British identity doesn’t need monarchy

As the UK celebrates the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the 'national' rhetoric is that of a royal Britishness. Peter Tatchell examines the moral and social arguments against this conflation, suggesting the space for a new civic identity via republicanism.  

Peter Tatchell
3 June 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

Everyone loves a party. Millions of people - royalists and even some republicans - are enjoying the pageantry and spectacle of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I’m glad for them and, as a democrat, I respect their right to laud the Queen.

It is, nevertheless, sad that so many people still seek to express their British identity through the adulation of one very rich, privileged, aristocratic family - the Windsors. Apart from the morally objectionable deference and fawning, the idea that the royal family personifies Britishness is bizarre.

The Queen is descended from German, not British, royalty. In the early twentieth century, they changed their name to Windsor to cover up their Germanic ancestry. Not that I object to German descendants on the British throne. I care not a jot. All immigrants, including royal ones, are welcome. Besides, they’ve been here for several generations. I accept them as being as British as anyone else.

My sole objection is the con that the royal family’s lineage is wholly British and that they, more than anyone else, are deemed to symbolise British tradition and identity.

Moreover, while I see nothing intrinsically wrong with the assertion of Britishness, I can think of more deserving ways to assert it than by celebrating the monarchy and the Diamond Jubilee.

Let’s celebrate the extraordinary contributions of British scientists, inventors, explorers, writers, artists, musicians and sportspeople. I am also immensely proud of Britain’s contribution to social reform, from the abolition of slavery to the introduction of parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech, votes for women and the national health service. These are, to me, the truly worthy aspects of British achievement and identity.

By contrast, I feel very uncomfortable about the huge resources and significance being given to the Queen’s 60 years on the throne; especially compared with the much lesser celebration of the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe - the defeat of Nazi fascism in 1945.

To defeat fascism, millions of ordinary unsung British people suffered and sacrificed. Many died. Many more were wounded or disabled. They, far more than the royals, represent everything that is positive, noble and inspiring about Britishness.

The 60th anniversary of V-E Day involved far lower key celebrations than the Diamond Jubilee. I remember joining over 100,000 people in central London. I stood there humbled, and in homage, with a simple placard addressed to the assembled veterans: “Thank you for saving us from fascism.”

We live in freedom, because of their heroism and sacrifice.

The triumph over Nazism is, to me, an anniversary that merits much greater celebration than one aristocrat’s six decades as Queen. It symbolises Britishness and British identity in a far more positive, authentic, humane and inspirational way than the Diamond Jubilee.

It is true that Elizabeth II’s 60 years as Queen has been mostly harmless and inoffensive. The problem is not the Queen personally. I have nothing major against her. My objection is to the institution of the monarchy. It’s a constitutional anachronism; a relic of a long-past feudal, aristocratic age.

An unelected head of state, even a pleasant one like the Queen, is incompatible with democracy and modernity. Monarchy is based on inherited power, wealth and status - not on merit or democratic choice. Deference is enshrined. Equality and accountability are spurned in favour of privilege.

According to the elitist values of the monarchical system, the most stupid, immoral royal is, by virtue of the family into which they are born, more fit to be our head of state than the wisest, most ethical commoner.

These are not the values that I want to see as part of British identity.

Monarchs get the job for life, no matter how appallingly they behave. While the Queen may have done a pretty good job, imagine having to put up with a king like the insensitive, gaffe-prone Prince Philip or the Nazi-sympathising Edward VIII.

Shamefully, we have a system of monarchy that is implicitly racist and based on religious intolerance.

No Catholic or person married to a Catholic can inherit the British throne. The monarch is automatically the Supreme Governor of the Church of England; making royal succession problematic for atheists, Muslims, Judaists, Hindus and Sikhs.

Although not racist by design or intent, the monarchy is racist by default. For the foreseeable future, a black Briton can never be our monarch and head of state. The position of king or queen is reserved for the all-white Windsor family and their descendants. Until a future royal first-in-line marries a non-white person, no Afro-Caribbean, African or Asian person can be the symbolic head of our nation.

The Queen sometimes seems out-of-touch with modern multicultural Britain. She visits many charities and community groups but rarely black ones and never gay ones. The royal embrace seems to have its limits.

For all these reasons, my idea of British identity is separate from the often morally dubious institution of royalty. We do not need to genuflect to the Queen to validate our Britishness. Our identify is not synonymous with royalism.

It is often claimed that the monarchy is preferable to an executive US-style president. However, together with most republicans, I’d prefer to see a low-cost, purely ceremonial, elected president, like Ireland.  

This would ensure that the people are sovereign, not the royals. It would give us a very important safeguard: if we don't like our head of state, we can elect a new one. The Queen could stand for election. If she won, which she might, I’d accept the result. Let the people decide.

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