The impending royal wedding is bringing the institution of the monarchy into sharp focus recently, and I am beginning to rethink my stance on it.
Up until now, I’ve held an admittedly unusual view that ties the issue of whether we retain or abolish the monarchy up with the issue of Scottish independence. Many of the reasons I don’t like the monarchy as currently constituted lie in the governance and constitution of the UK – the monarch is head of the Church of England, inextricably intertwined with the historically feudal, ecclesiastical rule which still sees unelected peers including Church of England bishops sitting in our parliament in Westminster (incidentally, the only parliament in the world besides Iran’s that allows religious figures to sit ex-officio in a legislature). In essence, therefore, the monarchy is the glue that binds church and state, to the detriment of both.
Of course, that’s a relic of English constitutional arrangements which the UK has inherited, and things are different in Scotland where the monarch is not head of the established church (indeed, we don’t have an established church – the Church of Scotland is merely the “national” church and is entirely disestablished).
So, I’ve wondered, once Scotland becomes independent, perhaps our monarchy wouldn’t carry such baggage. Of course, current SNP policy is to retain the monarchy as is upon independence, with the monarch reigning in much the same way as it does currently in other countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and so on. But what if something different happened, and the newly independent Scottish government invited a member of the royal family – which is, after all, historically Scottish and not English – to “break away” and continue as the separate Scottish monarch? It’s not unfeasible – after all, this is precisely what Norway did when it became independent.
If that was to happen in Scotland, our new (but at the same time also continuing) monarchy could be constituted afresh, with all the limits on pomp, circumstance and privilege that would make it the sort of “behind the scenes” Scandinavian-style small-scale monarchy that is everything the UK monarchy currently isn’t. Perhaps if this was to happen, the monarchy in Scotland would be more popular? I honestly reckon that most of the criticisms of the monarchy (at least from a Scottish perspective) are tied up with the way it is constituted in the UK rather than the inherent fact it is a monarchy, and thus it would be worth trying out this Norwegian-style breakaway monarchy upon independence before we think about getting rid of it. Perhaps a very Scottish monarchy, on our terms, would be OK?
The royal wedding, though. It’s beginning to make me swither on this. Partly it’s the cost, partly it’s the incessant media saturation that makes it hard to escape (even our supermarkets are full of calls to celebrate), and partly it’s the way the event is displaying everything that is wrong about our monarchy’s privilege, unaccountability and traditions. One example is that the wedding is an opportunity to invite monarchs from despotic regimes with horrific human rights abuses, hardly a mark of a modern democracy.
Also, there’s the way that the church is being used as the lapdog of the establishment – this article reports Kate Middleton’s recent confirmation, whereby her faith is “confirmed” as she becomes a part of the Church of England. Sorry to be cynical, but I really doubt that she was so moved by the power of the Holy Spirit that she wanted to assert her commitment to Jesus and his church, coincidentally a couple of weeks before becoming wife of the future king, whom she would be unable to marry without being in the correct faith. That, to me, is a sickening act of sycophancy and an abandonment of the Gospel by those who presided over this. Now of course I might be wildly wrong, and who am I to pass judgement on Kate Middleton’s relationship (or lack of) with Jesus? But the circumstances are just too convenient to avoid being cynical on the matter, and the church is simply acting as a tool of the establishment rather than a tool of the Gospel.
Then there’s the horrific invasion of privacy the couple have to put up with. If I remember rightly, William and Kate spent some considerable time apart from being a couple because she was struggling with the constant harassment of her by the media; sinister echoes of the fate that befell Diana, Princess of Wales. Ever since she arrived on the scene, pretty much every move, gesture, word and item of clothing of Kate has been scrutinsed by a voracious media from whom she will never, ever escape.
Above all, though, there’s the suggestion that William in particular doesn’t really want to be in the place he is. If Johann Hari is to be believed (1|2) (and while he’s very partisan he writes thoroughly persuasively and is well-researched [2015 edit: I wrote this before Hari’s fall from grace, but I believe much of his analysis in those articles still stands]) William hates the media, went through a phase of not wanting to be a part of the royal family, and has virtually no personal freedom. All his major life decisions – where to study or work, who to fall in love or have sex with, what faith to be seen to follow or reject – are not purely his to take, with the massed ranks of establishment figures on hand to decide not what is purely in his best interests but what serves the interests of the stability, survival and reputation of the monarchy.
Thus, it is a persuasive argument that republicans are the only people who truly wish the couple well, the only people who want them to have genuine happiness, privacy and freedom. Royalists, on the other hand, want them to be mere puppets for this invasive, dehumanising charade of pomp, circumstance and tradition, and the Church of England is shamefully happy to roll over and play along.
Yes I want Scottish people to make a choice about retaining or abolishing the monarchy once we’ve become independent and can create a monarchy that reflects our nation and we can properly assess on our own terms. But if the disgusting display this royal wedding represents continues to shape the character and constitution of our current monarchy, I may change my mind.
Unless, of course, Scotland becomes independent pretty damn quickly.