‘What is truth?’ asked Pilate, before sacrificing Him as a King, complete with crown of thorns, under the words ‘Jesus, King of the Jews’. Pilate questioned Truth, and without waiting for an answer positioned himself above it, the Roman governor with the temporal power to crucify an innocent man for the sake of a baying crowd of perjurers. Christ, crucified as King, because earthly power chose to believe in the absoluteness of only itself.
Something of a theological beginning, and for such anti-social manoeuvres I hereby apologise most wholeheartedly. Now, before I go on, I ought to say that I am absolutely not arguing that the Bible suggests one particular form of government or social ordering is any better than any other. I’m not saying it doesn’t, either; more that I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough to pronounce one way or the other. Rather, I think that passage in the Bible speaks about power in a way that still resonates today, that in a society reconciled with relativisms the only response to the question ‘What is truth?’, will be one similar to Pilate’s; ‘whatever the powerful decide it to be.’
And now, to jump off at a tangent, the relevance of which will (I hope) become clear, I’ve been thinking more and more just recently about monarchy, and lefties, and whether the two can peacefully co-exist. And in truth, I’ve still not decided on an answer, primarily because I can’t quite decide on what might be understood by the term ‘leftie’, even if I have a small idea what I might mean when I say ‘monarchy’. I suppose the question then becomes, ‘is there any argument that can be made, from within the broad context of a leftist account of the social sphere, that might be comfortable with the idea of monarchy?’ And I think there is – which the following disjointed mumblings will hopefully begin to show.
The reason I ask the question at all is because Labour, now in the absurd position of having to ask itself what it means by terms such as ‘national identity’ and ‘Englishness’ (largely because it is widely perceived as being constitutionally opposed to both), is churning through the standard student-radicalisms which, nearly always, end in unthinking appeals for republicanism as if it is self-evidently a required tenet of any authentically left-wing thought. I’m not quite sure why left-wing thought ought to be any more fertile ground for republican sentiments than right-wing thought, and I suspect that the answer has more to do with our unique social history than anything else, but it nonetheless seems to be – and I don’t think it need be.
Having said that, the cause célèbre on all sides of the increasingly whiggish House seems to be constitutional vandalism for the sake of… well, constitutional vandalism. A crooked Commons increasingly urges ‘reform’ of a rather less crooked House of Lords, and an even less crooked Monarchy, for the sake of making the system less crooked. Thus will the ideologues strain at gnats whilst swallowing camels; and all in the name of making the gnats look more like camels.
Yet, there are a variety of reasons why this is problematic, and the most potent of them in modern society is to do with power, the possession of it and, much more importantly, the limitation of it. This is only one side of the argument that can be made, another being that old chestnut ‘virtue’ (and ‘truth’), and yet another being plurality as expressed through inter-linking hierarchies. And, though to some extent all inter-connect with one another, it is only the ‘power’ element that I will talk about here (I have written elsewhere how social liberalism has been embraced because it re-enforces the status-quo, founded upon a relativism that it is to the benefit of the already powerful).
And it is that ‘limitation of power’ bit that is increasingly important. On the most basic level, I think this is why working-class communities tend, generally speaking, to have great sympathy for the monarchy, and the Queen in particular. To many, the Queen is somehow above the Machiavellian machinations of the power-hungry political classes, representative of something greater than the crudeness of the Commons, a (sometimes failing) paragon of virtue that represents to the world all that we hope is best about ourselves. The Queen, unlike those who nominally serve her, is never deemed to be ‘in it for herself’, and her reign is characterised as dutiful more than megalomaniacal. Thus do her subjects line the avenues on the great occasions, wave their flags and sing their anthems, all to the vociferous irritation of the displaced Guardianistas, who rather conceitedly think that meritocratic society ought rightfully to be honouring them instead.
As such Labour, when it proposes republicanism as the antidote to institutional inequality is primarily giving voice to a largely middle-class chippiness, resentful of the fact that there could be an institutional and ideological barrier to its own (imagined) upward mobility. It doesn’t like the idea that, in a society largely tilted toward its own interests, there yet exists a level to which it cannot ultimately ascend. Bourgeois sensibilities bristle at the thought, and so under such comically misused terms as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ they continue to vandalise those very structures that level the playing field and act as a constraint on the accumulation of power by an otherwise all-consuming oligarchy.
I think republican thinking is as much a sign of the gentrification of left-wing thought as anything else. Accordingly, the left that in the name of ‘freedom’ once rallied against the capitalist system, now seeks merely to lessen the effects of that system upon its victims, and construes ‘equality’ instead along lines that best reflect its own priorities and prejudices. The ordinary worker has been cast aside, bribed to keep his counsel, whilst the chippy bourgeoisie sharpen their knives in search of that much less insidious enemy to ‘equality’ (and indeed potential ally of the commoner), that being the monarch.
And that’s just the point. The monarch can legitimately be seen as the last line of defence against an all-out victory of the plutocracy, one of the few possessions of the people that the rich man cannot buy precisely because the position is forever beyond his private ownership (unless it is stolen in the interests of the oligarchical elite as in 1688 – from whence some would situate the now dying battle against capitalistic ideology). In that sense, the monarch is an embodiment of the commonality that the left should comfortably embrace – she both belongs exclusively to, and thereby attracts the loyalty of, her people. In a world in which the rich are the powerful and can possess all they desire, the position of monarch they do not and cannot: it would be a cowardly act of surrender to offer up to the plutocracy the very thing they cannot possess, for no other reason than we no longer see any need to uphold the existence of things they cannot possess.
Now of course, the new metropolitan left, the ‘liberal-left’ won’t see things in these terms, having become drunk on a doctrine that exists primarily to dismantle all opposition to their own advancement. But those at the bottom needn’t confuse friend with foe just because their uppity ‘comrades’ tell them to. The reality is that the common man does still need to react against unwarranted and unwarrantable power interests; but those interests do not reside in the position of the monarch. The tables that have been tilted have certainly not been tilted by the monarch, they have not been designed and constructed from within the debating chambers of Buckingham Palace. Rather they increasingly reside and emanate from within precisely that circle that shouts so vociferously for, amongst various other self-interested things, the disestablishment of monarchy. And it is the restraint of these that should concentrate the mind.
In that sense, the monarch can be viewed a genuine friend and ally, an albeit increasingly anachronistic stick in the mud that nonetheless cannot succumb to the will and whims of a rapacious petit-bourgeoisie. And a monarch who realises this central ethic of service, who knows his or her role in defending the people from those that would seek ultimate control, whose very power consists in the limitation of power – it is this vision of monarchy that lefties can surely share common ground with (on that score, the post-Hanoverian preference for dispensing monies on Maundy is a less authentic reflection of the call to service that was demonstrated in the pre-Hanoverian tradition of the washing of feet on Maundy).
In short it comes down to this; if left-wing thinking at its most basic level includes the defence of the vulnerable against the powerful, then the focus of ire certainly should not be the monarch, who at any rate could without much difficulty be understood as a defence against precisely this domination. Because in truth, it is not the Queen that dispossess and dispossessed, but her tribunes.
As such, it is a strange leftie that has given up the fight against capitalism but has taken up arms against the monarch; it seems to me that either their sense is deficient or else their sight. Whichever one it is, it certainly wouldn’t be wise to follow them; one might end up walking off a cliff.