Last Thursday I had a conversation with a friend that left me feeling distressed. With it being the queen’s birthday, my friend had cheerfully informed me (the naive foreigner) that this was only one of them. She has her official birthday in June. This is an odd state of affairs, but it was not the cause of my distress, at least not directly.
The wilful and immediate collapse of that famed English rationality which occurs whenever the monarchy is mentioned has been a major source of bewilderment since I moved here two years ago. The same people who would rail passionately about Cameron’s taxes or his questionable relationship with pork, are reduced to bumbling sentimental morons at the sight of baby George or the idea of a little old lady turning 90. No, the cause of my distress was not the confusing nature of the queen’s birthdays; it was the realisation that even if it is not quite well, nationalism is certainly alive in England.
The continued existence of the British royal family has always confused me. Prevailing opinion in England and indeed the entire western world is and for has been for some time now that human beings are born freely and equally. As such, democracy and meritocracy have become cornerstones of western society. Along with America, Britain has championed these principles time and time again in the fights against fascism, Stalinism and now jihadism. Yet still the monarchy – the very antithesis of these principles – remains and is adored for it.
Of course, there have been attempts made to rationalise the royals’ presence in 21st century England. Committed monarchists cite the political instability that has historically ensued following the removal of a monarchy, the centrality of Britain’s royal heritage to the tourism trade and the ambassadorial role of the royals internationally as reasons to retain this medieval institution. I have a hard time taking these arguments seriously.
“There is only one plausible explanation for the overwhelming popularity of the British monarchy: they are the last respectable vestige of nationalism”
To me, it seems obvious that transitioning from a hereditary head of state to an elected one would not cause the same turmoil as revolutions in France or Russia, which involved the total upheaval and reestablishment of entire political systems. Nor do I believe that tourists would lose interest in Buckingham Palace if no royals were actually in residence there. An annual celebration of Britain transitioning to true and full democracy (à la Bastille Day) could stimulate as much economic activity as a royal wedding that only happens once every thirty years.
I certainly do not believe, having spent my teenage years in a former colony of Britain’s, that the royal family’s ambassadorial duties could not be carried out more effectively by officials that are not doomed rightly or wrongly to be forever associated with the crimes of imperialism. There is only one plausible explanation for the overwhelming popularity of the British monarchy: they are the last respectable vestige of nationalism.
George Orwell differentiated between nationalism and patriotism, defining the former as “power hunger tempered by self-deception”. It is the blind commitment to an obviously irrational idea of the superiority of one country. The appeal for nationalism, however distasteful, is at least understandable. It offers the servile, lowly cave-man within us, the chance to belong to something greater than ourselves, something to alleviate us of the burden of individuality. The problem with nationalism is that it requires something of us in return: the suspension of our rational capacities, which history teaches us is a very dangerous thing.
“It is the same deception that today swells the ranks of IS and threatens to deliver Donald Trump to the White House”
This blind devotion to king and country is the same force that compelled the British, to name but a few, to imprison the Boers in concentration camps, to create artificial famine in India, Bengal and Ireland and to send millions of their own young men to be fight in the trenches, 700,000 of whom never came back. It is the same deception that today swells the ranks of IS and threatens to deliver Donald Trump to the White House.
Of course, that is not to say that the British public should not be patriotic. Britain has more to be proud of than perhaps any other country in the world. Be proud of Shakespeare and Milton, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Harry Kane and Delle Alli! Be proud of the NHS; be proud of the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism! Patriotism, unlike nationalism, is conditional and can therefore be a tool for progressive change in society. The Republic of Ireland, for instance, became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote last year, a source of immense pride to me as a patriotic Irish citizen.
If you can really be similarly proud of the fact that in 2016 the descendants of William the Conqueror and the heads of the Church of England have the power to dissolve a government and must approve new laws on your behalf, then good luck to you. I hope that I am not alone in thinking that while baby George is undeniably cute, neither his cuteness nor his last name should afford him any such powers.
Image: Leonard Bentley via Flickr