Swearing at Charlie

OK, the title should probably be “to” rather than “at” – but some of my online friends have been doing more “at” than “to”…

I’m feeling somewhat conflicted about the coronation (which was today as I started writing this – I’ve spent far too long tinkering with it). Significant numbers of friends have been posting things critical of the monarchy recently, either on the basis that it’s an opportune time to review whether we want a king (it isn’t – we should have done that, if we wanted to, before he was acclaimed by the PM, let alone actually crowned) or (and I suspect this of being the motive in most cases) they are republicans, and annoyed by the amount of attention the coronation is getting when matters which they consider more important are sidelined. One very measured but impassioned piece comes from my Australian friend John Squires. Some others are vicious, to be honest. I don’t tend to unfriend people who express views contrary to mine, even when they’re fairly abusive to my own position, but they have certainly suprpised me about a few people…

I have sympathy with the irritation many are feeling. In conscience, the amount of coverage the coronation has got in the media before and during the event has been too much. I look at monarchy as a system and consider the alternative of a republic, and a republic appears by far the more logical system. If the monarch still had much real power, I’d probably be advocating that that power were removed, if not going all the way and proposing a republic. It was also a very costly event, at a time when it seems government will not spend money on things like keeping people fed, healthy or educated. That said, it cost rather less than many movies do these days, and entertained at least as many people…

Also… some years ago I looked at the cost of the monarchy and the amount of publicity and tourism it gives Britain, comparing it with the cost to countries of various presidents. I actually concluded that there wasn’t a great deal to choose between our then Queen and the then President of France in terms of cost to the country (and I don’t see people from abroad queuing up to visit Paris in the hopes of seeing Macron or his family). I also consider who we might potentially vote into office as president, and shudder at the thought of President Johnson or (God forfend!) President Farage.

OK, that was the late Queen, and even her critics tended to acknowledge that she did a pretty good job of being a national figurehead. Charles is obviously a different person, and has had his share of really bad publicity (mostly associated with the late Princess Diana and much encouraged by Rupert Murdoch). I won’t rehash that controversy – it’s one of those issues which divided the country along a mostly non-political fracture line, but my own sympathies were largely with Charles. He won’t be the same as his mother, which some think is a very bad thing. However, some of his instincts I approve of thoroughly. For instance (and in some response to John’s piece) when acknowledging, in November, the change of head of state of Barbados to himself, he expressed an apology for the history of slavery in which Britain and previous monarchs were complicit, which his mother never felt able to do, which may augur well for the future. He is thoroughly in favour of the environment, conservation and the de-linking of the monarchy from the headship of the Church of England. OK, to an extent. The coronation ceremony thoroughly confirms that headship – but he involved leaders of several other major faith communities in the country, and has asked to be regarded as “defender of faiths” rather than “defender of the faith” (a title ironically given by the then pope to his ancestor Henry VIII shortly before Henry declared UDI from the Catholic Church and set up exactly that headship…) He supports the preservation of traditional crafts, children (particularly underprivileged ones through the Prince’s Trust) and several disadvantaged groups. He doesn’t like modern architecture (OK, I snuck that one in mischievously). He has a good sense of humour, and seems to be at least a bit impatient with ceremony.

I am not an uncritical admirer, though. He didn’t handle his marriage to Diana at all well, including not standing up to pressure from his family (and I have the late Queen Mother and his father directly in mind there) to marry someone “acceptable”, which actually left him with a fairly small pool of potential wives. He still has the ingrained legacy of generations of entitlement baked into his subconscious. He hasn’t divested himself of the vast majority of the vast wealth the family (and its head in particular) has accumulated. And I rather doubt he has the backbone to use his residual power to go against government if they propose something even more egregious than they have already (a power which exists, but which could probably only be used once before he was removed…) He has continued to speak out about the environment, which is something positive, but I’d like him to add refugees and government corruption – and maybe even the idiocy of Brexit.

