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.