Pandaemonium

MY WEEK OF LÈSE-MAJESTÉ

Queen Lightness of Being

I have never been doorstepped by journalists. Until this week, that is. I opened my door last Wednesday to find two journalists from the National News press agency (an agency that apparently the Daily Mail and the Sun employ a lot). They demanded an interview ‘about the controversial article you wrote for the New York Times’.

Ah, that controversial article for the New York Times. I have over the years written many controversial articles. The New York Times essay on the Queen’s finances published last week was not one of them. Or so I had thought. Sure, it ran under a provocative headline (‘Britain’s welfare queen’), but it was a fairly sober, even dry, analysis. The article set out the facts and figures and gave a potted history of the constitutional fudge at the heart of the British monarchy. Its most controversial line was the suggestion that, far from being an apolitical institution, the very existence of the monarchy was a political statement, proclaiming ‘that an accident of birth matters more than the democratic will’. There was no fact that was not already in the public domain, no opinion that would not be held by any self-respecting democrat. I had not reckoned, however, with the sensitivities of Britain’s monarchists.

I told the doorstepping journalists to go fly, and to email me if they wanted to arrange an interview. Half an hour later they phoned me. ‘We’re at a café down the road. Can you come down for an interview?’ I declined the offer. They tried again and again on the phone to get me to say ‘I hate the Queen’. They were most disappointed when all I would say was ‘What’s so controversial about wanting a non-hereditary head of state?’. They asked me, too, whether I hated the Queen because I was a communist. ‘Does it take a communist these days’, I asked them, ‘to defend democracy or to argue for an elected head of state?’

The Times had in fact already run a full-page spread on my lèse-majesté:

The Queen was told by the Sex Pistols that she was “no human being” in their Jubilee single God Save the Queen, but it has taken the New York Times to call her a benefit claimant.

.

Kenan Malik, a British-based author, has criticised Britain for having a “welfare Queen” as head of state who “publicly pleads poverty” despite having a vast personal fortune, in a column for the US newspaper.

.

Mr Malik argued that the monarchy was “preposterous” as an apolitical institution and was popular only because of public cynicism about politicians. “As long as the public despises politicians and favours the royals, one of the richest families in the world will continue to live luxuriously at the taxpayers’ expense,” he wrote.

.

The article included outraged responses from the historian and royal biographer Hugo Vickers who insisted that ‘The Queen is very parsimonious. Her private lifestyle, apart from racehorses, is very modest.’ He also suggested that ‘The monarch is above politics and we can all expect him or her to look after our interests. They’re trained for the job from the beginning. They haven’t had to climb the greasy pole.’ Which is another way of saying that the Queen rules merely because of the privilege of birth.

Among others denouncing my article were Christopher Lee, the author of This Sceptred Isle and Monarchy (‘The Royal Family creates an awareness of the nation 365 days a year, it hands out more than 3,000 honours — the whole industry of that firm is hard work. It’s not lavish’) and Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg (‘The Queen is more highly taxed than any of her subjects’).

The Times, like the agency journalists, tried also to play on the red scare, observing that I had once been a ‘contributor to Living Marxism‘. It failed to observe that I have also been a contributor, and far more frequently, to the op ed pages of the Times. It is not difficult to spot the irony. People rightly condemn Cuba or China or North Korea for the expunging of democracy. But here I was arguing for a properly democratic system, and for an elected head of state, and getting condemned as a ‘communist’.

NPG 4706; Queen Elizabeth II by Pietro Annigoni
The Daily Star was also suitably outraged:

Left-wing author Kenan Malik caused outrage by dubbing the 87-year-old Monarch “Britain’s welfare queen”.

.

Writing in the New York Times, Indian born Malik  commented: “Trying to make sense of the royal finances is like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon. If the Queen is so wealthy, how can she be strapped for cash?”

.

Malik, brought up in Manchester, also attacked claims made last year that the Queen was down to her last million, accusing her of “publicly pleading poverty”.

.

He highlighted how Her Maj has her own private £500m fortune, including her Scottish holiday home in Balmoral.

.

And then the Sunday Times phoned up for an interview, which ended as part of a News Review profile, and which actually set out fairly my argument (and my bafflement at all the attention):

Kenan Malik is bemused. Last week the left-wing author and academic wrote what he thought was a fairly reasonable column in The New York Times about the British monarchy’s recent financial troubles, entitled “Britain’s welfare queen”.

.

In it he bemoaned the fact that one of the richest families in the world continues to “live luxuriously at the taxpayers’ expense”. He also pointed out the “constitutional fudge” that led to some in the royal family viewing the Crown Estate — whose revenue is controlled by the taxpayer — as “their personal property”.

.

The response in many quarters was outrage. Malik had reporters at his door asking him if he hates the Queen. The Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called his article “silly”.

.

When I meet Malik a few days later in a cafe in Covent Garden, central London, he remains puzzled at the fuss his republican sentiments have caused. “It just seems bizarre to me that you have to be ‘another mad leftie’, as one of the critics put it, in order to argue for a non-hereditary head of state,” he says. “All I did in the article was set out the facts and figures.”

.

He believes that much of the response to his article was emotional rather than considered: “The monarchy is to the right what the welfare state is to the left. Rather than having a rational, reasonable debate, we have an emotion-filled row.”

.

At first glance the Indian-born Malik, 50, might be mistaken for “another leftie”. He certainly has the credentials. After growing up near Stockport, where it was “normal” to come home with a bloody nose or a black eye because of race-related violence, he became associated with far-left groups such as the Socialist Workers party and the Revolutionary Communist party. Is he still a Marxist? “The world’s moved on, politics has moved on and I’ve moved on. The old categories don’t make sense. A lot of people can’t situate themselves on the political map any more.”

