My parents recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They married in March 1962, almost a decade to the month after Elizabeth II ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth in 1952.
It’s easy to pretend people like my parents lived in more deferential times. After all, everyone went to church on Sundays, everyone stood for the national anthem at the end of a film showing at the flicks, everyone adored the Royal Family and so on.
My mother tells a slightly different tale, however. In her younger days she was an usherette at a local cinema. It was the norm for the auditorium exit doors to be opened wide as the credits rolled, and for the staff to stand well clear to avoid the stampede as everyone made a quick exit before the national anthem was played. To many it was a matter of pride to be out of the building and heading home before you got caught and had to stand while the anthem staggered to a close.
I was a naïve thirteen year old at the time of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. We all got caught up in the pomp and glamour, made fancy dress and organised bunting and so on. I don’t think we had a street party, but I’m sure there was a do of some kind in the village hall. I still have my commemorative crown coin, worthless though it is. Like most people, my family were monarchist. They were proud of having a monarchy, proud of the traditions and all the flummery that accompanied it. It was something that was just there, like the sky, and you felt it was part of your identity.
That sense of pride I think stemmed from the Queen’s father, George VI, who had led the country through the dark years of the Second World War. He had done much to rebuild the family firm after his older brother had abdicated in 1936, and Elizabeth carried on the tradition. A beautiful young woman, with a young family, seemed to hold much promise for the future. In many ways, it was a fairytale affair.
As I get older, I find I have become a republican. I find the notion of a hereditary post of head of state out of step with the modern world. Why should who holds a position of power be down to an accident of birth? I find all the tradition—much of which was invented in more recent times than many realise—very much a hangover from less enlightened times. I also find there is an active and growing republican movement in the UK.
Today, as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is marked by a drizzle-sodden motley selection of boats floating down the Thames, and the media goes into a union flag-bedecked frenzy about everything royal, a few dissenting voices can be heard. Take Jack of Kent, for example. He wrote “A Jubilee Letter from a Republican” this morning, and I found it chimed with my overall feelings exactly:
Sixty years of public service is something to be celebrated. And the way the queen has done it also should be cheered: her self-control and lack of personal showiness is a model of what a monarch should be like, if we are to have a monarchy at all.
There are somethings to be said for the crown in domestic politics and law.
First, it is less important for the power it has than for the power it prevents others having.
Second, it provides the most general concept of the state we have in (at least) English law – almost all executive, legislative and judicial power is exercised in the name of the crown, one way or another.
And third, it provides a superficial sense of continuity from medieval times (if one ignores that in 1640, 1660, 1688, 1714, and 1936, the fate of the crown was determined by others).
All that said, there is a basic principle: supreme executive power in any modern polity really should be in the hands of someone who is accountable and capable of removal by some formal process.
The thing is, I don’t hold any particular malice towards the Royal Family. It can be argued that Elizabeth didn’t really have any choice in taking on the rôle, and she has carried the burden well for six decades. What sticks in my craw is being told I must celebrate such things, that if I wish to gainsay the “jollity” I am committing some kind of treason.
I went out for a photographic location scouting mission earlier today, partly to get away from the hoo-hah. As I drove around various villages and towns of north Kent, the numbers of houses and buildings with bunting and flags could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It struck me that the national mood being portrayed by our media wasn’t quite matching up to the reality I was seeing. A long weekend, yes, but not one of marked celebration that I could see.
I choose not to celebrate the jubilee. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as I am not forced to take part. I do happen to think it’s time we, as a country, began to rationally discuss the alternatives to a hereditary monarchy as head of state. I fully realise I may never see a Republic of Great Britain in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grown-up enough to talk about it.