THE BEGINNING OF THE FOUR DAY PLATINUM JUBILEE seems a good time to unpack some of the absurdities, pitfalls and occasional outright cruelties associated with both royalist and republican points of view.
In childhood, my father told me that you can learn quite a lot about a person by asking if they were ‘for King or for Parliament’. Over the years, I have come to realise that one learns even more by discovering that they may not understand the question. The role of a constitutional monarch and the realities of the hereditary principle tend to be lost in a fog of sentiment and the concept of developing a different system is often met with some shock and even with accusations of treason.
Elizabeth Windsor is the longest reigning monarch in British history and it is unlikely that there will be another royal platinum anniversary. The heir to the throne is 73 and his son is 40. Barring some multi-generational disaster, the possibility of another 70 year reign seems a very long way off, even if the monarchy survives. So it is understandable that a sense of occasion has grasped many people and that turning to four days of pageantry and nostalgia has been been met with some enthusiasm.
Much of the difficulty in negotiating the royalist/republican divide arises from ad hominem arguments which can become very bitter. Like most families, the Windsors are a mix of virtue, vice, intelligence, stupidity, humility and arrogance. But because their lifestyles and therefore their experiences and expectations are so very bizarre to most of us, both excuses for, and condemnation of, reprehensible behaviours abound, as does fawning adulation for apparently commonplace actions.
Walter Bagehot’s observation on royalty, “We must not let daylight in upon the magic” was a warning to his contemporaries that they could not, as is said where I come from, “have your bun and your penny”. We have not yet understood that. A culture of celebrity attaches to the doings of the Windsors whilst a growing egalitarianism tends towards indignation at their privilege and abuses of that privilege. This is divisive and infantilising. The elderly man who told me at a Republic meeting that he would gladly operate the guillotine “on the whole lot of them”, and the families who will sleep on the pavement outside a hospital to see a member of the royal family emerge with a newborn, are at the extreme ends of this spectrum of unreason. When we have understood that people are royal because at some point in history their forbears were more ruthless thugs than yours or mine, and that like the rest of us, they are Inter faeces et urinam nascimur, we may better be able to judge whether the role which they play is one we wish to preserve and support.
The present Queen has reigned as a constitutional monarch for as long as most of us can remember. She has carried out what she believes to be her duty with unfailing diligence and dignity, probably at considerable cost to her personal happiness. Whether any individual should do this for 70 years must be up for questioning. And that question invites us to consideration of the possibility of electing our head of state.
The hereditary aspect of monarchy is beginning to unravel, not least due to the very long life of Elizabeth Windsor. Those who do not find the prospect of KIng Charles attractive have suggested that the throne should bypass him and go to his elder son on the Queen’s death, thus making the succession an issue of personal preference. If, as has also been proposed, this should be subject to a vote, the hereditary principal would no longer exist. Once the idea that a head of state could be chosen by the people has entered the debate, we need to move to considering the characteristics required of that person.
There is no reason to think that a presidential candidate would have to be chosen from among superannuated MPs or prime ministers. A man or woman capable of taking on the ceremonial aspect of representing the country on the world stage with dignity and of providing a figurehead at home in times of national rejoicing or tragedy could not be a divisive figure. They would be legally bound to party political neutrality and to acting as a check on any tendency of the executive to abuse its power. By being held accountable for what they do and say, they would incentivised to be inclusive and to act as a unifying force. As an elected head of state, a president would be answerable to the people in a way that an hereditary monarch is not and should they fail to meet their obligations or overreached their powers, they could be removed,
A president would have a fixed term of office and a fixed salary. Thus an extended family of ‘hangers on’ and multiple expensive homes would not be an ongoing cost to the public purse. If you seek examples, look at the recent presidents of Ireland. Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael Higgins are statespeople of integrity and vision who have served their nation with distinction.
As the UK becomes more divided and angry under the premiership of Boris Johnson, the need for constitutional reform can no longer be ignored. Our uncodified constitution is a gift to an unscrupulous prime minister who has shown himself willing to ride roughshod over the rule of law, the separation of powers and the obligation to integrity in public life.
This Jubilee holiday is not the right time for aggressive criticism of a nonagenarian monarch but it is very much the right time to acknowledge that an era is coming to its end and to begin thinking about what might come next.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen