05 June 2012

A Republican Abroad: Reflections on Britain's Monarchy

I remember little about my first visit to England: being smacked for swearing, and meeting a cousin who I wouldn’t see again for more than thirty years; but then, I was barely two.

I was four the next time I visited, being roused from my bed in the dead of night by my dad, taken to my older sister’s flat, and bundled onto the boat, to sleep on the floor through the night and tread nervously across the gangway to Liverpool’s Pier Head in the morning, looking down at the Mersey’s dark waters. I wasn’t good at heights, even then.

I’ve clearer memories of that second trip, much of which was spent with a cousin a few years older than me: a taxi from the port to my mum’s elder sister’s house, my cousin teasing his older sister’s ‘yucky’ denim skirt and having his wrist hurt when one of his dogs tugged excitedly on the leash he’d wrapped around his hand, proudly whispering the few Irish words I knew to other cousins, skittering across the gravelled ground in a playground after ignoring instructions not to go on the slide as someone had put wax on it, admiring little rubber dinosaurs and finger monsters in a shop, and eating fish on Good Friday. I had a choice of packets of Monster Munch on the boat back home: not just the ones with the Cyclops on the back, the only ones you could get in Dublin, but ones with pictures and descriptions of the Minotaur and the Harpies too.

I’m not sure if modern crisp packets offer a rudimentary Classical education. I suspect not.

I really liked my knights
While I was there I was given a packet of toy knights by an aunt. Little silver-coloured plastic knights, wielding swords and maces. I was thrilled, and my cousin and I sat playing with them together by the window of the living room. ‘They protect the king,’ I said.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ said my cousin, ‘there are no kings anymore. Only queens.’  
‘What,’ I stared, ‘only queens?’
‘Only queens.’

A couple of years later a friend in Dublin earnestly informed me that the Queen had no power and that if she told me to kneel down in front of her then you wouldn’t have to, but that if Mrs Thatcher told me to then I would. That, of course, wasn’t an issue in Ireland, he said: ‘Because Ireland’s a free country.’

I had, it must be said, a somewhat confused childhood view of the British monarchy.

Strange though it seems, there were adverts on the telly when I was a boy, recruiting people for the Household Cavalry. I wanted to join, of course. Swords and breastplates, helmets and boots, black horses and red cloaks: the Life Guards looked like knights, and for a little boy besotted with the legend of King Arthur, this was clearly a career to which one should aspire.

Even now, I reckon the sovereign's escort justifies the monarchy's existence
Being English, my mother approved, though she was far less impressed by my reactions when she made me watch the opening of Parliament one year. The pageantry and the Queen cast no spell over me on that occasion, as I’d have rathered be drawing or reading or playing on the road: ‘Huh,’ I’d scowled, ‘I wish Guy Fawkes had blown it up.’

The years passed, and the British royal family’s shenanigans seemed like one of those soap operas that you never watch but occasionally notice in the background. To this day I’m not sure of the extent to which my memories of Charles and Diana’s wedding are my own or ones manufactured by Sue Townsend and planted in my head by the fictional pen of Adrian Mole. ‘Lady Diana is a commoner,’ I remember my Mam telling me. This mattered, clearly, and was a good thing, though I wasn’t sure why.

We had a Charles and Di tea caddy at home too, acquired at the time of the royal wedding. I think it lasted longer than their marriage. We told scurrilous schoolboy jokes about the royal family at school. ‘Did you hear that Princess Diana is forming a band with Chris Rea? She’s going to call it Diarrhoea!’* ‘Why does Prince Charles have a multicoloured willy? Because he dips it in dye so often!’

None too respectful, you’ll surely agree, but well, we were about ten, and it was no worse than what we sang about what the Queen got up to in 1976. No, I’ll not repeat it here.

A Modern Republic
Curiously, our own largely symbolic head of state, President Hillery, didn’t impinge on my consciousness at all. He met ambassadors, and signed legislation, and inspected the armed forces, and played golf, and generally kept to himself. I remember seeing a red squirrel when peering through the gates of his official residence one day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one since.

1990 changed that, of course, as we had the first presidential election of my lifetime, with Mary Robinson beating Brian Lenihan and Austen Currie in an AV election.** Robinson changed the Presidency dramatically, expanding the office beyond its official role of ‘Head of State’ to give it a new direction as – to borrow the terminology of Antony Jay’s Elizabeth R – ‘Head of Nation’. She deliberately imbued the office with symbolism, and paved the way for President McAleese’s two terms. McAleese’s presidency, I think most Irish people would agree, was a model of what the presidency can be, and her role in 2011’s visit of the Queen brought that home.