.

Nonetheless, his views on monarchy still reflect some of that old anti-establishment ardour. He describes the system as a “feudal relic” and believes it “symbolises a certain image of Britain that’s very anachronistic”.

.

Can he really imagine Britain without the royals as part of our national identity? Simple answer: “Yes. Fifty years ago people would probably have said, ‘I can’t imagine black people being part of British national identity.’ Today they are central. Things change.”

.

The article ran under the headline ‘Yell all you like. Britain will be a republic’ – which referred to nothing either that I said in the interview nor had written in the original. It was also accompanied by a strange photo of me holding a large card reading ‘Let ’em all in’. This was in fact a publicity shot for a Channel 4 documentary about immigration that I had made a decade ago. What it had to do with the monarchy, I am not sure. Perhaps the picture editor thought it expressed my ‘mad leftiness’. I can only assume that the Sunday Times had expected a ranty, raving interview, did not get what it wanted, but went along anyway with its original headline and photo.

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom 1985 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987

There has been something quite surreal about all the attention and outrage generated by what was, and remains, a fairly innocuous essay. Outrage, of course, has become the currency of our age, and monarchists are not the only group to reveal thin skins. Just as religious outrage about ‘blasphemy’ reveals not the strength but the weakness of contemporary belief, so the ease with which monarchists are offended by any criticism of royalty suggests much greater anxiety about the hereditary system than they deign to admit.

The response to my lèse-majesté reveals also something about the character of public debates. The monarchy debate is, in one sense, a bit like the immigration debate. In both cases there is a desperate need for a proper public discussion, but that is never the one we actually have. Instead of a passionate, but reasoned, debate that tackles the key issues – in the case of the monarchy, issues about democracy and privilege –  we end up with an emotion-filled row where the very fact of taking a different viewpoint is seen as unacceptable.

.

The pictures of the Queen are, from top down, by Chris Levine, Pietro Annigoni and Andy Warhol.

63 comments

  1. There are of course millions of republicans in Britain. There are vested interests who like to portray republican arguments as somehow beyond the pale of political decency, but republicanism is a British tradition dating back centuries. .

    • “There are of course millions of republicans in Britain” I don’t doubt it. Nor do I doubt that there are VERY many more millions who support the constitutional Parliamentary monarchical system we have now.

  2. Claire Bynner

    Your precise and straightforward article has clearly caused quite a stir amongst the royalists. They doth protest too much! You have also engaged New York Times readers in some critically thinking re the British monarchy. Good work Kenan Malik!

  3. Robin Blick

    Interesting that monarchists deploy the same deeply reactionary style of argument also found on the lumpen left, namely cultural relativism. Elected heads of state are OK for France or the USA, but deeply wrong for us Brits.
    Lumpen lefts (exemplified by the pathetically opportunist Socialist Workers Party) similarly argue that while not advocating their introduction into the UK, practices such as female genital mutilation, child brides, the persecution of gays, suicide bombings, anti-semitism, holocaust denial, Hitler worship, gender segregation, stonings and theocracy should not be criticsed because to do so wouild show a lack of respect for Islamic culture and tradition.

    • Gary

      Are you suggesting the situation of a nation without a democratically elected head of state should not be discussed because they ‘cannot answer back.’ How should debate on this subject be carried out, or do you believe the subject is not something to be debated?

      • It’s exactly this sort of comment that does republicanism – once a proud tradition in Britain, as Dr Brunstrom mentions above – no favours whatsoever.

        1. “Why can’t she answer back?” – the answer lies within the constitutional arrangements. If you don’t understand them, how can you hope to change them or advocate a sensible alternative?
        2. “Is Ugly Betty retarded?” One can of course be as offensive as one likes, especially when hiding behind the internet curtain; it comes with the concept of free speech, after all. But don’t expect it to further your cause in the slightest.
        3. “Why does she employ 13 PR people if not to answer back?” Well I guess the answer would be to do PR…

        • And “Joe Eldren” knows all there is to know about hiding behind the Internet curtain and spewing hate since he/she is at it all the time on his/her one man/woman hate page on Facebook. He/she is a rank hypocrite.

        • I am wondering why people who so profoundly disagree with the nature of this country’s democratic status, should continue to live here. There must be other countries where their prejudices would not collide so obviously with the style of government.
          The discussion has been made tolerable by Joe Eldren, and a few others’, informed and very reasonable comments. Given the level of ignorance, and the often abusive nature of some other correspondents, I have now ceased my ‘subscription’ to Pandaemonium. Sad only to have discovered what is being published as ‘truth’.

        • Lavender, I’m sorry that you feel the need to unsubscribe (so I have no idea if you will read this comment), but I do find your worldview somewhat odd. Do you seriously believe that one should not live in a country in which one disagrees with aspects of its politics, culture or constitution? Is there any country in which that is not the case? Or that you should unsubscribe from a blog in which you disagree with / are offended by some of the discussion in response to a post? Are there any worthwhile blogs in which that does not happen?

  4. TransAtlantic

    I’m half amused, half concerned by the lack of ability to have a real conversation on this topic. But the one comment that I can’t get out of my mind is the “Indian-born Malik”. Now, you have to understand that, based on that reality, you are just half-citizen, so your opinion counts only 50% of the time. Don’t be alarmed, though! With the rest 50% that counts in India, you might be able to pull together a well rounded discourse.

  5. Perhaps we should deport the royal family back to Germany where they belong as some of us have had enough of Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg und Gotha and Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and their family.

