Friday, January 05, 2007

And what do you do?

Sci-fi futures, even those set only a few days away, are often without a monarchy. The only one I can think of that’s not got some comedy king is the opening panel to 2000AD’s Invasion, in which a hairy-lipped Charles III exhorts his people to resist the not-quite-Nazis as they spill onto our beaches.

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.


Liadnan said...

Niven & Pournelle's Mote in Gods Eye has an Emperor (with real executive power) and aristocracy who appears to be generally positive (though he's off stage). The social structure seems vaguely Victorian, without too many warts.

Not that I like the novel.

I've never been too fussed either way about the monarchy: I think there is a need for *something* in that constitutional place and I don't really know that anything else would be much better. (I'm definitely opposed to an executive head of state.)

Nimbos said...

There's always your Amidallas of the fictional world if you want a non-lame monarch. Yes, she's elected, but then so were some Saxon kings of old.

I don't think I'd have a problem with a modern monarch who was nominated from among the family if we decided to abandon primogeniture (but again - why bother). I think the problems arise if anyone can have a go even if it is not an executive position.

I'm far more receptive and feel a connection more to an hereditory monarch than I would to a career politician or a simple place-filler such as the presidents of Germany, Ireland or Italy, for example, seem to be.

0tralala said...

Ah - good call on Mote, which I'd forgotten.

Amidalla is rather undermined by her own ambitious chancellor, Nimbos. And there is a (frankly barking) line of argument that Star Wars isn't proper sci-fi anyway.

Rob said...

My problem with this stuff - as with all that modern pro-monarchist (or crypto-pro-monarchist) stuff around these days - is this; it's all very well to say "what would you replace it with?", but that doesn't cut it if you consider the issue to be one of principle. If you're going to come at one of the last great bugbears of Liberty with nothing more than "If it ain't broke...", then why on Earth did you suit up in the first place?

Nearly all these arguments are, to varying degrees, valid: "Our lot aren't that bad"; "at least this way they get taught the necessary skills"; "They've got no real power anyway"; "If we had a President we'd just elect Elton John". But none of them address the fundamental contradictions of Monarchy and Democracy Where's the progressive agenda? Where's the desire to have something better, not just something that works?

I by no means absolve myself here. One of the reasons I've largely given up arguing with New Monarchists is that I meekly accept the premise that "It doesn't really matter", so long as folks aren't actually getting boiled in oil on a royal whim, and the king can't take us on doomed crusades just to feather his nest (er...) But there's still a distinction between accepting the status quo, and defending it.

SK said...

One of the good things about having a monarchy, though, is that it precisely does enshrine a non-democratic principle at the heart of the constitution; thus checking and frustrating those who would elevate 'democracy', which is merely a useful way to organise a government in order to minimise corruption (a work-around, if you like, for human natutre), to the status of some kind of quasi-religious principle.

The reason democracy is good is not that it's inherently the 'way things should be' but that in practice it works. Making sure politicians can never make it to the top of the tree reminds us and (more importantly) them that they are, when it comes down to it, merely beaurocrats and functionaries, and that their positions are not inherently valuable.

(This is one of the problems with the American system, where head-of-state is a politician, that it loses this distinction and the pomp and circumstance attaches itself to a politician -- the very last class of person who should
be fêted like that!)