Otherwise there are rather feckless kings with little real power who seek petty praise and parties and miss the glory days. Sci-fi that can be so reverent of even the most hokey-religions still tends to think monarchy-of-the-future vapid and redundant.
Jeremy Paxman’s book, “On Royalty”, addresses this thorny problem (well, he doesn’t exactly explore the science fiction angle). It’s about the modern state of monarchy: its appeal, its limits and its future. But Paxman also addresses kingship in history, and the fact that as far back as there’s evidence, there seem to have always been kings.
“There is a story in ancient history, sometimes told of Philip of Macedon, sometimes of the Roman emperor Hadrian. While travelling on a journey he was approached by a woman who demanded he listen to her. The woman was insistent. But the emperor replied that he had no time, he had to be on his way. To which the woman replied, ‘Then do not be king!’ The emperor stopped, turned around, and listened.”
Jeremy Paxman, On Royalty, pp. 219-9.The book is highly engaging, full of great stories and insights. It’s told very simply, too – a wealth of hard work and research deftly concealed from the reader.
Paxman has been quoted widely (including by me) on his research into the meaning of royalty having swayed his own republican views. And his reasoning is pretty persuasive.
The divinity of kingship may just be a childish story, a reaction to the misery of tribal existence: we deify the biggest bully because it makes us feel less like saps. It’s not very rational to have kings and princes, but the we are not entirely rational beings (for all we’ve made slow increments to make our lives more so).
So what harm is there from our royal family? The problem, Paxman argues, is for a constitutional monarchy to find a role.
The Windsors live reasonably modest lives – their Tupperware being famous – compared to other chieftains of state, while at the same time producing their weight in national loyalty, glee and hope. Paxman talks to the army about exactly why they’re more unswerving in their allegiance to the crown than they would be to a career politician. He also explores the many charitable and worthy works that gain column inches and merit by association.
“It would take a very bleak view of human nature to argue that this promotion of causes which fall between the paving stones of ordinary life was anything but a good thing.”
Ibid., p. 230.And the problem for republicans is to show how we’d be better off without them.
Look at the tawdry bureaucracy and corruption of secular states – those ordinary folk in charge still have their sumptuous palaces. I’ve spoken before about why Holyrood’s palace has made a mockery of why it was built in the first place.
Homely, unostentatious for all they have castles, the Windsors fare rather better.
Paxman’s argument seems to be that theirs is largely a problem of public image – and one they’re themselves horribly aware of. A candid interview with the Duke of Edinburgh reveals some fascinating stuff about how his changing relations with the press. As the Duke sees it, the press are rude and intrusive in the same way a man hunts a tiger, thinking, ‘If I can shoot a tiger then I’m as powerful as a tiger.’
And because they’re not given any right to reply, the Windsors are very easy targets. At least tigers can bite back.
It’s not helped that the royals’ love lives and opinions on brickwork are constantly, endlessly raked over. They’re treated as easy page-filler, like any other tinsely celeb (in Stephen Fry’s definition: “Celebrity: someone you recognise but don’t quite know why).
Celebrities are not real people like you and I – just being in the paper to be read about puts them above all us riff-raff. That grandeur means there’s a “story” in them doing the most ordinary things: snogging someone, having a meal, maybe drinking too much. We can enjoy accounts of their weight gain and haircuts as we once did a new look for Barbie or Han Solo toys.
Because these people are an escape from our mundane lines, a princess can’t be allowed to have just died in a car crash. That’s too depressingly ordinary. No, it must have been a plot by her in-laws and the Government and a few groups of evil space alien…
And it’s why, throughout the book, people are surprised on meeting the Queen that she seems so very “human”.
I’d no great particular love for the trappings of monarchy, but I’m compelled by Paxman’s own argument: they are people doing their best in the circumstances. And let’s see you do any better.