    • I agree with @cobrunstrom’s point below that ‘I don’t object to the Royal Family because they have German ancestry but because they don’t have the dignity or the legitimacy of a democratic mandate’ and that ‘anti-German snipes distract from a far more important debate’. As I wrote in that thread, my quarrel is not with the Queen as an individual, or the Windsors as a family, but with the institution of monarchy.

  6. bruce madeiros

    Yes Geoff you are right the queen’s family leave much to be desired and at the end of the day Charles’s role was to be a good husband and he failed miserably . Pontificating about architecture isn’t in his job description !!

  7. JohnB

    Geoff Bridges says “Perhaps we should deport the royal family back to Germany where they belong as some of us have had enough of Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg und Gotha and Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and their family.”

    Which is the typical racist reaction we come to expect from some quarters of the republican rabble, even though HM was UK born and many of Prince Philips ancestors were also born in the UK.

    Have you considered that it might make more sense for the Indian born republican writer to return to his country of birth, a republic ?

    • Personally I’m opposed to all expressions of “get out of the country” rhetoric – whether it’s an anti-Germanic inflection of anti-monarchism or monarchists telling republicans to “get out of the country” if they want to live in a republic.

      As a republican I don’t object to the Royal Family because they have German ancestry but because they don’t have the dignity or the legitimacy of a democratic mandate and they stand in the way of a rational constitution which might enshrine popular sovereignty as the basis of all governance.

      Anti-German snipes distract from a far more important debate.

  8. There is little appetite anymore for reasoned debate or dialogue between competing ideas. While one does not expect to see vigorous and intelligent discourse in countries such as China, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, this is becoming as true in ‘democracies’ such as the UK, the US or India. Amongst the many reasons why we have come to this pass are:
    1. The increasing shrillness of the media that has ramped up the noise in the public space so much that anything subtle and nuanced is drowned out by the loud and the extreme.
    2. The personalization of all ideas which has required that any thought or opinion is immediately slotted into neatly pre-determined categories such as ‘right’, left, ‘communist’, anarchist’ etc.in order that we ‘place’ it and ‘deal’ with it.
    3. The decreasing ability to pay attention and focus, at least partly, because of the ‘nature’ of the communication technologies we use.
    4. The lack of intellectual stamina that prevents us from staying with an upsetting thought long enough to understand it
    5. And the notion that we have a right to silence anything that we find offensive, thereby ensuring that we do not ‘complicate’ our minds or lives by bringing in anything that requires thought.

    • Thank you for your comments; sensibly said, and making important points about the personalisation of debate, and the automatic ‘gut=reaction’ which then assembles ‘intellectual’ arguments to support what is nothing more than an instinctive and unthought-through rant. Looking at Heads of State around the world, and the huge disruption caused by their election, and replacement, and the essentially unsatisfactory nature of the power that confers, I am grateful that we have a Queen to give this country stability, and her family to carry on an honourable tradition of service.

  9. Joe E

    Dr. Brunstrom may well wring his hands at the anti-Germanic nonsense, bordering on racism and so beloved of many of what seems to pass for republican ‘intelligentsia’; his interventions on the topic do seem to be rather sparse however.

    Be that as it may, the author’s claims to not quarrelling “with the Queen as an individual, or the Windsors as a family, but with the institution of monarchy” are disingenuous. Just one example: “The queen had spent down her “reserve fund,” a savings account built up by years of surplus public subsidy, to “a historically low level” of only £1 million ($1.6 million), from £35.3 million in 2001. … Trying to make sense of the royal finances is like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon. Here’s the puzzle: Queen Elizabeth II is often described … as one of the richest people in the world … her personal worth is $500 million.”

    So Mr Malik neatly conflates the personal wealth of the Queen with the cost of running the office of Head of State. Firstly the two are entirely separate, as any politician somehow elected to the post of president of the British republic would all too quickly point out. Or do you seriously argue that the costs of holding an office should be down to the office holder? I can’t think so. Secondly, The Queen herself did NOT spend down her reserve fund, that was done by the administrators, bearing in mind all the wider financial circumstances, none of which gets a mention. No surprise there.

    “If the monarchy were abolished tomorrow, Buckingham Palace and the royal art collection would, as before, be public property” err… No. They were never public property before, nor are they now – though they are held in trust for the nation, which saves them from being flogged off to the highest bidder whenever the Treasury feels itself a little cash-strapped. No mention of that, either.

    It is articles like this which show up the paucity of “republican” thinking. Republicans argue for a ‘democratically elected head of state” without ever showing how that would be ACTUALLY better, without ever doing a proper comparison of costs of a monarchy vs a president, without EVER demonstrating any sort of understanding of the constitutional issues and the implications.

    There’s nothing wrong with advocating for a different style of government. I just wish republicans would come up with some decent arguments together with reliable, factually correct, supporting evidence. For example, “If the royalists have a point, however, it may be this: Their contempt for democracy captures a public mood that is deeply cynical about politicians, who are seen as venal and corrupt.” I support our constitutional Parliamentary monarchy – if that makes me a ‘royalist’ in your eyes, so be it – but to suggest I hold the concept of democracy in contempt as a result is little more than puerile scribbling. Democracy takes many forms,though I can’t imagine that was ever covered in Marxist Activist 101 – or since!

    • I have despaired of this article and of the really ranting and ill-informed responses. Now thanks to Joe E there is a sensible, accurate, and thoroughly thought-through reply. Thank you. I agree with your points, and am glad you have highlighted the contradictions in the original article. What rubbish it was to print it in the first place.

