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The response to the abdication of Juan Carlos and the comic-opera events which took place yesterday (4 June) in the palace of Westminster illustrate both the absurdity and the emotional pull of monarchy.
As a lifelong republican, I may wish that pull did not exist, but if it is denied, or dismissed as the vapourings of sentimentality, the republic will be a long time coming.
Juan Carlos Bourbon was the figurehead which made possible Spain's transition from Fascism to democracy. He may have been chosen as Franco's puppet, but he used his position to dismantle the old regime, to enable the referendum which established a constitutional monarchy and to thwart the attempted military coup of 1981. As the symbol of an older Spain, he was able to command the imagination and loyalty of a people ready for change. That should not be forgotten.
The extraordinary display of Ruritanian costumes, fanfares and baubles which is the State Opening of the UK Parliament is largely absurd. But it has one central moment of real drama – the closing of the door of the Commons chamber in the face of Black Rod. It takes us back three and a half centuries to the reminder given by the people to an over-mighty monarch as to where power was henceforth to be found. It is as though all the pageantry and flummery has been permitted to remain as a sop to ease that radical transition.
Nonetheless, the time for change always comes. The king of Spain may be seen to have served his purpose. He has been tainted by accusations of corruption made against his son-in-law, has proved himself unable to adapt to the changing politics of Latin America and was widely condemned for a private elephant-hunting trip to Botswana. To be possessed of great wealth and to be accustomed to commanding deference does not make for sensitivity to changing mores.
Elizabeth Windsor has a very different back-story. But she shares in these characteristics. Some of her family are less than admirable in their behaviour; she is a 'small c' conservative and seems happy to engage in activities which involve the death of feathered and furry creatures. Her inability to read the national mood when Diana was killed brought the monarchy nearer to collapse than it had been since the Abdication 60 years earlier. Its recovery owes much to her dogged sense of duty and to an understanding of her constitutional role which would appear to be lacking in her heir. That too, should not be forgotten. Add to this her status at the age of 88, of being “wonderful” and “ a dear old thing” and any critical mass for ending the institution of monarchy seems a long way off.
However, the announcement that Juan Carlos was to abdicate was followed by demonstrations across Spain in favour of a republic, indicating that tides turn quickly when sentiment is involved. Charles will not be a popular monarch, and once the inevitable grief at the death of his mother has passed and the excitement of the first coronation most of us will have experienced subsides, we may well find that a very different mood possesses the country.
By that time, a new and independent Scotland may be showing the rUK what a progressive and egalitarian nation can look like. Our relationship with Europe will have changed – whether by withdrawal or reform – and our politics will certainly have cast off the last vestiges of deference and will be far more multi-faceted.
When we can accept that gratitude for service past does not have to imprison us in an unchanging and narrow oncept of 'tradition'; when we acknowledge the need for, and the value of, a figurehead to represent the state, we will be in a position to bring what Bagehot called “the dignified part of the constitution” into a modern relationship with its “efficient part”.
On that day, the head of state will come to Westminster in a utilitarian vehicle, declare the parliamentary session open and depart, leaving the head of the Executive to deliver a 'state of the nation' address.
© 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/quakerpenTweet