Those English people who seem to think that the only alternative to a constitutional monarchy is an American-style executive presidency merely show how limited their knowledge is of political systems. There are lots of ways to run republics.

Ah, sure, the English are known for the craic...
When I moved to England the first time, back in 2001, I was scornful of the monarchy; it was obviously an anachronism, and an indignified one at that. As the thirtieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday passed I muttered about atrocities being committed against the Queen’s subjects by the Queen’s soldiers, and as the Queen’s fiftieth jubilee approached I scowled and told my friends in halls that there was no way I’d be joining them at the jubilee party at our brother hall.

Minutes before my friends set out I relented, and nine of us headed off, arriving just as one corpulent student – a South African, I think – finished belting out ‘God Save The Queen’. We settled in for an evening of drinking games and even karaoke, with Russell, visiting Dave, insisting that we all join in a rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that was as energetic as it was surely cacophonous. At the end a drunken undergrad stepped up to join us, so we left him to slur a high-pitched ‘any way the wind blows...’

Afterwards he challenged me to a fight with giant inflatable boxing gloves in the bouncy castle the boys had hired. I smiled and let him charge at me, and stepped aside so that he fell. He struggled to his feet, and I knocked him over again. And again. And again. Letting him steady himself, I waited for his charge once more and again stepped aside so he crashed to the mat. And again I smiled as he wobbled upwards, before knocking him over again.

Afterwards my friend Paul, who died in an accident almost exactly four years later, admiringly said ‘Mister Daly! I’ve never seen such malevolent delight on anyone’s face before!’ He definitely approved.

Back in our own place, we set up a table and chairs and sat drinking and chatting on the lawn till half four. Koji, a Japanese fellow in our hall, joined us and took to running about – for no discernible reason – with his T-shirt drawn over his head. Madeleine rested her head on my shoulder, and we all decided it was time to crash. We planned to rendezvous at breakfast, and belt out at least a bar or two of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to startle the undergrads, some of whom had witnessed our travesty.

Needless to say, not one of us made it to breakfast.

It had been an absolutely superb night, and the first one we’d had out in weeks where we hadn’t been on edge for half the evening, expecting some kind of trouble. Mary McAleese is great, I thought, but she’s not once given us an excuse for a party.

Not a system I'd establish, but one I can embrace
Last year’s Irish presidential election was a horrible affair, such that I don’t know many people who wouldn’t happily have had Mary McAleese for a third term if only the Constitution would allow it. There was something incredibly unedifying about choosing a head of state – who we’ve now come to think of as a head of nation – through an election that dragged all manner of dirty linen and closet skeletons into public sight.

British republicans who cry out for the glories of an elected head of state seem to be speaking from dogma, not experience; they seem like embodiments of the saying about the grass being greener on the other side. The fact is that there’s something to be said for people being reared and trained through decades for such a role, with there being no question of who the next in line for the job will be.

I’m still a republican, of course; even with nasty elections like the 2011 one I prefer the Irish model of having a largely ceremonial president to a largely ceremonial monarch as head of state, but I’ve come to see that the British solution isn’t that bad, really. It’s not one I’d invent if I were charged with coming up with a political system, but it’s not a bad one to have ended up with, and it's such that I'm wary of attempts to tinker with it. I'm not sure how many wooden blocks can be eased away before the Jenga tower falls.

The monarchy gives constitutional stability, and expresses national unity, and provides a justification for the country being called the United Kingdom, after all. Get rid of the monarchy and the UK would need a new name. For starters.

God save the Queen, so. On balance.

* Yes, I know. Exactly the same joke was made about Chris Rea becoming lead singer of Dire Straits. It makes more sense in that context.
** Yes, because despite the lies of the No lobby in the 2011 AV referendum, more than three countries in the world use AV, with one of the ones using it being the only country with which the UK shares a land border. The first two times I voted it was in AV elections. I still think it's a better system than the absurdity that is FPTP, where the typical MP goes to Westminster having been voted for by fewer people than voted for other candidates.


Ben Trovato said...

If you want to come and see another red squirrel, you're always welcome...

Patricius said...

I think we tried a republic in Great Britain back in the 17th Century. It wasn't a great success.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Well, there's more than one type of republic. Cromwell's version was rather closer to what the rest of us would call a military dictatorship.

On red squirrels, Ben, I'd be very tempted.

SaC said...

Thirsty G,

How can I contact you?