    • Joe E

      1. What the article actually did was to show the need to distinguish between the Queen as an individual and the monarchy as an institution – and how the British constitution constantly blurs the line between the two. Hence, as I pointed out, ‘the fundamental ambiguity of a parliamentary democracy headed by a hereditary monarch’, a historic anomaly that ‘explains how we can have a Queen who is privately so very rich, yet who publicly pleads poverty.’ It is not me, in other words, that is being ‘disingenuous’ but the British constitution. And to suggest, as you do, that to refer to the Queen as an individual so as distinguish between the individual and the institution, is in itself to ‘quarrel with the individual’ is also disingenuous.

      2. It is true that Britain’s is a constitutional monarchy, and that the power of a constitutional monarch is constrained compared to that of an absolute ruler like the king of Bahrain. Nevertheless, the idea that a constitutional monarchy is not a constraint upon democracy is, as you yourself put it, ‘puerile scribbling’.

      The monarch holds real power under the British constitution. Through the ‘royal prerogative’ he or she has the power to appoint Prime Ministers, dismiss governments, dissolve Parliament, and withhold assent to any legislation. The monarch also possess the power to recognize foreign states, issue declarations of war and peace, annex territory and form international treaties. Technically, most of these powers are exercised only on the advice of ministers, and quite a few have lain unused for many years. Nevertheless, they exist. It was through these powers that in 1975 the Australian governor general John Kerr, not an elected official but the Queen’s representative imposed upon Australia, dismissed the democratically elected Labor government of Gough Whitlam and appointed opposition leader Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister, thereby launching a constitutional crisis.

      The real impact of the royal prerogative is, however, not so much to empower the monarch as to allow the executive to bypass parliamentary scrutiny. Through royal prerogative powers, the government is able to declare war, make treaties, conduct diplomacy, govern Britain’s overseas territories and appoint and remove ministers, all without parliamentary approval. It was those powers that three years ago, for instance, allowed David Cameron to attack Libya without first consulting Parliament. The ability of the executive to bypass Parliament in this fashion is not only deeply undemocratic, it also serves to deepen the sense of the futility of politics.

      3. There may be ‘many forms of democracy’. But a system that retains the hereditary principle in politics, and insists that someone born into the right family is more fit to represent the nation than someone chosen by that nation itself cannot be, by any definition, a properly democratic system.

      4. It is, as I pointed out in the post, a telling comment on our times that the moment one argues for an elected head of state one gets condemned as ‘communist’ or ‘Marxist’. Are communists or Marxists the only people these days in favour of ridding politics of the hereditary principle?

      • I suspect this is a circular argument – but please note that as a fact, there is no ‘British Constitution’ We are the only [I believe] country in the world that has no written Constitution. Perhaps this underlines further the essence of a hereditary monarchy: that there is *trust* and by agreement, the Queen does not EVER interfere in any way in politics. She is not ‘ruling’ the country, that is the role of our elected government; she may offer advice based on her long years of experience, which is sought each week when she and the Prime Minister of the day have their regular meeting. This is another strength which only a hereditary monarchy offers: the wisdom accumulated over many decades. The Queen has her boxes delivered daily, and reads them assiduously, so that she knows what has been discussed at the Cabinet meetings, what is intended, and so on – which allows her to offer her far wider experience.
        A President has, like our Prime Minister, to consider many different and imemdiate problems, not the least pressing of which is the standing of his party, and their chances of re-election. This is a weakness that is entirely avoided by having a Monarchy, whose entire focus is on doing what is best for the country. The oath taken at the Coronation commits the Monarch to Lifelong service to the country.

        • Yes, I do know that there is no formal British Constitution. It is precisely because so much of the relationship between the monarchy and the state is invested in tradition and custom that one has the constitutional fudge that I was criticizing.

          As for the idea that the Queen (or royalty more generally) ‘does not EVER interfere in any way in politics’, that is, I’m afraid, sheer political blindness. From Queen Victoria seeking to prevent Gladstone from becoming Primem Minister to George V attempting to block Irish Home Rule, such interference has been well documented. So have Prince Charles’ myriad political interventions, on every issue from architecture to the environment. The current Queen (and other royals) have been shown to have interfered in the passage of numerous laws , including vetoing the 1999 the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill, Tam Dalyell’s backbench Bill making it necessary for Parliament to give consent for any strike on Iraq.

          Two years ago it was revealed that the Queen had lobbied the Home Secretary for the arrest and deportation of the Islamist cleric Abu Hamza. The fact that the BBC had to apologize to the Queen for inadvertently exposing her political interference says much about the relationship between the royalty, the state and the media and about how the myth of the non-interfering monarch is maintained.

          When you oppose the notion that a President, like the Prime Minister, might have to consider ‘their chances of re-election’, what you are really opposing is the idea that the final arbiter of policy should be the public. It is that hostility to democracy that I oppose.

        • Michael Fugate

          As the great folk singer Pete Seeger said,”The moment you bring human beings together, you’re in politics. Whether you call it religion, science or education or drinking beer or football, you’re affecting the body politic. And when you affect the body politic, you’re in politics, whether you call it politics or not.”

          If as you claim the monarchy’s focus is on doing what is best for the country, then the monarchy is engaging in politics. Many politicians believe they are doing what is best for the country, but that doesn’t mean that they actually are doing what is best. The Queen is just a human like any other, her judgement is no more infallible than mine.

        • Kenan M: Relating any number of historical instances of monarchical intervention doesn’t really address today’s issues, not does it? Nor does ignoring the fact that, as a citizen of the UK, you are as entitled to write to a Minister on an issue as Prince Charles is; the difference being he is likely to be more clued-up on the subject than you. Ministers listen to many lobbyists; whether they act on what is put to them is an entirely different matter.

