Emotion, reason and George Alexander Louis

By Jill Segger
July 30, 2013

Support for monarchy relies more on emotion than it does on reason. It is therefore only sensible to admit that this is not the most fruitful time to be a Republican.

The Diamond Jubilee, the wedding of William Wales and Kate Middleton and now the birth of the first child of that union, have all touched the public's sentimentality bone.

Elizabeth Windsor now has the status of a dear old lady. Her grandson and his wife are easy on the eye and appear to be a reasonably un-stuffy and amiable couple. There has been much pageantry and spectacle associated with the celebrations of the Jubilee and the wedding and it does appear that there are many who believe that these displays of 'tradition' – despite manifesting largely 19th century inventions – somehow reflect a sense of 'greatness' back to us. It seems that there is still some way to go before we can believe in the building of a decent society without constant reference to an imagined and artificially constructed past.

Never doubt that monarchy has the capacity to make people behave in a foolish manner. The birth of the third in line to the throne has been attended by a brain-numbing level of banality and sycophancy. The cost in both money and time of the scores of highly skilled technical crews loitering outside the closed door of a maternity clinic is simply absurd.

Perspective was abandoned. Members of the public queued up to gush into microphones about standing in baking heat for 24 hours to spot a notice on an easel announcing the birth of a child to a couple they didn't know. The editor of Majesty (yes, there really is a periodical of that name) rhapsodised about a rejoicing nation and commentators filled the unforgiving hours with increasingly ludicrous speculation about what might be going on behind the door of the Lindo wing.

Writing about the British Constitution in 1867, Walter Bagehot said of monarchy, “Its mystery is its life. We must not let daylight upon magic”. The idea is accurate and because the exclusion of daylight has become unsustainable in a world of mass communications, the Windsors have ceased to be magical and have been turned into a soap opera by a celebrity-obsessed culture. We no longer believe in the Divine Right of monarchs but still wish to be entertained and given an occasional, if short-lived sense of uplift. You might call it mystery-lite.

However, unexamined emotion can be fickle. At the moment, the Windsor brand has managed its PR well and is riding high. But 16 years ago, the sentiment unleashed by the death of Diana brought a nearly fatal collapse in support. “Show us you care, Ma'am” demanded the tabloids, as the Queen failed to emote in the manner demanded. The mix of emotional pressure with the honorific was significant – a reminder of the servility which is nurtured by giving just enough to the popular will to keep it sweet.

The death of Elizabeth Windsor will cause a considerable upheaval in the country's psyche. Even those of us of a Republican inclination will be affected. She has been part of the background of our lives for three generations and most of us can remember no other monarch. It is realistic to acknowledge that in an age of rapid change, the continuity she represents is part of the emotional power exercised by her office.

The coronation of Charles III will be a further cause for a good deal of overblown rhetoric and fevered traditionalism. Whether a 21st century monarch can permit this to go unexamined by re-enacting the rituals of 1952 in a more secular and less reverential age remains to be seen.

But when all the pomp and emotion has died down, we will have a very different state of affairs to that which presently obtains. Charles Windsor will be an elderly man – maybe in his ninth decade of life. It seems unlikely that his querulousness and tendency to meddle in a way which his far more constitutionally-savvy mother has largely had the sense to avoid, will have diminished. His elder son will be middle-aged and his grandson an adolescent or young adult – the time of life when celebrity indiscretions are likely to attract the prurient attention of tabloid newspapers. The present climate of popular affection may prove to be a stuff that will not endure.

It is precisely this inconstancy and lack of capacity to think clearly about monarchy and its implications which makes it difficult to hold a reasonable discussion about the kind of future we want. Sooner or later, we will have to undertake a national debate unsullied by ad hominem arguments from either side.

An hereditary right to rule and all the ceremony and deference which goes with it is either acceptable or it is not. If the nation decides in favour of monarchy, it must forgo its sentimental and selective attachment to those members and aspects of the institution which it likes and accept that the next in line – however unattractive – is the rightful head of state. If it believes that to be undesirable and unsustainable, then alternatives must be examined.

The Twitter hashtag #bornEqual, which has gained currency since the birth of little Cambridge, as well as being a reminder of the inherent absurdity and injustice of an hereditary head of state, reminds me that a gilded cage is nonetheless a prison. George Alexander Louis will be required to join one of the armed forces, whether or not that does violence to his conscience or inclination. He will not be allowed to declare himself an atheist or to choose any other religion than that of the Established Church. If he is gay, his life will be a torment, as it will be should he fall in love with a Muslim or a non-white person.

We need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to let this continue. The time will come when the servility, silliness, sentimentality, nostalgia and injustice on which monarchy currently depends will cease to be acceptable to a grown-up democracy.

This seems like a good time to begin to think about a grown-up conversation.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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