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Why the Queen Makes It Hard to Be a Republican

Posted: 24/05/2012 00:00

This week, many Arsenal fans experienced a strange sense of internal conflict. With resentment in their eyes, and confusion in their hearts, they found themselves cheering on their bitter rivals, Chelsea, in the Champions League Final. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend", says the Arabian proverb, and a Chelsea win was a cruelly satisfying mode of sucker-punching Arsenal's even-more-bitter rivals, Spurs.

Though not an Arsenal fan, I'm starting to have equally confused feelings about the monarchy. I have been, for as long as I can remember, a staunch republican. I skipped the Royal Wedding and went on holiday to Florence, home of the Renaissance Republic, as it seemed the most delightfully pleasant form of protest. I think monarchy is an outdated and inherently absurd form of political power that contradicts every philosophical tenet in my heart - the idea that you can only be born into true royalty is at total odds with modern Britain's democratic principles and emphasis on meritocratic social mobility.

Yet, there is a whopping great problem with my frothy-mouthed rhetoric...

... I bloody love the Queen!

Much like the People's Front of Judea in Monty Python's Life of Brian, I have been desperately trying to blindly ignore the obvious. "What has the Queen ever done for us," I proclaim loudly, before rattling speedily through the list of caveats, "Apart from the lifetime of service, decades of political neutrality, a willingness to modernise while representing traditional values, faultlessly representing Britain abroad, promoting tourism, and reading out her speech to parliament without breaking into hysterical laughter and asking David Cameron if he's taking the piss... "

With the minor exception of misjudging the public mood around the death of Princess Diana, QE2 has got it spot on since 1952. The woman is a triumph. Consequently, as a mark of individual respect, I don't remotely begrudge her receiving a triumph to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years of public service totally warrants it, and I hope it's a splendid success.

Ironically, 2012 is the perfect time for a jubilee, at least in the Biblical sense of the word. Leviticus states a jubilee should fall after seven cycles of seven years, in keeping with Jewish agricultural tradition. Accordingly, the 50th year was supposed to be a time of liberation for slaves, remission of sinners, and, most importantly, forgiveness of debts... so it's excellent news for Greece and Spain. It seems all you need to fix the world's most appalling economic cataclysm is for a posh person to sit on a throne for a nice, round number of years. Who knew?! Alas, as an atheist, I'm not sure I can justify that on the grounds of ancient holy text. Ho hum.

So, Biblical jubilees aside, that just leaves us with royal ones. However, it is not as ancient a tradition as one might think. In fact, we've only been having them for about 800 years, and they were a bit crap to begin with too. The first British monarch to start totting up their reign as they went along was King Richard the Lionheart, whose legal documents include his regnal year as a way of dating them. This accountancy innovation, however, seems to have been the extent of the debauched partying, so it's a tad disappointing. If we measure that on the jubilee-a-tron, it barely makes an audible beep. Boringly, in 1266 AD King Henry III managed to clock up a half-century on the king-o-meter, but didn't even bother with a Golden Jubilee party as he was busy fighting a civil war at the time. In fact, the first proper party had to wait until the arrival of Mr Chivalry himself, King Edward III, who finally did the decent thing when he reached 50 years in power. He was rowed up the Thames on a royal barge, and after flicking hastily through Leviticus decided to release some prisoners. A splendid time was had by all, and Edward promptly snuffed it a few months later, presumably deciding to end on a high. The jubilee-a-tron says BEEP!

Our current Queen's namesake, Elizabeth I, broke with tradition considerably when she celebrated her first jubilee just 12 years after having come to power. Such premature public pageantry was less to do with her inability to count properly, and more to do with treacherous Catholics trying to bump her off so they could install Mary Queen of Scots on the throne instead. From 1570 onwards, 17 November officially became Queen's Day and as the threat from the sinister, moustache-twirling Spanish got worse, the festivities got bigger and bigger. By the 1580s, she was hosting jousting tournaments at Whitehall Palace, and the Church of England was involved in making it an legitimate Feast Day. Poor Lizzie never made it to 50 years, so the massive Golden Jubilee never happened, but she had managed to wangle 32 years' worth of annual jubilees, so could hardly complain. The jubilee-a-tron is reporting mild, prolonged activity in the X axis.