          Stating that the Queen has “interfered in the passage of numerous laws” ignores the fact that all such ‘interference’ was at the behest of the government of the day; none of it was of the monarch’s own volition. I wonder if we could ever say the same of an elected president? As for the Queen ‘lobbying’ the Home Secretary, apparently all she asked was “‘surely this man must have broken some laws, my goodness, why is he still at large?” – asking for an explanation is hardly ‘lobbying’, now is it?

          “… the final arbiter of policy should be the public”. So essentially the public can never be wrong, you imply. Frankly I disagree. The public can be very wrong indeed – which is why we elect governments to take the issues out of the public’s hands to give a considered proportionate response to the issues of the day.

        • It’s not right to say we don’t have a constitution. Many books have been written about it, and people teach and study constitutional law.

          Of course we don’t have a supreme written constitution like they have in many countries, the US being the paradigm case. But we’re not as completely alone in that as people think. New Zealand doesn’t either (and a constitutional review has just concluded that there’s no popular urge for radical change) and nor does Israel.

          Nor is Britain unique in having soft, unwritten constitutional rules. Even countries with “written constitutions” have developed unwritten conventions that change over time as ours do. A Yale professor wrote a book about the importance of this in the US (http://www.law.yale.edu/about/16728.htm) . And some countries with written constitutions reject the full-blown US-style version with a Supreme Court able to strike down laws. The Netherlands is I think an example of both.

          Those of us who support constitutional monarchy shouldn’t allow republicans to portray the UK as utterly anomalous. Our exceptionalism can be exaggerated.

        • Carl, my argument is not based on British exceptionalism. It is not just Britain that has a monarchy, and it is not just the British monarchy to which I am opposed.

      • You need to update yourself on some things, especially on the use of the RP. War may be declared by use of the RP, but it has to pass through Parliament, as does the making of treaties (G Brown saw to that last). I haven’t time now to go into all the other examples you raise, but I would put it to you that there are times when the executive needs to act and to act now, without the complicated and time-consuming delays inherent in consulting with the legislature. The USA uses Presidential executive authority, we have the RP – what’s the difference?

        • 1. If you are going to accuse others of getting their facts wrong, it would help if you got your own facts right. It is true that the 2008 white paper The Governance of Britain (introduced, as you say, by Gordon Brown’s Labour administration) floated the idea that Parliament should be given a formal role in the deployment of armed forces abroad. It never became law. That is why, for instance, David Cameron was able to deploy forces against Libya in 2011 without first having to seek Parliamentary approval. For a full discussion of the current legal status, see this December 2013 House of Commons Library Note, Parliamentary Approval for Deploying the Armed Forces: An Update. A quote from the document:

          In constitutional terms… Parliament has no formal role in the deployment of the Armed Forces, and with no statutory basis the Government is under no legal obligation with respect to its conduct, including keeping Parliament informed… On the occasion where a vote on the deployment of the Armed Forces has been held, were the Government to be defeated it would have been under no constitutional obligation to change its policy.

          2. I would have no problems with Charles and Elizabeth lobbying ministers as private citizens. The trouble is, they are not private citizens. They are members of the royal family and possess hereditary privileges beyond and above what you and I as private citizens possess. Monarchists want it both ways. On the one hand, they want to argue that the royals are ‘above politics’. On the other, when you point out that they are not above politics but constantly interefere in the political process, they then claim that royals should be able to interfere in politics like any private citizen. It is this fundamental ambiguity that I have been arguing against.

          3. To suggest that ‘the final arbiter of policy should be the public’ is not to suggest that the ‘public can never be wrong’. After all, only a minority of the public, as I pointed out in my original essay, is republican. It is rather to recognize that, whether right or wrong, a democracy requires the public to have the final say. And where there are fundamental debates about what is right and wrong – as over the monarchy – the public should be the final arbiter. On this issue (as on many issues), I believe the majority view to be wrong. But I would not wish to impose my view against that of the majority, but would wish rather to persuade the majority to my point of view. To suggest otherwise is to take an elitist, or aristocratic, view of politics, not a democratic one. Yes, governments make decisions, but governments are accountable to the public in a way the monarchy is not.

        • ‘The USA uses Presidential executive authority, we have the RP – what’s the difference?’

          First, Britain has a parliamentary, rather a Presidential, system, which to my mind is preferable. Second, the President, unlike a monarch, is accountable to the public. But most importantly, the fact that republican systems possess anti-democratic elements is not an argument for sustaining an even more anti-democratic system such as a monarchy (constitutional or otherwise). It is rather an argument to make republican systems even more democratic.

        • This is a very strange statement, you seem to indicate that Presidential powers and privileges are in some way different, or are you claiming that they don’t exist?
          Why I wonder do you conflate the idea of Monarchy with a Prime Minister ? we seem to return to the circular argument, don’t we. We HAVE a democratic system: it is called Parliament, and we hold free and fair elections every 5 years, with a proper democratic process.
          It is hard to see what you could find objectionable in that. It works, we as a country support it, as far as any democratic country does [without the Australian legal requirement to vote, there is never going to be 100% voter turnout here]. When you advance your views, it is worth considering what all this amounts to..envy of a family whom you don’t know as much about as you do your US Presidential family? there is a clear reliance on what has appeared in the Press, and we know, do we not, how reliable press reports are. So let’s stick to what we know, where nothing yet said has made a convincing argument for doing otherwise. Thank goodness our Constitution, unwritten or otherwise, ensures we have the stability that is so lacking in other parts of the world.

