At a social gathering a few years ago, the topic of conversation turned to matters concerning the British monarchy. In due course the conversation turned towards the existence of the position of a king or queen, not to mention the necessity, or otherwise, of having an extended “royal family” linked to that queen or king.
As part of the general conversation, I expressed an opinion that, as a member of the British Republican Movement, I was opposed to the existence of a monarchy in the UK. Not being a stranger to opposition on this topic, it was no real surprise when one participant in the conversation commented “Leave our Queen alone”. My response to this was to assert that, by family background, birth, residence, marriage, and having been a British taxpayer for a significant proportion of my working life, my “British” credentials were impeccable, and that Queen Elizabeth is as much “my queen” as she is of any other – if I so choose!
A king or queen, as well as members of her or his family, is an aspect of governance in the UK. As numerous investigations have shown, this is an undeniable fact. Therefore, the matter of monarchy is, in many respects, a matter for politics. It is fatuous to deny the undeniable. Furthermore, recent events in the lives of the “royals” have shown that they share the moods and modes, as well as the customs and conventions, of British life, in much the same manner as other citizens of the kingdom – even if they do not, or cannot, recognise the fact, or if they take their Britishness to an unprecedented level. Being a political phenomenon, therefore, permits the monarchy to be a matter for discussion.
This consideration of the monarchy being a matter for discussion, has recently been given a new impetus by the interview that Harry Windsor and Megan Markle, the erstwhile Duke and Duchess of Sussex, gave with the American television presenter Oprah Winfrey. This interview was more devastating than many had expected, as one of the more shocking details outlined in it was the claim that, during Megan Markle’s pregnancy, someone in Buckingham Palace had expressed concern about the skin colour of the Sussex’s baby. This revelation continues to have reverberating effects.
Naturally, the British Republican Movement (BRM) picked-up this news and it has been included in the BRM’s campaign to end the British monarchy. In a press release, Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, said “The interview has shown everyone what we have known for a long time: the monarchy is bad for Britain and bad for the royals. It is time to abolish the monarchy and ensure that the Queen is Britain’s last monarch.”
Republic has launched a new petition, calling for the abolition of the monarchy. The petition is on Republic’s own website (www.republic.org.uk) and, when the time comes, it will be handed to parliament.
As a republican, it is my view that the royals are at the apex of a triangle of privilege within UK society. The institution of monarchy is at the centre of a system of governance, as well as social and economic organisation, that has been dominant in the British Isles for many centuries. The institutions forming this system include military, legal, and religious institutions. Today’s British monarchy may not believe that it possesses the divine right to reign, but its existence contributes to the perpetuation of class and social divisions, of wealth and status inequality, and all, or much of it, is financed by the British taxpayer.
These facts make it more mystifying that, despite major dysfunctions within their family, the huge gap in personal philosophies, living standards and styles between the royals and rest of British citizenry, the nature of the royal family’s inherited existence, and the monarchy’s role in British colonial expansion, there is not a greater antipathy towards monarchy. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the national psychology of the British people. In this respect, the historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga, has said that, “Trapped in a make-believe past, we are unable to recognise how our real history shapes our culture and our attitudes. Fearful of confronting that true past, we struggle to reshape our institutions for the future, even when gifted an extraordinary opportunity for renewal”.
As a former teacher in Secondary School Humanities, it was my privilege and joy to teach “A” Level Philosophy and Ethics. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the course, for students and teacher alike, was teaching and learning about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. This allegory belonged to the great philosopher’s theory of knowledge (epistemology). Interestingly, the allegory appears in Book VII of Plato’s “The Republic” (though, it should be noted, a “republic” in Plato’s days was not what it would signify today).
The “Allegory of the Cave” offers several ways of storytelling and interpreting. Basically, however, the allegory depicts chained people living in a cave. The cave represents the world of sense-experience. In the cave, people see only unreal objects, shadows, or images. The dark cave symbolically suggests the unenlightened contemporary world, and the chained people those who live in this world. The raised wall of the cave reflects the shadows of the chained people when the muted sunlight from the cave’s entrance falls on them. The wall symbolises the limitation of their thinking, and the shadows symbolically suggest the world of their sensory perception, which Plato considered was an illusion.
The “Allegory of the Cave” is a metaphor designed to illustrate human perception, ideologies, illusions, opinions, and sensory appearances. The cave is a prison for individuals who base their knowledge on such things. Socrates, the famous teacher of Plato, and the one whose ideas and teachings come to us via Plato, explains how the philosopher is like a former prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not represent reality.
As I ruminated on the Sussex’s interview with Winfrey, perused the numerous reviews and articles written about the event, and listened to the interminable discussions on it, my thoughts returned again and again to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”.
For this writer, the allegory can be applied to the British royal family. Their lives are illusions – mere shadowy reflections on the personal and institutional walls of excess, privilege, celebrity, and historical pedigree. Each of the foregoing circumscribe, limit, and ensure their particular and prescribed understanding and appreciation of what it is to be genuinely human. As a family – a cohort – they are chained as slaves to their sense of duty and self-importance, lacking in empathy, and limited in their thinking and appreciation by the institutional bonds that bind them to their mutual ideologies, as well as their self-imputed and self-important activities and tasks.
The monarchy needs to unshackle its chains, tear down its coruscating walls, escape the delusional images of the cave, and come out of the shadows into the full radiance of the light that is the reality of 21st century, democratic Britain. The prisoners need to become more like the philosophers, not mere shadows on a wall.