Asides from our current Queen, the two other longest-serving monarchs were King George III and Queen Victoria. George was not always in the best mental health, but in 1809 he managed to celebrate his Golden Jubilee with fireworks and a procession past St Paul's. The poor chap fell short of a Diamond Jubilee by just a few months - he died in 1820, having ruled for 59 and a half years. A decent BEEP! The undisputed champion, of course, was Victoria. She racked up a Golden and Diamond Jubilee, the latter including crowds lining the streets for six miles... an impressive feat considering she was as widely unpopular as she was widely-proportioned. The jubilee-a-tron is reporting an exceptionally high BEEEEEEEEP.

So, judging from the hype, QE2's June regatta on the Thames should beat all historical precedents hands down, and may well fry the electrical circuits in my measuring device. In many regards, however, it is something of a farewell. Though in excellent health, she may yet choose to abdicate before her age prevents her from meaningfully carrying out her public duties, so it seems possible she may not reach the Platinum Jubilee in 2022. Of course, with such an extended reign, the Queen may well count herself lucky - the Ancient Egyptians would have stuck a wolf's tail on her rear end, and had her jog around the palace to prove her fitness to rule.

This Heb Sed Festival, in which the ruler personified the lupine god Wepwawet, occurred every three years once a Pharaoh had ticked off three decades on their work calendar. The magical ritual was supposed to imbue the divine leader with the strength to carry on ruling... yet the evidence suggests (in the early years of Egyptian history) the consequences for not completing the course involved ritualised sacrifice. Now, there's an incentive to pick up the pace! Rather brilliantly, King Pepi II - famous to Horrible Histories fans as the man who invented the slave-dipped-in-honey-fly-deterrent-system - was believed to have ruled 94 years, from the age of six until he was 100. This would have meant that the unfortunate Pharaoh would have completed the high-pressure mini-marathon 24 times in his long reign, with his last being when he was 99 years old! And you thought Ryan Giggs was old...

If the Queen does choose to abdicate, a decision that thankfully will not involve being ritually disembowelled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it still gives her no say in the choice of heir. This is where I start panicking. The Act of Settlement, passed into law in 1701, declares that the crown will pass unopposed to the eldest male heir. Though primogeniture laws are on the way out, this still will not stop Prince Charles from becoming King George VII (as is currently believed). This, I suspect, will be a disastrous move and will certainly make my republicanism stiffen again, like monarchical Viagra.

I don't care about Camilla, or the adultery, or Diana, or any of that. What worries me is Prince Charles' lengthy track-record of meddling in stuff that he is not supposed to be involved in. He has been caught 'advising' on controversial property developments, flogging dubious biscuits, promoting pseudoscience, speaking out against genetically modified crops, and has tiresome opinions on public architecture. At least when Prince Phillip is outspoken, his outlandish casual racism and sexism is gag-worthy. Prince Charles has no right under constitutional law to air any of these opinions, and when he does, they are simply dreary.

Under normal circumstances, I would be advocating the abolition of the monarchy once the Queen finishes her reign. However, there are some niggling doubts in my mind, and it may be that the most pragmatic solution is already with us. The biggest flaw in constitutional republicanism is the notion of an elected president, who can be either highly politically ideological (Sarkozy) or a sex-obsessed omni-douche (Berlusconi). The one benefit of having the Windsors is that they are, in theory, apolitical and require no incentive to do their job. They are never chasing electoral sympathies, or flip-flopping in pursuit of votes. Theirs is a duty to serve, and they step up admirably. In fact, our royal family are not politicians but, in many regards, state-sponsored celebrity endorsees. They are the public face of Britain, in the same way Martine McCutcheon is the face of yoghurt. Their job is to smile, shout "I love yoghurt/Come to Britain, it's perfectly adequate" and do nothing to embarrass the people they represent. Prince Charles did not get that memo.

So, if we the monarchy has evolved into a celebrity franchise, then surely we need the A-List celebs? In which case, we've already got some. William and Harry have transcended their awkward teens and become splendidly anodyne public-greeting machines. William has even managed to snare Kate Middleton, who seems to have been specifically hand-reared to look vaguely attractive in a dress and smile at strangers in sports halls and car parks. Between the three of them, Britain is comfortably in possession of some top notch bland, brand representatives. Unfortunately, we are hamstrung by idiotic tradition. If only we could vote for our next monarch... but I suppose that would be a very perverse fusion of two oppositional systems.

Sigh. So, for the time being, I'll be content in knowing that Queen Lizzie is doing the business, day in, day out. God Save The Queen! By which I of course mean, the NHS. Here's to 60 years of New Elizabethanism.

 

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