        • continuity with a Britain which should no longer exist. This is a very autocratic statement, and the idea that our traditions speak to privilege and power begs so many questions. ‘rotten’?? anachronistic” ? where is this country you criticise so roundly? would you like to reflect the values, and strengths of the USA which you seem to hold as a model for all that is good. We hear too much about the battles that Presidents have to get any of their intended Laws [on promises of which they were originally elected] through the two Houses, to feel that is a preferable system. Is there no corruption, no overwhelming wealth and privilege in America? This cannot be true.

        • I am not sure where I suggested that Presidential powers don’t exist or where I conflated the idea of the monarchy and the Prime Minister. And, no, I am not American but British. And, no, I am not ‘envious’ of the royal family, I am merely opposed to the hereditary principle. It seems odd that someone who (rightly) keeps objecting to the personalizing of the debate should be unable to distinguish between a political objection to the institution of the monarchy and a personal hatred of queen. So let me say again: my argument is against the monarchy as an institution that perpetuates the hereditary principle, not the Queen as an individual.

      • Wow! And I thought this was a fairly straight forward issue that could be debated on its merits. As an outsider, living in India, who visits your country only once a year, I now realize how complicated and emotional any discussion on the issue of the Monarchy in the UK can be. I’m curious have there been any attempts to conduct face-to-face Public Dialogues on the subject? Now that would be an interesting conversation to run in different parts of the country!

      • The only powers from this list that the Queen actually exercises are appointing the Prime Minister, dissolving Parliament, and giving or withholding royal assent. All the others are exercised by government.

        As far as appointing the PM is concerned, it’s politicians responsibility to make sure it’s clear who commands a majority in the Commons. Once it is clear, it’s plain who the Queen must appoint: it’s not simply a matter of arbitrary choice. It’s hard to conceive of a situation in which what she must do is not clear (if in doubt, she should allow the sitting PM to seek the confidence of the Commons; if s/he doesn’t get it, s/he should resign; and if no one else can either, parliament must be dissolved).

        But even if there is such a situation, well, *someone* would have to make the choice, under any system (assuming you don’t want a directly elected head government, which I think in another comment you say you don’t, Kenan). In this extreme situation, should the chooser be an elected politician with loyalty to one party or the other?

        Dissolving Parliament is now governed by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, so there’s no discretion there. Actually I think that’s a negative development putting even more power in the hands of the executive. But that’s another argument.

        And royal assent hasn’t been refused since 1707.

        Otherwise, what you’re opposing when you argue against prerogative powers isn’t the monarchy, but the executive power of ministers.

        • Carl, I did make the point earlier that ‘the real impact of the royal prerogative is, however, not so much to empower the monarch as to allow the executive to bypass parliamentary scrutiny’. The fact that a power has not been used for a long time does not mean that it does not exist. Nor does it mean that the royals do not interfere in politics. As for whether I would prefer political choices to be made by an elected politician or someone who happens to possess the power to make those choices merely through accident of birth, absolutely I would prefer it to be an elected politician.

  10. The question of “trust” is crucial. Monarchists tend to assert that hereditary right provides a better foundation for trust than a democratic mandate. People who have inherited their job from their ma and pa are assumed to be more virtuous than people who have solicited a mandate from their fellow citizens.

    Some people choose to assume that the royals can “be trusted”. They are of course protected by Freedom of Information exemptions which prevents us knowing as much about them as we do about our elected officials. Certain things do slip out – Prince Andrew’s outrageous expense claims which would have led to criminal prosecution had he been an MP… The Queen Mother’s huge overdraft which she had no intention of ever paying off etc. etc. etc.

    I do not know the level of political interference that the Queen may or may not exercise and nor am I permitted to know. I do know that the Queen’s father decided to give his personal backing to the Munich Agreement before parliament had a chance to debate it and that in the greatest crisis of his generation he politically sided with the cause of Appeasement. I know that the Queen’s son and future monarch lobbies ministers all the time, on the basis that his birth certificate confers upon him the right of constant access to public policy.

    Am I getting personal here? This is the problem – when republicans present the abstract case for the inherent merits of the elective principle over the hereditary principle then monarchists turn around and say “Ah – but nobody cares about such abstractions because the royals do such a wonderful job”. If republicans present evidence that they’re doing a less than wonderful job then we’re told “ah – you’re getting nasty and personal now – go back to abstract political theory.”

    Republicans have the right to make their case empirically as well as theoretically. Nobody on the public payroll should be immune from scrutiny. The personal deficiencies of the royals have a structural and cultural foundation. I would not trust the most virtuous family on earth to enjoy the unique privileges and level of political access enjoyed by the British Royal family. I believe that a constitutional framework is a better guarantor of liberty than the presumed virtue of a dynasty.

    If monarchists can present actual evidence that royals are genetically exempt from the failing that afflict the rest of humanity then I’d like to see it. Republicans can present evidence that royals are, shall we say, human.

  11. “Politics of outrage”? Says Malik, the guy who’s having a bit of a strop on his blog because a few people dared to differ on his Very Important Article for a Very Important Newspaper – physician, heal thyself!

    I suppose it goes to further prove that rampant narcissism is a common symptom of republicanism.

    • Whoever’s having a strop, it sure ain’t me. It wasn’t me that sent two journalists to my door to demand an interview, nor was it me that ran a whole page in a Very Important Newspaper in response to my original piece. I’m merely bemused that anyone would think my article important enough to warrant such interest. Rampant narcissism? Next you’ll be telling me that the Queen is a democrat.

      • I’d suggest that she could well be a better democrat than you, from evidence. From your own blog:
        —————
        The article included outraged responses from the historian and royal biographer Hugo Vickers who insisted that ‘The Queen is very parsimonious. Her private lifestyle, apart from racehorses, is very modest.’ He also suggested that ‘The monarch is above politics and we can all expect him or her to look after our interests. They’re trained for the job from the beginning. They haven’t had to climb the greasy pole.’ Which is another way of saying that the Queen rules merely because of the privilege of birth.

