(with thanks to Don Kranz, whose blog is a real inspiration, for luring me out of work-induced blog hibernation!)
It’s Diamond Jubilee weekend, and a time to think about the role of the monarchy, and the role it plays in all our lives. As so often, I seem to have some clear principles which turn awfully messy when they meet with real life, particularly when ‘real life’ means the chance to have a good party.
You see, I don’t really like the idea of having a head of state who is chosen on the hereditary principle: there, I said it. After all, republicanism (strictly small-r) is not a popular view right now – people don’t like politicians, and most people rather like the Queen. If you asked the electorate at the moment, their democratic decision would be, by a very large margin, that they want a head of state chosen by entirely undemocratic means.
Usually it’s quite easy to gloss over those sorts of questions and get on with life. But there are some moments where these issues suddenly have some practical importance.
I have plenty of principled friends who decided to leave the country, or at least to boycott (quietly or loudly) anything to do with the Diamond Jubilee.
I respect a principled stance like this, but I myself didn’t go that way.
– Perhaps I simply don’t feel about it strongly enough.
– Perhaps I think that as long we have a monarchy, certain things ought to be celebrated, and a republic would have to find worthy alternatives.
– Perhaps it is because I just can’t resist a good party.
You see, my neighbours organized a street party, just as they did last year, on the day of the royal wedding.
Socialising with your neighbours strikes me as a thoroughly good thing, and if it takes a royal event to motivate everybody to join in, that’s fine by me. And of course I went.
Is this hypocritical? Quite possibly.
But any other course of action, including just staying away, strikes me as so much worse.
The most awkward moment, however, came this afternoon when I spotted some pictures of republican demonstrations in London. It was important for somebody to be there to express an alternative opinion. I am more than disappointed to hear that their freedom of movement seems to have been restricted.
But one of the slogans on their placards really annoyed me.
Surely, that’s NOT the issue. Almost everybody in the UK really isn’t a subject in any sensible definition of the word, and to me, this is a very important fact.
You see, when I applied to become a British national, I wanted to be a citizen, and I had absolutely no intention to be anybody’s subject, in any legal or practical definition, and I agonized over this for quite some time.
In fact, the 1983 British Nationality Act makes the difference pretty clear. British citizens are not (legally speaking) subjects – the ‘British subject’ status is actually a category for rather exceptional cases. So there wouldn’t be (and there isn’t) any piece of paper which confers this status on me in a legal manner. Of course, this might not be worth the paper it is written on, so what about reality?
I can’t really think of any way in which the Queen could restrict my freedom of action, speech or conscience in a way which would confer subject status. The government has such powers, too many in some areas, I’d argue, but they are elected (after a fashion I don’t appreciate, but the electorate likes it that way, as we found).
So, I am simply not impressed if republican demonstrations go out of their way to suggest to people that the subject/citizen divide is an issue. Perhaps they thought they had to remind people that they weren’t subjects, or wanted to emphasise that the audience was assuming subject status? What were they trying to say?
I’d find it a little presumptuous to suggest that everybody joining in the celebrations might be – think of themselves as – give anybody else the impression that they are – anybody’s subjects. Nobody forced them to go, and it’s their good citizens’ right to go and watch the celebrations; they probably did so for a variety of reasons: I bet that not everybody in that crowd was an ardent admirer of the monarchy. It was clearly quite a spectacle – and, to be honest, if they had included the reconstructed Greek trireme in the event (why didn’t they?) I’d have gone myself and stood in the rain just to see that magnificent vessel in action.
If people want that change, it’s time to remind everybody that we could get an elected head of government – if that’s what a majority of us wants. ‘Power to the People’ surely isn’t the issue in this respect – it’s the question whether people actually want to use that power, or how they want to use it. Let’s not pretend that we live in a regime where that change wouldn’t be possible.
The real task, then, for all those who would prefer a republican system, is to convince a majority of British citizens that an elected head of state is in fact what they want. If legitimacy is the crucial issue, and I think it is, then the only way of improving on the current situation is a democratic decision to have an elected head of state, followed by elections. Nothing else will do. Will it happen soon? I am not holding my breath, to be honest, but you never know… (the case that change is not entirely improbable is being made here).
It’s days like these which really bring out some baffling contradictions and absurdities: and it’s days like these when I realise that this is exactly why I like this country so much.