In the summer of 1944, as Britain and her allies were struggling towards the end of a long confrontation with fascism, George Orwell was writing about the monarchy for a socialist newspaper. A few years previously, in 1936, the British House of Windsor had gone into a schism over the marital status of the king, when Edward VIII renounced the throne in order to wed an American divorcee. The Abdication Crisis, as it became known, enraged the public and divided the establishment. It’s safe to conclude that this bitter and destructive royal controversy will not be commemorated on its eightieth anniversary this year. To restore its reputation, Orwell concluded that the Royal Family would need “another long reign, and a monarch with some kind of charm.”
Queen Elizabeth II’s lengthy reign began in February 1952, just over two years after Orwell succumbed to tuberculosis. Still in her twenties when crowned, Elizabeth has gone on to become the longest reigning monarch in British history, presiding over a period of vast social and political change. Charm might not be the first word that comes to mind when we think of Elizabeth - despite being a constant in our national life she remains something of an enigma, rarely giving interviews or expressing her opinions on the issues of the day. This “stiff upper lip” attitude, combined with stoicism and a strong sense of duty – what some would call “the best of British values” – has won her respect and praise throughout the world, even from republicans. Because the monarch and the institution of which she is the head are so closely associated with one another, hostility to this absurd and archaic system is barely measurable on any Richter scale of public opinion.
Examine the arguments for the monarchy in any detail, however, and they fall apart very quickly. It is often said that the royals are representative of the British people, presumably in the same way that Caitlyn Jenner is lauded as an “icon” for all transgender people, even though those who have shared her experience do not have the money to splash out on cosmetic surgery, or millions of Twitter followers to provide them with moral support. This relates to the entirely false idea, perpetuated by the media, that like so many other public figures, the royal family is “just like us.” If that were true, why then would we need them?
Some would say they do a good job representing Britain abroad, encouraging trade and investment and so forth, although objectively this is difficult to prove. The best a sceptical Orwell could come up with in the monarchy’s defence was that it meant Britain would never find itself with a fascist in charge, as it allowed us to beat our drums and wave our flags in the worship of a leader who had no real power. The Anglo-American philosopher Thomas Paine (whose own birthday we should do more to commemorate) warned the Founding Fathers of the United States that if they used the hereditary system to pick their head of state they risked ending up with “a rogue or a fool” in charge. The aforementioned Abdication Crisis is just one incident in history which helps to vindicate Paine’s view. Second only to Neville Chamberlain himself, Edward VIII was the most high-profile appeaser in the land, maintaining until his dying day that the German Führer was a jolly nice chap and may have been right about a few things. In other words, he was exactly the sort of figure that Paine had warned the Americans about so many years previously.
From our perspective in 2016, the current monarch’s reign is generally popular and well-received. It is hard to imagine (especially for people of my generation) how things could be any different than they are under Elizabeth II. However, we may not have to wait that long to know what being ruled by a “rogue or a fool” feels like. Prince Charles, in every sense a descendant of Edward VIII (although not a fan of the Nazis), is often touted as “a republican’s dream.” It is difficult to decide what is most contemptible about this feeble-minded man - be it his claim that plants grow better if talked to, his promotion of “complementary medicines,” or his fondness for the Saudi royal family. Charles has made it quite clear he wants to reshape the role of the monarchy when he becomes king, allowing him to meddle in debates on the many issues he takes an interest in - be it education, the environment or foxhunting. In doing so he would be challenging the idea that the monarchy is somehow “above politics,” although Prince William proved this was nonsense just a few months ago when he made a speech subtly arguing that Britain should remain in the EU (enraging the Eurosceptic right, who are usually the monarchy’s biggest fans). Both William and his father are known for their hostility towards the free press, and share a desire to be as controlling as possible when it comes to the media. It has always been a contradiction with the House of Windsor that it so deeply resents media attention, the very thing on which it depends in order to survive.
So while republicans dream, monarchists will have nightmares. Like George III, Edward VIII and countless others throughout history, monarchs have often been either immensely damaging or embarrassing figures. Selecting a head of state from a pool of just one family is a very bad way of doing things, as the Abdication Crisis of eighty years ago so clearly demonstrated. The present Queen is the best this system can give us, as many will only come to realise after her reign has ended. Happy Birthday Your Majesty, and Viva La República.