        Among others denouncing my article were Christopher Lee, the author of This Sceptred Isle and Monarchy (‘The Royal Family creates an awareness of the nation 365 days a year, it hands out more than 3,000 honours — the whole industry of that firm is hard work. It’s not lavish’) and Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg (‘The Queen is more highly taxed than any of her subjects’).
        —————–
        Where is the hateful spittle-flecked abusive ‘outrage’ in any of these remarks? Rees-Mogg called your article “silly”, I guess? If monarchists have thin skins you must be barely a molecule thick! And yet you haughtily decry it all as “an emotion-filled row where the very fact of taking a different viewpoint is seen as unacceptable”, with an amazing lack of self-reflection.

        • Sigh. Let me say again, I am not questioning the right of anyone to say anything they wish about me, my article or the monarchy. I am merely bemused (and amused) by the degree of attention that the article has drawn. It was actually the Sunday Times that observed that ‘The response in many quarters was outrage’ and the Daily Star that insisted that ‘Left-wing author Kenan Malik caused outrage’. It is striking that to make your case you have to vastly inflate my supposed point, pretending that I had talked of ‘hateful spittle-flecked abusive “outrage”’ – which kind of makes my point for me about the response. As for having a thin skin, I’m not sure that if I had one I would open up Pandaemonium for robust debate, or for views such as yours.

  12. Marcus Jackson

    I loved your article, the sad fact is that republicanism is seen as unfashionable. I think this is definitely due to politicians as you said. I myself find it confusing as to why it’s so controversial to want a democratic head of state. It’s like they are immune to criticism on the basis that ‘they work hard for this country.’ I sure many could for that amount of privilege and undeserved respect.

  13. When Hugo Vickers and others celebrate the royal family for being “above politics” they implicitly denigrate the political process. You can’t have democracy without politics and any suggestion that politics is an inherently grubby activity – something to be “above” can’t help but be a very anti-democratic statement.

    Again, I cannot see why inheriting one’s position from one’s parents is more admirable or dignified than securing a democratic mandate from one’s fellow citizens.

    The phrase “greasy pole” is interesting because it’s a quote from Disraeli, the most cunning politician of his age and the man who did more than anyone else to invent the modern royal family in the 1870s. The unpopular Queen Victoria had given up performing any royal duties and anti-monarchist sentiment was growing. It was Disraeli who conceived of a populist ceremonial monarchy – and it was conceived of for distinctly political purposes.

    Monarchists often present the monarchy as a kind of bulwark against the corrupt machinations of scheming politicians. The fact is that the most scheming and corrupted of politicians have found the monarchy very convenient since the authority of “the crown” can be used, as Kenan Malik has pointed out – to strengthen the power of the executive at the expense of public parliamentary scrutiny.

    • Scheming, corrupted politicians will take advantage of any arrangement; implying that they can only do so within a monarchical arrangement is ridiculous.

  14. Jennifer Jeynes

    Surely it is clearly inaccurate to state QE2 was trained from birth to be monarch – until 1936 it was assumed Edward (8th)
    was heir. Only on his abdication & accession of brother George did Elizabeth enter the fray, so to speak Even then it was not clear until c1950 that the QM was beyond childbearing age (b 1900) and would not produce a boy to take precedence.. We don’t even know whether the future queen realised this and begged her parents not to produce any more children….. Hereditary monarchy is a ridiculous system and makes this country look so backward. Presumably the reason
    we can’t have a written constitution is because the first sentence would be ‘the position of Head of State is reserved by accident of birth to a wealthy family not noted for intelligence or culture but love of horses’.

    • The presumption in your last sentence is, frankly, rubbish. Norway, Sweden, Belgium etc all have written constitutions which, inter alia, explain the role of the monarch. BTW Britain’s constitution may be uncodified in a single document such as theirs, but that does not mean it’s unwritten.

  15. Harry Vinkels

    It is heartening to note that views like those expressed here are a minority in the UK, with the Monarchy getting continuous approval ratings of almost 90%. What politician could even dream of that?

    And as an aside, the Queen receives an income of around £500 million a year, from her private estates, but, unlike any other person, voluntarily donates all of this money to the Treasury, for the government to spend; asking in return only that they subsidise her much more modest expenses of governing and keeping up royal palaces- a small sum of £30 million a year.

    In effect, she is taxed at a 93% income rate.

  16. The Crown Estate are not the private property of the Queen. The official Crown Estates websites declares this explicitly: http://www.thecrownestate.co.uk/about-us/
    When the 1701 Act of Succession conferred the crown upon the present family (subject to a list of terms and conditions), disinheriting more than 50 people in the process, the estates were granted to the crown as a way of funding the responsibilities of the crown. In the early eighteenth-century, the Crown Estates still funded many aspects of what we’d now regard as the Executive branch of government. Early in the reign of George III, the monarchy found itself heavily in debt and negotiated the Civil List system with parliament.
    The Crown Estates are therefore a public concern, not private property. They no more “belong” to the Windsor family than “my office” at work is my private property.

    • Actually if you read the Civil List Act 1952, Section1 states:

      “Payment of hereditary revenues to the Exchequer
      The hereditary revenues which were by section one of the Civil List Act, 1937, directed to be carried to and made part of the Consolidated Fund shall, during the present reign and a period of six months afterwards, be paid into the Exchequer and be made part of the Consolidated Fund.”

      So legally the Crown Estates continue to be owned by the Crown; at the time of accession of the next monarch, a new Civil List Act (now of course superceded by the Sovereign Support Grant) was enacted to continue the loan of the Estates to the Government in return for the Civil List payments.