I have considered at huge length the selection of someone to act as figurehead for the nation. Although hereditary monarchy seems rationally indefensible, there is actually something to be said for having someone brought up from birth to understand the way things are done, something which our recent crop of politicians have not been good at doing, to the extent that our unwritten constitution has been trampled on in several important ways. Having an unwritten constitution is also rationally indefensible, but has actually worked pretty well for quite some time, just as has the actual monarchy, though I’m coming to the conclusion that we’re going to have to have a written constitution, and it may be the time to rethink monarchy as well. However, as things stand,  Charles has had 70 years to get used to the idea of being our figurehead, and in his case, I think has taken the lessons thoroughly to heart. I’ll confess that despite the vast wealth (and the power that potentially confers), the fancy houses and vehicles and the “soft power” of both having the current PM come and talk with you weekly and of having every word you say listened to in a way which even prime ministers might envy, I would not have wanted to be him, save for a brief time in my teens (when he was “the most eligible bachelor in Europe”…). The perceived compulsion to marry someone suitable and to produce an heir (and yes, sorry Harry, a spare), the fact that every word or action will be scrutinised, the pressure of exactly that “this is how things are done” meant that he was born into a cage.

Granted, it was a gilded cage. Granted equally that he could have walked away from it, expressing an intention to abdicate as soon as his mother died (back when he married, marrying someone “unsuitable” might well have resulted in his removal from the line of succession – that is, of course, something which parliament can decide). His second son, after all, has done something of the sort. (In passing, I’m glad to see that his sons haven’t been subjected to quite the same degree of pressure to marry “properly”, at least it doesn’t seem so).

But, in Charles’ case, I think the weight of duty has been accepted. And the weight of his “possessions”. I have long remarked, having an acquaintance who lives in what could reasonably be called a “Stately Home”, that when a house (or land) gets to a certain size, it isn’t the individual/family who owns the land, it’s the land or house which owns the individual/family. Similarly I was struck by the late Queen, in a programme about the Royal Regalia, commenting when they brought out St. Edward’s Crown, that “they haven’t let me touch this since the coronation”. We’d think of that as “her possession”, but it appears it really wasn’t, at least in her eyes and those of people around her. I rather doubt that much of the wealth in money and possessions “feels like” it belongs to the monarch to them. Also, I think I detected considerable unease in both Charles and Camilla about the extent of pomp and ceremony. That, for me, it a good thing – I’d rather like to disqualify from positions of power and influence those who desperately want power and influence, and it seems to me that Charles would really rather prefer not to be in his position – which makes him better qualified for the position than any of our front ranking politicians in my eyes!

So, when it came to the point in the ceremony when the people generally were invited to swear allegiance to Charles, I joined in. To be fair, I could feel the pressure from my wife to do that, and from other family members present and past. All of my father, myself, my son, my wife and both her parents swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, which leaves basically my mother and daughter as outliers. All except myself did it because we were involved with the armed services. I had non-military, but public service reasons. Prior to this coronation, however, it wasn’t the norm for the people generally to be invited to do that – there had to be a special reason. I’m conflicted about that too. I’d have been prepared to fight for Elizabeth back when I swore to her, but I’m now pretty much a pacifist (having been immersed in the synoptic gospels for some years), and too old and unwell to be of any use fighting, so my support is pretty much limited to “yes, I’d probably vote against a republic”. But if what was on the table was a radically more egalitarian and caring society under the cover of a general constitutional settlement (which, as I mention above, I rather fancy we need) – well, then I’d have problems supporting the status quo.

But I don’t expect ever to be offered a transition to what has been described as “fully automated luxury comunism“. I hope at most that I might be offered some small steps in that direction, and, frankly, I approve of small steps. I’m nervous of complete revolutions; my historical knowledge tells me they never produce what was hoped for, and frequently cause untold suffering in the process. And, to my republican friends, I’ll say that I think there are a large number of those small steps which I’d take before contemplating getting rid of the monarchy.

Is it ridiculous to swear allegiance to him? Well, somewhat – he’s never going to be leading troops into battle (though earlier in his life he just might have). But my American friends swear allegiance to a flag, and it seems to me much less ridiculous swearing allegiance to a human being than to a piece of cloth.

Finally, a note to republican friends from former colonies. I think, were I Australian, or NZ, or Canadian, I’d probably come down on the republican side of the issue. Our monarchs turn up there once every few years for a day or two, and aren’t present in the way they are in the UK – or, at least, in England and Scotland. They don’t really contribute much in the way of tourism and international kudos for, say, the Australians. Even more so for those territories which were built on the back of slave labour, where the impetus to break with history must be that bit stronger.