Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Secular Monarchy or Republicanism?

A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that the UK monarchy is enjoying record popularity with a 69% approval rating. The current diamond jubilee celebrations have prompted some prominent humanists such as Polly Toynbee to write on the republican cause in the national press. Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to discuss the relationship between monarchy, republicanism and humanism. It has to be said at the outset that as someone who dropped history in favour of sciences when choosing my GCEs, some may think me not a credible opponent of the learned President of the British Humanist Association whose illustrious family might be seen as left-wing royalty of sorts, her grandfather and great-grandfather being prominent historians and social reformers of their time, the former being an expert on the decline of imperial Rome due to the abandonment of the republican principles upon which it was founded . As a freethinker and humanist whose current beliefs are not founded on authority, whether hereditary, religious or academic, the truth is that I find little to agree with in Polly Toynbee’s journalistic output. I don’t like her constant and unjustified attacks on Nick Clegg, himself an active humanist in the past and the Liberal Democrat party he leads and I don’t like her petty killjoy attitude to the pleasure and security ordinary people, usually of conservative temperament feel in enjoying a national celebration centred on the royal family.  Unlike the head of state, the presidency of the BHA is not for life and we have been expecting a new president for some time since the excellent A. C. Grayling felt he had to withdraw his acceptance of the role fearing reprisals from the unreasonable far left wing of the humanist cohort after he became the provost of a private university (staffed almost entirely by prominent humanists), perhaps the upcoming conference would be an opportune time to announce a change. Of course, the selection of the BHA president is not directly democratic but if I had a vote I would nominate the recently made Viscount Matt Ridley, the voice of reason incarnate. Immanuel Kant famously explained the meaning of “enlightenment” to be the willingness to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This freethinking attitude to life gives rise to contrarian spirits such as that of the late great humanist Christopher Hitchens who courted controversy by sometimes appearing to switch sides, for example in his much publicised support for the Iraq War and there is an irony in that I should choose defend the status quo and take a reactionary stance against the tide of humanistic republicanism, but I have my reasons which I hope to set down.

Polly is not the first president of the BHA to conflate humanism with republicanism and she won’t be the last. Shortly before her death, the erstwhile president of the BHA, Claire Rayner, who was also an active member of “Republic” – the organisation campaigning to make the UK a republic – said in response to an article linking humanism to republicanism that she couldn’t be a humanist and also support a monarchy and suggested that a humanist monarchy is an oxymoron and that the BHA should ally itself to the republican movement. On the contrary, what would be an oxymoron would be an "orthodox humanist" and the BHA campaign for constitutional reform does not mention republicanism at all. Virtually all of the humanists I know have echoed the sentiments of Toynbee and Rayner, pointing out that having a hereditary head of state is irrational since given the random nature of genetic inheritance there is no guarantee that a person born of royal lineage will be fit to be head of state. They point out that the monarchy is an anachronistic hangover from feudal times and doesn’t reflect the aspirations and values many of us hold, in relation to democracy, human rights, social mobility, etc. It simply establishes the permanent position of a particular social class with a particular political standpoint. I agree with this analysis for the most part – so what’s my problem?
Let me make an analogy. I don’t like soap operas. I think they are boring, tiresome and predictable – I have better things to do with my time. So in the unlikely event of me being made controller of the BBC, I am obviously going to cancel Eastenders and replace it with a new David Attenborough documentary, right? It’s only rational isn’t it – the UK population would gain great educational value from my decision and perhaps I could wean them off the rubbish. Many societies of the past, such as the former Soviet Union took just this paternalistic attitude. The problem is that such an attitude is in opposition to the humanist ideal of the “open and free society”. Eastenders is not for me, it is for other people who like that sort of thing and would feel outraged in being denied their weekly fix. If people want Eastenders and Eastenders does no real harm to anyone other than stultify their minds, they can have Eastenders and if they enjoy the pomp, ceremony, sense of continuity and security afforded by the British Royal family, that isn’t necessary a bad thing. Perhaps the comparison of the Royal Family to a popular soap opera is particularly apposite. The Queen is not a true autocrat, she does not really rule over us in the way that monarchs of the past did – crucially the period in history when the republican ideals were laid down. Nobody thinks of her as having a hot line to God or a divine right to rule. She “rules” if it can be called that by public ascent, something that looks likely to continue given the statistics showing support for the monarchy.  She is a figure head for UK PLC, a popular focal point for national unity, a fixed point in these days of corrupt democratically elected politicians and has been very successful in that role given the current widespread support for the monarchy, despite the efforts of some members of her clan to tarnish the brand. Her success lies in her ability to project herself as the embodiment of civic duty upheld over an entire lifetime, the chief civil servant of the people. It is true that the royals are more of an extension of the media celebrity culture evident in seeing them posing with people like Cheryl Cole and Tom Jones at the end of the “star studded” concert held at Buckingham Palace. Is that a bad thing? It’s show business. Like Eastenders, the monarchy is not for progressive intellectual types, its part of the bread and circuses that constitute the meaning of life for many ordinary people and a humanism that seeks to despise and ridicule the very human predilection for nationalism combined with entertainment and the security of a strong establishment is less than human. It also fails to recognise the progressive nature of the monarchy itself, for example the recent changes to the rules of succession, replacing male preference primogeniture with absolute primogeniture, in which the first born child of a monarch is heir apparent regardless of gender and the end to the ban on marriage to Catholics, also the requirement for those in line to the throne to gain the permission of the sovereign to marry. This shows the kind of slow and piecemeal change those of us on the right of the humanist spectrum favour, following Karl Popper in his seminal work, “The Open Society and its Enemies”, in opposition to revolutionary fervour.

