The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

George Chesterton Headshot

The Monarchy Makes Britain a Prisoner of Its Past

Posted: Updated:

"Even the most ardent republicans respect the Queen". And with that statement so ends the debate. Ardent or otherwise, it is tough enough to get a discussion about ending the monarchy going, let alone begin a process that would actually bring about its demise. Conservatives, lower and upper-case c, appear to have this one sewn up as most of Great Britain celebrates her diamond jubilee, during which affection for the person will overwhelm any doubts about the institution.

Not only is 'respect for the Queen' the default position in the media and politics, but in a recession the idea of something as unsettling as ending the monarchy can be dismissed as a waste of money and a priority of abyssal insignificance. However, in the long term it is anything but.

The removal of the monarchy would have a slow-burning but ultimately dramatic effect on how we see history and, of course, how we see our future and so its end would be tied in with almost everything people think of as of important - the economy, foreign policy, social mobility and our identity as a nation or nations.

The fall of the monarchy would be painful and there is no purpose in pretending it would be anything other than a traumatic jolt (as it was in 1649). But fairness is like justice: it has to be seen to be done - even though the effects of this great act of fairness and justice would take time to register in the public consciousness. Dethronement would not dismantle our adaptable class system, but until it happens the national psychological handbrake remains on.

In terms of collective identity we remain prisoners of the past, and our very prominent and conspicuous monarchy is probably the greatest contributor to this. It focuses the minds of subjects and students of all ages on the 'natural' order of rulers and the ruled. British history is literally defined by kings and queens, despite a shift in the post-war academic and populist teaching of the subject. The end of the monarchy as a living entity would allow psychological space for the belief in new possibilities to grow organically among the wider public. There are huge and daunting unknowns about such a drastic reordering of the establishment, but that is a crucial part of its appeal.

Nobody has ever come up with an exhaustive list of what constitutes the values of the nations that make Britain and long may that continue. Not knowing who we are is what makes us who we are. It is often argued that the Queen is a kind of fixed point that helps us keep our bearings in a changing world, but even if that were true it should not be enough to justify the monarchy's continued existence in a society so riddled with inequality.

She, without wishing to be personal, represents that inequality.

Perhaps the best reason of all for ending the monarchy is because it would be a symbol of fairness in a world where most people are reminded of unfairness in public life on a daily basis.

Symbolism is very important, as the Queen no doubt understands. Being the nation's grandmother is all very well (grandmothers are important too) but her role precipitates the privileged peerage, an unelected house of lords, an established church and a host of other iniquities that do not so much support the foundations of the nation as lie rotting behind the paintwork as the house slowly crumbles.

Britain is post-colonial in many ways: its interconnectness with Europe, its ethnicity, its plurality. But still the monarchy keeps our eyes locked on to notions of Britain as a great power, something that has contributed indirectly to a foolhardy foreign policy and even to post-industrial decline. Involvement in conflicts since 1945 has largely been an attempt to hang on to a semblance of international influence and such a mindset has been at the expense, sometimes literally, of a focus on economic modernisation. It is as if we have never had a free hand to concentrate fully on the wealth and health of the nation because of our inability to resist the pull of global power games and costly, bloody interventions. It is not that the monarchy in itself causes wars or damages the economy, but its presence makes it almost impossible for Britain and its constituent parts to face the future with any sense of vision or vigour. The country is like middle-aged man constantly trying to relive his youth - full of guilt, regret and longing. Constitutional change would effectively force us to see ourselves as a "new" country.

Change would not mean breaking links with the past, but merely one version of it. A republic could reconnect the nation with its own dynamism, its own slightly mad journey through the centuries. It is precisely because our history is so rich, so multi-layered, so engrossing that it would survive. Our heritage isn't going anywhere whatever happens to the monarchy. Change might even give us a chance to see more of its compelling narratives and make us feel like we are involved in it rather than sensing it as something apart from us, like ol' man river, rolling on inscrutably to the horizon.

British politics, especially when it comes to constitutional matters, is a litany of expediency and that tradition has become an excuse for doing nothing. Getting rid of the monarchy isn't going to "solve" anything - but it would remove the great barrier to democracy that we have been parked behind for so many years. We need to become a nation of voters and an elected head of state (whatever the limits of its power), the end of hereditary titles and an elected second chamber would send out a clear message that though inequality exists, it is no longer built directly into the constitution itself.

The problem with removing the monarchy is that people assume it would be so difficult it is almost not worth bothering with. Even republicans respect the Queen, but respect shouldn't be confused with approval for the institution. Getting rid of the monarchy is a bit like Everest. The answer to the question "why?" is because it is there.

Around the Web

Queen's 60th jubliee party gets under way

Jubliee and murder - a typical day a Stanley Halls

Queen's Jubliee celebrations off to a flying start