Photo by dannybirchall on Flickr
In the weeks leading up to Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, a 100-metre wide photograph of the royal family celebrating 1977's Silver edition was unfurled over a building on London's South Bank. The image shows a fresh-looking, middle-aged Queen smiling and waving to her subjects from the Buckingham Palace balcony - soaking up the adulation, flanked by her adoring husband and children. Had Kim Jong-un unveiled a banner so ostentatious, inflated and pompous in Pyongyang, Newsnight's talking heads would've been up in arms over the North Korean "personality cult". The similarities between the Windsors and the Kims are thankfully few, but the picture still rankled with some, who were left to wonder why, in the second decade of the 21st century, are the citizens of a supposedly democratised nation paying homage to a woman who has been its unelected head of state for 60 years?
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Jubilee was the context within which it was so heartily celebrated. The duumvirate of real power, David Cameron and George Osborne, have spent the past two years sliding down the greased-up opinion polls at an alarming rate. The Labour leader Ed Miliband has been keen to impress the pair's wealth and perceived sense of entitlement (both are old Etonians and come from vast familial fortunes) upon the public, who seem to be taking note. Yet, simultaneously, the royal family hasn't been this popular in years: a recent poll conducted by ICM and the Guardian found that 69 per cent of Britons say the country would be worse off without a hereditary monarchy - while only 10 per cent support reverting to a contemporary presidential head of state.
Smiling weddings clearly have a more positive impact than growling public divorces, but these figures still baffle me. I pull no punches about my politics. I'm a republican and feel that the head of a state - no matter how notional its powers are said to be - should be a fully elected figure, whose actions and operations are transparent, accountable and dictated by a clearly stated mandate. I find it difficult to reconcile any of the arguments in favour of a monarchy with these principles, or, indeed, with the opulence on show last weekend. As a £12 million (!) flotilla made its way down the Thames on Sunday, the only emotion stirred within me was one of regret: regret that a further £12 million of taxpayers' money had been pissed down the river. As the no doubt handsomely remunerated Grace Jones and Stevie Wonder were - on separate occasions - wishing her Majesty a "happy birthday", hundreds of unpaid jobseekers were being bussed in from across the UK in order to steward the event and then - like a scene from the most dystopian of Dickensian works - forced to sleep under London Bridge before turning up for duty. The duality of Britain's modern society, laid bare.
As it is, most pro-monarchy arguments are fairly easy to unpick, but rather than sifting through all of them, I'll focus on some of the most commonly used. Arguably the most frequently propagated is that having a royal family is great for the national coffers. Yes, tourists flock to pick up tacky souvenirs and get their picture taken in front of Buckingham Palace - but not in the droves you might think. Only one of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain is a royal abode (Windsor Castle, #17). Royal tourism accounts for just 1 per cent of Britain's total tourism revenue: a drop in the ocean.
In its Value for Money Monarchy Myth report, the pro-reform group Republic points out that the monarchy costs the taxpayer £202.4 million annually, rather than the £38.3 million figure officially released, a figure which excludes, among other things, security and royal visits. This financial hole, claims Republic, would cover the annual salaries of almost 10,000 nurses and over 8,000 police officers. In comparison, the monarchies of Holland, Norway, Denmark and Spain cost their taxpayers £88.3 million, £23.9 million, £10.5 million and £7.4 million, respectively. If you add them all together, the Windsors' budget is 150 per cent greater than the total. The monarchy, we're told, assumes the same ambassadorial, figurehead role as the Irish President (democratically elected), but annually, runs up a bill 112 times bigger than Michael D. Higgins or any of his predecessors.