So am I in favour of the status quo simply because the monarchy is currently enjoying great popularity? The modern monarchy rightly relies on popular support. As a humanist I could hardly be said to be a follower of Edmund Burke, but as the late Christopher Hitchens quoted William Hazlitt in the collection of articles (“Arguably”) he wrote shortly before his death, the chapter “Edmund Burke: Reactionary Prophet; Reflections on the Revolution in France”:
“It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”
This is in contrast to Paine's suggestion that in mourning the plumage he forgets the dying bird. As Hitchens points out a statement employed the world over by pitiless revolutionaries to justify unscrupulous actions. Hitchens goes on to quote Burke:
“It is known; that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration, the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders; whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any) must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness of one kind of authority and in the fluctuation of all, the officers in the army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things.  But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master, the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.”

As Hitchens noted, this passage eerily prefigured the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in the aftermath of the reign of terror and I would suggest that this unfolding of history would be the true enemy of humanism. The only time Britain had a republic it only lasted twenty years and was led by a man dismissed by the pre-eminent Scottish enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, as a regicidal dictator whose measures against Catholics in Scotland and Ireland have been characterised as near-genocidal. If we were creating a new country, with a new constitution, there is no doubt that I would be strongly in favour of a secular republic along the lines of the United States, but that is not where we are and it is churlish to deny that the pomp and ceremony associated with Royalty adds colour to the nations life. Thomas Paine excoriates his former friend Burke's refusal to criticize the crimes and cruelties of the "ancien regime" in his book "The Rights of Man" and perhaps I will receive the same response to this polemic, but in truth, the monarchy of the 21st century is not the monarchy of Paris 1789 and this is not the same quarrel. To think it is is to be out of touch with reality.


  1. Tim,

    Republicanism and atheism are indelibly intertwined in history. The French anarchist Blanqui used the phrase 'ni dieu ni maitre' in the 19th century, whilst Marx, Proudon et al were similarly busy formulating socialism, libertarianism etc and most were atheists. Similarly and more recently atheism was heavily aligned with the republican cause in Spain. In England the need to swear on a bible was only relatively recently removed for entry to Parliament, or as a witness in court...

    We have a House of Lords that gives undue weight to bishops and other church leaders.

    Up the republic! Reform is well overdue.

  2. This article by Jonathan Haidt in this morning's Guardian should influence humanist thinking: