In my previous blog (Article 153), I sought to discuss some of the inter-connections between the British Republican Movement (BRM) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The focus of the discussion was on such matters as the respective attitudes of these two organisations to such areas of British life as democracy and governance, the monarchy, the role of religion in the life of the British State, and the place of the Church of England (CofE) as the established institutional religion of the nation.
The discussion concluded with the realisation that monarchy is at the very centre of the institutional life of the United Kingdom, including aspects of its governance and the operation of the Established Church. Monarchy’s place is epitomised and legitimised through its institutional connection with a minority faith, the Protestant Church of England. This church is privileged in its presence and archaic in its practice and position. This situation is unsustainable; it is both an affront to the freedom of religious faith and to the democratic principles under which the governance of the UK is supposed to function. This is a major point of intersection between the NSS and the BRM.
It might be asked, then, as to why a concerned and widespread critique and action has not, heretofore, been brought to bear on this situation. This may be due to several contributing factors. It will be my purpose to discuss these factors in the following article, part two of this essay, “Double Vision”.
Firstly, it may be said that the situation is brought about by the inertia of the British people and their democratic institutions.
It might be thought, wrongfully in this writer’s opinion, that monarchy impinges little upon the ordinary and everyday life of the people. On the contrary, monarchy is endemic in the perpetuation of memorable days and ceremonies in national life – especially those to do with seasonal religious festivals and militarism.
Secondly, monarchy – its appearance and presentation, palaces and estates, publicity and celebrity, and its manifold trimmings – is assumed to be a tourist attraction and, therefore, a major contributor to the national coffers.
Several investigations by the BRM have shown this to be a false assumption – even without the continuing presence of a “royal family” tourists would still come to this country in their droves, indeed, it is quite fallacious, if not fatuous, to claim otherwise. For the tourist to any country that still harbours monarchy, the latter is wallpaper; the tourist dollar is not spent on wallpaper, no matter what its colour or pattern.
Thirdly, it is repeatedly stated that Elizabeth Windsor has earned the respect of the British people by the manner of her efficient and devoted attention to her monarchical role.
Most public opinion would say that she has done “a blinder of a job” over a long and successful career. It needs to be recognised, however, that much of what she says and does appertains to the conduct of her official role and its necessary functions. It must also be kept in mind that she, and her considerable extended family, are generously remunerated for their functional duties, enjoy numerous inherited privileges, are amply rewarded in kind for gratuitous services, as well as private and institutional protection from many of the dangers and hardships that are faced by the vast majority of British citizens.
In the evolution of each of the above, the CofE has played its part. The role of the CofE would include the presence of regal cathedrals, seasonal and annual ceremonies of both a national and peculiarly religious nature, rituals in the Houses of Parliament, or events to mark the continuity with the religious past of the nation – especially with the English nation. It needs also to be said that secular figures in the past, notably Charles Bradlaugh, the founder of the National Secular Society, have, through oration, law practice or participation in governance, made known their opposition to the constitution of the UK and, by implication and practical application, the place of monarchy and established religion in this constitution.
Despite the protestations of persons such as Charles Bradlaugh in the late 19th century, as well as those more contemporary protesters to be found in the BRM and NSS, and in the wider society of the 21st century, there remains the affront of the twenty-six bishops of the CofE who are afforded the privilege of sitting with the unelected Lords in the Upper House of the British Parliament, the lack of reform within the cloisters of the CofE, the undemocratic basis for and formation of the House of Lords, or the democratically questionable royal prerogatives given to the government of the day through such bodies as the Privy Council.
Each of the foregoing delivers special privileges to their receivers, making it unlikely that change would be welcomed, at least by those in receipt of such special privileges. It could be concluded, therefore, that the latter is a fourth reason for the lack of a concerted critique of the institution of the monarchy and its relationships with other national institutions.
In a meritocratic democracy where equality is, or should be, a working principle, the ideal is that all persons have the right to choose an education, a career, a partner, a religious faith to follow – or none if that is the desire. A member of the royal family who is in the direct line of succession is unable to make these democratic choices. Her or his life is circumscribed by the intentions and objectives of their future role in British society. That role also prescribes a peculiar religious adherence that necessitates a bias in the choice of religious faith.
What further choice, apart from leaving the religious faith of their choice and passion, does a typical member of the CofE have if his or her political principles and beliefs do not agree with the privileged position of their particular religious faith in British society? Is there a contradiction in the theological statements of Christianity including the pronunciation that “Christ is King” and, by implication, the head of the Christian faith and its constituent churches, when, in fact, a male monarch – a king – being Head of the British State, is also be the Head of the CofE?
Whilst accepting the role of a monarch in the constitution and practical functions of the CofE, what can a practising member of the CofE do when believing that the life of a monarch is inconsistent with the beliefs and proclamations of the church for which they have sworn fealty? What should the person of faith do when that faith is sullied by its links with governments that operate with principles that are clearly devoid of Christian, or any religious, content – or are simply corrupt?
Does the person of faith face the same limitations within the CofE as does the ordinary British citizen face with the government of the day when wishing to protest at the ideas and actions of their respective institutions? Where does genuine democracy reside in both Church and State in British society?
Persons of religious faith can be found in the membership of the British Republican Movement, though they are most unlikely to be members of the National Secular Society. Monarchists can be active supporters of the NSS, although divesting themselves of any support for the notion of “the divine right to rule of kings and queens”. It is salutary to consider that all founders of the NSS were republicans but, whereas the NSS supports the removal of all unelected bishops from the House of Lords, not all NSS supporters consider that the House of Lords should be an elected chamber. Monarchists, however, are most unlikely to be supporters of the BRM.
The authenticity of the above statements can be verified by an examination of each of founding principles and ongoing activities of each of the BRM and NSS organisations. There are strands in each of these movements which intertwine. Each have campaigns that would welcome the support of the other. Each has a vision of British society that encourages democracy, meritocracy, citizen participation, and freedom of conscience and belief – including religious belief.
I am of the twin view that neither a specific religious faith – Christianity or otherwise, nor a monarchy – inherited or otherwise, should have a privileged place in the public life of British, or any other, society. The reasons for this double perspective, this “double vision”, have been outlined in the above and are the bases for my membership and ongoing support of both the National Secular Society and the British Republican Movement. I commend both organisations to the reader.