      You are just about correct in saying that the Queen does not own them personally i.e. in right of herself, but that is as far as you can go. It most certainly does NOT mean the Estates are therefore owned by the government or the public (or ‘us’ as Republic Campaign and most of its supporters are so fond of claiming!)

      • I was correcting a description of the estates as “private estates”. We’re both agreed that they cannot be considered “private property”. As I say, when they were attached to the current family according to the terms of the 1701 Act of Succession it was to fund certain executive functions. The privy purse and the national budget were not yet separated. It was parliament which conferred these estates upon the office of the crown. The royal family has never “owned them”.

        The estates belong to “The Crown”. “The Crown” is a public office not a person. If you are saying that “The Crown” is accountable to neither parliament nor people and is a completely independent and autonomous concept then you have just articulated an excellent reason to be a republican.

        • “If you are saying that “The Crown” is accountable to neither parliament nor people and is a completely independent and autonomous concept then you have just articulated an excellent reason to be a republican.”

          Nowhere have I written that, nor could anything I’ve ever written be construed in such a way. It is the Crown IN Parliament, not the Crown OVER it. Clearly the Crown is accountable to Parliament (it is after all Parliament which decided and continues to confirm that we should have one) and thus to the people. Pretty democratic, I’d say. And so dies your ‘excellent’ reason to become a republican. No doubt you’ll think of some more in due course.

      • Sure, the Crown estate belongs to the Crown. But the Crown, despite its name, does not belong to the monarch. It is a corporation that is the legal embodiment of the state. Its legal status is, as I pointed out in my original essay, ambiguous, because of the constitutional fudge through which the relationship between the monarchy and the state has developed. What is clear, however, is that neither the Crown nor the Crown Estate should be considered the property of the monarch.

        • Joe Eldren – you’ve asserted that in no sense are the Crown Estates owned by the government or by “us”. Are you saying that an elected parliament has no authority over these estates? If an elected parliament does have such authority then they are in a final sense “public property”. If “The Crown” to which this vast property portfolio is joined does not belong, ultimately to parliament and the electorate that creates parliaments, then I would say that the whole concept of “the crown” needs to be ditched.

        • For some reason known only to the Grand Viziers of t’Internet, there’s no option to reply to Dr. Brunstrom’s post immediately below, so by default it goes here.

          1. “Are you saying that an elected parliament has no authority over these estates?” No. They were/are handed over at the beginning of each reign in return for a sum of money. So the management etc of the Estates is properly subject to Parliamentary scrutiny.

          2. “If an elected parliament does have such authority then they are in a final sense “public property”.” Sorry, but that simply does not follow.

          3. “If “The Crown” to which this vast property portfolio is joined does not belong, ultimately to parliament and the electorate that creates parliaments, then I would say that the whole concept of “the crown” needs to be ditched.” Well that’s your view. Not supported by the facts, however.

  17. It is a relief when better-informed people add to this discussion; the ‘republicans’ seem to skim-off the populist ideas without any deeper thought. There are too many examples of countries where republicanism does not work: perhaps we should start quoting *their* shortcomings, and the nightmare realities that some of them endure. We have a remarkable Royal Family, who work harder than all of us put together [how much fun is it to shake innumerable hands, day after week after decade?] And before anyone suggests this is not ‘work’ please look at the Airbus-loads of tourists who come to the UK. peaking at Royal events, and spend their money in our economy.
    But there is a strongly personal empathy in every event that the Royal family are invited to, unlike media celebrities who are there solely to be seen but not touched.
    We aren’t all brought up with the tradition of service, which is implicit in the Queen’s family, and they are and remain an encouragement to us, to look beyond politics to see what kind of a country the United Kingdom can be.
    If successive Prime Ministers, of whatever political party, have said publicly and in their Memoirs, what a remarkable person the Queen is, and how much they have learnt from her wide experience – then should that not be the final argument in favour of continuity of a Monarchy that holds everything together?

    • The idea that republicans, rather than monarchists, ‘skim-off the populist ideas without any deeper thought’, is amusing if nothing else. As for monarchist arguments being ‘better informed’, read my responses above.

      The Queen, you suggest is hard working, empathetic, wise, etc. That is all questionable, to say the least. But let us assume for a moment that it is all true. So what? Why should the argument that the Queen works hard, is a nice person, is well liked, etc, be an argument against a fully democratic system?

      Finally, insofar as the monarchy represents ‘continuity’, it is continuity with a Britain that no longer, and should no longer, exist, a tradition that speaks to privilege and power. What the monarchy symbolizes is much of what remains rotten and anachronistic about contemporary Britain.

    • Reply to Joe Eldren. May I say that I share your frustration with the fact that this wordpress comments thread does not allow proper replies to be attached to the contributions of the relevant party. It’s annoying.

      I think these definitional disputes about “The Crown” are allowing us to creep slowly towards a closer articulation of the more fundamental assumptions and values that divide us. You are right to say that I am inferences that you do not accept.

      I’m starting from a Lockean Enlightenment premise that government derives from the consent of the governed – that power derives from the people and is ultimately answerable to the people. If “The Crown” is “a corporation that is the legal; embodiment of the state” then that expression of statehood must be derived from and be the property of the “people” it claims to represent.

      I do not believe in the legitimacy, therefore, of any expression of national state sovereignty that is not ultimately derived from the concept of popular sovereignty.

      These are the assumptions upon which I base the inferences which you question.

      • You might want to take some smelling salts at this point, since I wouldn’t disagree – the recent events in the Ukraine are an example, if you will.

Comments are closed.