Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Thinking Africa’s a country, going ghostbusting, telling me you don’t like seafood whilst I’m cooking crab linguine for you, using comma splices. We all have cut-off points. Now, I’m not talking about real failings, such as wanting to punish women who’ve had abortions, or refusing to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. Rather, it’s those lines past which we can continue to deem someone a decent person, but lose hope of respecting them, again. One of my most resolute lines has to be homeopathy: the more I fear you might believe in it, the more my respect for you will be diluted…
Something unlikely to form a cut-off between us, however, is the admission that I’ve always (perhaps unthinkingly) been a monarchist. We love our kings and queens here. Even when we don’t. Recent YouGov polling suggests that the nation’s second least favourite monarch is King Canute – what a very British question, and answer. Whether we love them, or love to hate them, monarchs categorise our past: an apt citizenship test could consist of points awarded per name recited from ‘Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste…’, and, obviously, it’s coolest to favour Shakespeare’s history plays.
In this, the month of our longest reigning monarch’s 90th birthday, we’re more royalist than ever. The aforementioned poll claims that only nine per cent of people consider the monarchy to be bad for Britain, and as many as 67 per cent, good. That sentiment must be exaggerated on our side of the spectrum: we conservatives are – by definition – into traditional institutions, aren’t we?
The first Tories were set apart by their support for the crown: they were cavalier, fighting to save Carolingian heads and a classic line of succession. Then, after everyone tired of bloodshed, and managed to find a way to maintain the monarchy but promote the parliament, sensible conservatives felt content (if politically neutered, for a while).
And that desire to protect – yet, when necessary, apply common-sense reform to – viable institutions is certainly the kind of conservatism I like. Those institutions depend on their context, however. In America, the founding Tories backed the British crown against the revolution; as republicanism became a defining feature of the country, it also became its conservative standpoint (I’ll save a Trumpian analysis for another day). Conservatism is situational and non-ideological: conservatives want to conserve their nation’s traditions and values.
To some, that might seem irrationally reactionary. You champion a thing simply because it’s there? What if it were wrong? Well, that’s where sense comes in: to stay right, you have to continue justifying your views. So, is monarchism good in itself? Reassessment seems appropriate, now – during our ongoing feud over questions of sovereignty, national and international makeup, the role of elected and unelected leaders, and that small but shouty swing from even the steadiest forms of establishment.
The long-time divisions within Britain’s political parties become ever more evident. Labour’s hybrid marriage of trades-unionism, communist apologism, middle-class sensitivity, and social democracy is bulging at its uniformed seams. On the other side, alliances remain between a High Tory devotion to Queen, God, and country; the advocacy of liberal values and varying degrees of libertarianism; Thatcherite free marketeering; interventionist neo-whatever; and a modernised one-nation redistribution drive.
Interpreting conservatism as non-ideological, however, elucidates why a broad church works better for us than for Labour. In that light, although free market economics isn’t inherently conservative, it’s fine to be a conservative and like Nozick, too. Sure, we could dream up clever arguments explaining how everything each of us believes conforms to – or, sometimes, is contingent on – a conservative attitude. But we don’t have to. We can be happily pragmatic, without the need for (or the constraints of) an overriding belief system.
That said, the monarchy unifies most Britons. In negative terms, it represents something the majority of us oppose – because, today, equality reigns supreme. Ok, we haven’t agreed on how we might attain that equality, or what the word actually means. Regardless of your specific stance, though, heritable rulership (even without primogeniture) probably doesn’t fit.
Yet monarchism also unifies us positively: republicanism isn’t popular on either of our main parties’ fronts. In economic straits, jubilee moments dower the land with a bunting-clad, sausage-roll-crumbed, river-boat-powered, burst of joyful Gloriana. The famous financial benefits of the monarchy may be famously unquantifiable, but it’s an undeniable social cement. The Queen is soft and safe: a reliable haven amongst increasing uncertainty over how we should rethink our complex institutional relationships. It’s understandable to shelter in the embrace of that soft safeness rather than face up to what monarchy might truly signify.
Whether that salve will stick returns us to homeopathy. I’ve always been a Prince Charles fan: he wears nice shirts; Poundbury proves the possibility of modern housing; his trust has helped nearly a million struggling 13-to 30-year-olds; and a love of Wagner is no longer one of my cut-off points. Yet, the prince’s well-known faith in that most illogical of alternative ‘medicines’ exemplifies my fears about him.
The monarchy’s present popularity is dependent on the Queen, and, surely, her likeableness is tied to her apoliticism. Her promotion of the greatness of Britain has never crossed into critical commentary on its governance. Prince Charles differs. He may have been persuaded against joining the Labour Party as a student, and his scrawled memos may have mostly pushed policy on topics as uncontroversial as endangered species, but his approach is alien, nonetheless (I’d say ‘new’, if it weren’t for his ancestry). In short, even if Prince Charles – as king – were to stop holding court on his favourite issues, we’d already know, or suspect, what he thought. And that will be forever exploitable as a lobby tool, whether used in the endorsement of unscientific healthcare, or appeasement of Iran.
To me, our current royal situation suits the highly representative – and localist – nature of our political system. Constituency-based parliamentary democracy is supremely more tangible in its accountability to the people than a regime in which your vote counts as one of millions, setting off on a serpentine voyage towards a couple of party-chosen, presidential kings-in-waiting. The Queen, in practice, is no executor. Yes, she symbolises checks and balances, but if she, or any successor ever tried – with the slightest spider steps – to activate the adjective in the Royal Prerogative, immediate headlines would herald the excitement of a tautogrammatical constitutional crisis.
As a favourite figurehead, Elizabeth II unites our great almost-republic. The monarchy works well, here – for now.