OK, look. I am not, in any serious sense, a republican, and not merely because the Americans have utterly ruined that word. It’s true that, while the idea of a ceremonial head of state has some advantages, the idea of a hereditary one does not – and the idea of a hereditary one that we allow to own half of Britain and yet still pay for is actively obscene.
Even so – even though there is no way to justify our current constitutional setup, which is very clearly both regressive and absurd – I just can’t bring myself to feel strongly about changing it. We are in the middle of a public services crisis, and a housing crisis, and an incomes crisis, and a debt crisis. If I were creating a country from scratch, it wouldn’t look like this, but in the middle of all those multiple, overlapping crises, deciding that your overriding political priority is to muck about with the constitution feels like a faintly ridiculous indulgence.
But. Even though constitutional monarchy is fine – not great, no, but fine – the run up to the coronation has for me served to highlight a rather bigger problem with this country as it currently functions: the fact that we’re not all equal.
I don’t mean that we’re not equal to the King, although we’re not (he’s loaded and we’ve all been invited to swear an oath of loyalty to him, and more to the point, he’s the bloody King; of course we’re not equal to the King, that’s the literal point of having one, but, well, see previous paragraph). I mean that it’s served to highlight, not for the first time, that we aren’t actually all equal to each other.
It was a tweet from the Telegraph, linking to its coronation liveblog (obviously the Telegraph has a coronation liveblog), that brought this home: “ ‘Not my King’ protesters should respect ‘friends and neighbours’ says security minister Tom Tugendhat.”
[See also: Is it time for Britain to abolish its monarchy?]
To be fair to Tugendhat, a mildly pathetic figure, who has tried to build the reputation of Rory Stewart upon the politics, personality and charisma of Tom Tugendhat, and who seemed to think his main qualification to run for Tory leader last year was “wanting to”, he didn’t actually use the word respect: that was the Telegraph social media team’s own interpretation. But that is clearly what he was referring to, in the interview he gave to Sky News. (“I would say to anybody who is thinking of doing anything like that, think of your fellow citizens, think of your friends, your family and your neighbours, think of what this is about for many, many people.”) For this one weekend, just during this festival of monarchism, republicans are politely asked to keep schtum.
The problem is, it isn’t just this weekend, is it? Last autumn, when the Queen died, they were told that wasn’t the time to make their point either. So when is it the time? When we’re not in the middle of a major constitutional handover, and they’ll be told it’s silly to discuss the issue mid-king? When William inherits, and it won’t be time because once again the nation is grieving? When the sun expands and the earth dies in a ball of flame? When?
The most charitable interpretation of Tugendhat’s words is that they reflect a sort of tyranny of the majority, in which those with minority views – republicanism, for now at least, is that – are asked to accept that they’ve lost. That’s not great in itself – unpopularity is not the same as illegitimacy – but I’m not sure this reading is correct, even so. That’s because this dynamic echoes one we’ve seen time and time again, including in situations when the numbers aren’t nearly as clear-cut. The slight minority of Remainers were told, after the referendum, to respect and understand the views of the slim majority of Leavers. Those who live in cities are told to respect and understand those who live in smaller towns. The young are told to respect and understand the views of the old; migrants to respect and understand the fears of the frightened and racist.
It’s not that this dynamic is always a bad thing – in many cases (not that last one), respect and understanding beats the alternative. The problem, though, is that it only ever goes one way. Have you heard any of our leaders exhorting those celebrating this weekend to remember the feelings of their republican neighbours? Can you recall a government minister telling triumphalist Leavers not to gloat over what their Remain-voting friends were losing, including, in many cases, rights, jobs and even family members? Have older homeowners in the Red Wall ever once been exhorted to imagine how it must feel to be a renter on a zero-hours contract in Hackney? Our political culture has established a sort of gradient of respect, in which some people and some views are seen as vastly more worthy of it than others. And respect, unlike water, only ever flows uphill.
Once upon a time, we had a hierarchical society, in which some people were clearly above others and that was that. Now we are all nominally but not actually on a level, equal in theory but not in practice. If trashing the entire constitutional basis of this country is what it takes to reset that, then perhaps we should scrap the monarchy after all.