The most controversial facet of the regal finances, perhaps, is the income generated by the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. The duchies comprise lands, assets and property held in trust for the crown, yet are not the personal property of the royal family. The costs of running the duchies come from taxpayers' contributions, but profits from them are withheld from public consumption, even while they're being held aloft as a reason for retaining the monarchy. The monarchy retains all capital generated through the duchies (you may be familiar with Prince Charles' Duchy Originals range of organic foodstuffs sold in upmarket grocers, such as Waitrose). That the royal family is entitled to retain these profits while still being in receipt of the civil list (the donation made to the upkeep of the royal family by the government) is wholly undemocratic - particularly considering payments into the civil list have increased by 94 per cent in real terms over the past two decades.
Keep your friends close
Another argument often reeled off by monarchists is that the Queen is a figurehead - a harmless individual who successfully represents her people, while not interfering in political matters. When quizzed on how exactly she completes the above task successfully, supporters usually return a nebulous answer. Apologists often point to her entertaining of state visitors (bypassing the fact that guests first must call on the Lord Mayor of London, further diluting the Queen's essentiality), yet, such leaders often deserve to have the rug pulled from beneath their feet, rather than rolled out before them.
In a pre-Jubilee state dinner, the list of invitees was a who's who of global tyrants. King Mswati III of Swaziland was there, a multi-billionaire monarch of a country whose GDP per capita ranks below that of Iraq and East Timor and who has been implicated in a kidnapping affair (his future teenage bride - to add to his harem of ten others - was the victim) and has claimed that all HIV-positive people should be "sterilised and branded". He was joined by King Al Khalifa of Bahrain, who arrived fresh from crushing an uprising in his island state, killing 85 civilians and torturing almost 2,000 more. Granted, the Home Office is most likely to have drawn up the list of invitees, but by dining in their company (in her house!), the Queen legitimises regimes of brutality across the world, so cannot be held to be apolitical. As she's representing the people of Britain - a nation which claims to pride itself on its democratic roots - surely her guest lists should be more reflective of our national values.
Domestically, the Queen may well steer clear of party politics (although, given the fact that liaisons between parliament and palace are subject to a secrecy rivalling parliamentary privilege, we may never know if it is the case), but when she eventually cedes power to the first in line to the throne, her heir is unlikely to remain so blank, unopinionated and politically irrelevant. Charles, should he succeed his mother, is a much more vociferously minded individual who has, for his forthright views and willingness to expound upon them, been described as "the republicans' best friend".
Good time Charlie
His views on "complementary" medicines, fox-hunting, architecture and governmental agriculture policy have been widely publicised and roundly condemned (indeed, in 2000, the Prince of Wales lent his support to a strand of "spiritual healing" which can reduce the effects of chemotherapy. In this case, his views are not just controversial, they're downright dangerous). In a recent column in the Observer, Nick Cohen**proposed that the ascension of Charles III would be the final nail in the coffin of the British monarchy: for the moment he starts meddling in matters of national, political importance, the number's surely up.
My concluding questions are these: are the British public really happy to be represented by a lady who, while thankfully not openly airing views as offensive as some of those of her son, has not once in her life uttered an opinion worth recording, let alone remembering and whose supposed political irrelevance and detachment are held up as virtues? Shouldn't a country that is seemingly content to go to war with "less democratic" nations and individuals in the name of freedom practice what it preaches abroad, at home? Shouldn't we do away with such nepotism in favour of something more meritocratic that produces a figurehead who more clearly represents and articulates Britain's supposedly democratic values?
In the 10,000 years since Britain became an island, there have been many things worthy of celebrations on the scale of last weekend. To name but a few, there's that language that we all speak to varying degrees of competency, which seems to have caught on fairly well in other parts of the world; the Magna Carta - the first step in transferring power from the antiquity of monarchy, almost 1,000 years ago; London becoming only the second place in the world after Venice to outlaw the trade of slaves and serfdom way back in 1102 (the rest of the country wasn't free from the shackles for another 600 years); the establishment of universal, free healthcare in 1948; the inventions of the television, the jet and steam engines, the telephone and the internet; the long overdue legalisation of gay matrimony in 2005. The list goes on: there are many things that make Britain great. The monarchy, I'm afraid to say, is not one of them.