stake in the ground before we appeared on earth.

Johann Hari, journalist
Having a hereditary head of state has a warping effect that runs through British politics and culture. Huge powers remain invested in the Crown - and we now have an heir to the throne who says he intends to be a "political King", using the "responsibility" and "wisdom" of his position to promote his own agenda. Of course, passing through Elizabeth Windsor's womb gives Charles no more "responsibility" or “wisdom” than the next mad person you see screaming at the bus stop - but he doesn't seem to know it. The powers he will have to promote his ignorant anti-scientific, anti-Enlightenment agenda are enormous. To name just one: if we have a tie-break election - a Bush vs Gore - the monarch picks the Prime Minister. It’s hardly minor, is it?

The cultural effects are just as toxic. Having an unchosen aristocratic head of state – surrounded by braying toffs – sends ripples of snobbery throughout the culture. It strengthens the most backward, disempowering parts of Britain against the rest of us.

Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham ­
The monarchy endures and is still relevant for many but I do wonder about its longevity. There is a strange paradox: the ‘Firm’ clearly sees its salvation lying with the next generation - Wills, Harry and co - bicycling towards the Scandinavian model of royalty, whilst showcasing a sense of duty through their service in the armed forces. The Court around them has also allowed their charges to appear in the tabloid media, spilling out of clubs, bleary eyed like so many other young people.

However, deference has long sustained our monarchy too. People still curtsy and bow to the Queen – up to now it has been instilled in us - but I cannot see my generation doing the same to a King William: “why should we, he’s no different to me”, many might claim, and that’s before attention is turned to the cost of the ancient institution.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.