When I was a theological student at Whitley college, University of Melbourne, I acquired the reputation of being “the champion of lost causes”. There was no specific cause of which I was attested as being a champion, it just seemed that I was prepared to argue the case for persons and situations for which few, if any, others would be prepared to make a stand.
I am a member of Republic, a movement in the UK that campaigns for the end of the British monarchy. When I make this known to others, through private conversation or articles such as this blog, I often get the same response to that which I experienced as a student. Surely, such a movement is a lost cause in contemporary Britain? I was recently reminded of this now rather distant, but not completely forgotten, personal reputation when reading an article by Polly Toynbee, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper.
Toynbee had written an article with the heading, “Should Elizabeth II be Elizabeth the Last? At least allow Britain a debate.” The article addressed the issue of the extent to which “The Queen is less of a constitutional monarch then we thought.” Prior to Toynbee’s article, The Guardian had revealed that Elizabeth Windsor had “used her Queen’s consent powers to vet more than 1,000 laws before they reached parliament.”
In explanation, the article stated that, constitutionally, the Queen is supposed to act on the advice of the government. The monarch, it is said, “merely signs the laws that ministers bring to her”. This is a charade, conducted mainly behind closed doors, and which shields the Queen’s actions from the public gaze, so that the citizenry fails to realise what is going on. Indeed, documents in the National Archives reveal that Her majesty has managed, in secret, to get laws changed in favour of her personal interests – before even they were introduced!
Moreover, further memos unearthed from the same National Archives have shown how she applied pressure on the UK government in the 1970’s, especially during the prime ministership of Edward Heath, to ensure that the extent of her private wealth stayed secret. However, it was not just the governments of the 1970’s, successive British governments, before and since, had “bent at the knee”, showing how weekly meetings with the Queen had kept prime ministers in awe and subjection.
The words of the winning British entry in the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest, “Puppet on a string”, seem to suggest themselves: “In or out, there is never a doubt; Just who is pulling the strings, I (prime minister) am all tied up to you (the Queen)” (lyrics by Martin and Coulter, sung by Sandie Shaw).
It is an understatement to say that the Queen is a very wealthy woman, with a Sunday Times estimated personal fortune of £350m. The Forbes List puts her down for around £72.5b (much of that, being royalty assets, is, however, not hers to keep). Moreover, the “Paradise Papers leaked to The Guardian showed she personally has millions in the off-shore tax havens of the Bermuda and the Cayman Islands – those shameful last remnants of her lost empire.”
Polly Toynbee’s article goes on to argue that it is not her influence, nor her wealth or secrecy, that is of prime importance. What reflects the real damage to the British people, if not those throughout the Commonwealth, is the fact that the very existence of monarchy “ambushes and infantilises the public imagination, making us their subjects in mind and spirit. The Crown, The Queen and countless lesser dramatisations, remind us how transfixed we are as the soap opera of royal births, weddings, divorces, and deaths marks the timeline of our own lives.”
The roots of such narratives can be found in British history, British exceptionalism, the magic of majesty, the amazement induced by the extent of the British royal fetish, the corruption of an unelected House of Lords (where position can be bought by donation), the institutional links of royalty with the Established State Church of England, and even Shakespeare is partly to blame with his literary focus on the rise and fall of kings. All of this adds up to the absurdity of modern monarchy.
Toynbee draws together the overall argument of her article by stating that the reign of Elizabeth II “is an emblem of Britain’s essential and enduring conservatism.”, and that monarchy “stands as a symbol for our increasingly rigid and immobile society.” This reminded me of some words of the old hymn, “All things bright and beautiful”, I learned as a child in Sunday School: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” Shameful words with an inappropriate title!
Before concluding her article, however, Toynbee makes the statement that “Republicanism feels like a lost cause.” However, is it a “lost cause”? Whilst three times more people back the monarchy than a republic, yet “little by little opinion inches along”. A recent poll by YouGov finds that support for the monarchy is slowly eroding. Young people are much less monarchist than their forebears; parts of the UK, notably in Scotland, are much less monarchist that the south of England; the next in line to be monarch, Charles Windsor, is much less popular than his mother, Elizabeth Windsor.
The Queen has been an immensely popular monarch. Elizabeth II is now, however, a very elderly woman and when she dies, likely within the next decade, surely, says Polly Toynbee, the question should be asked of the British people, “Should she be Elizabeth the Last?”
As a member of the British Republican Movement, I recently received an email from the CEO of Republic concerning Prince Charles and the Duchy of Cornwall. The content of the email focused on Prince Charles’s bid to win exemption from important new home ownership laws. The Duchy of Cornwall, which Prince Charles runs as his own private business, is exempt from lots of different laws. Either a law does not apply to the Duchy of Cornwall or the Duchy will face no consequences if they break the law.
Now the government is planning major reforms of leasehold rights. The reforms will mean people who own their homes, but not the land their homes stand on, will find it easier to buy the land, and will be better protected from unscrupulous land-owners – unless you live on Duchy of Cornwall land owned by Prince Charles! Already, Duchy tenants are excluded from the right to buy the freehold, which would give them ownership of the land under their homes.
We live in a land where the introduction of death duties for the aristocracy has seriously depleted their power and wealth – for all but royalty, who are exempt from such taxes! This situation indicates that, in this country, we are not all equal under the law – particularly if your landlord is Prince Charles or you are a member of the extended royal family.
The reforming new home ownership laws (see above) are an opportunity to put that right, but Charles Windsor is already lobbying to get himself exempted from the new reforms. This reflects the actions of his mother who sought to maintain government secrecy about her wealth and, furthermore, endeavoured to change government laws to favour her personal and family convenience and situation.
In the light of the above, the question, “Is Republicanism a lost cause?”, should be replaced with the alternative question, “Does Monarchy have a future?” The more that becomes known of the machinations and subterfuge of royalty with respect to law and government, the more it asks questions of the relevance, efficacy, and morality of a British monarchy. Surely, in the democracy that purports to be the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, the question of the future of the House of Windsor should be at least put to the British people?