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63 Years, 216 Days. What an Achievement (!) ?

September 9, 2015

Queen_Elizabeth_II_June_2014 (1)

Or rather, what “achievement”?

Longevity in office is not always regarded as an admirable quality.  Robert Mugabe has been in office for ever such a long time, but this is not something that we feel has been great for Zimbabwe. Not such a wonderful “achievement”.   I suppose if someone manages to get elected over and over again by a grateful electorate in contests which international adjudicators decide have been free and fair- then something like an “achievement” could be talked about.  But even then, there’s something unwholesome about the same person being in office for decades.  Indeed, the failure to step down and give someone else a chance is usually associated not merely with democratic deficit  but with a kind of failure of leadership – a critical defect of character.

The greatest thing that George Washington ever did was resign.  He did this twice – resigning his commission at the end of the Revolutionary War in deference to the legal authority of an elected civilian government.  And then again at the end of his two terms in office as president, he resigned – refusing to become either Cromwell before him or Napoleon after him.  This is why he deserves to be on dollar bills – because he respected the limits of his own authority.  By refusing to become Dictator for Life, by truncating his own power – he achieved immortality.

Thus Washington recalled the great republican model of Cincinnatus.  The man who leaves his plough to take the helm of the ship of state when needed – and then returns to his plough.

Queen Elizabeth has been Head of State for 63 years.  Abraham Lincoln was president for just over four years.  It is the quality, not the quantity of leadership that we should revere.  It is the use of office that counts, not its duration.

Of course, hereditary monarchies are, by definition, different from elected presidents.  Hereditary monarchies date from a time when some unanswerable principle of continuity in office was deemed necessary to prevent incessant civil war.  In those days of course, the principle dynastic challenge for rulers was to live long enough to see their offspring reach adulthood – thus avoiding the chaos of a regency.  Nowadays, the problem for monarchies is the extreme longevity of very rich people, with the consequence  that grumpy looking people in their eighties and nineties are succeeded by grumpy looking people in their sixties and seventies.  Modern monarchy is a recipe for gerontocracy, rule of the elderly.

(I’m very fond of old people incidentally and intend to be one some day.  But the office of Head of State should not be the unique preserve of the elderly.)

Recently, Spain and Belgium have tried the expedient of “retirement” for royals as a way of escaping the gerontological conundrum.  For sure, this helps put a fresher face on the stamps, but it’s a very dangerous strategy because if being a monarch is something you can retire from then it must be a “job” of some kind.  And if it’s a “job”, then stuff like terms and conditions and come into play.  “Retirement” demystifies monarchy – it becomes something you do rather than something you are.

The “job” of being a royal, reduced to its bare essentials, is just about the most degrading and humiliating job on earth.  They are required to breed for the amusement of others.  They are in the same broad professional category as porn stars.  Their private lives are a public commodity.  Porn stars, however, possess some acting talent.  They have a greater expressive range and arguably a wider range of exchangeable and marketable skills.

The “achievement” of reigning for sixty three years is identical with the “achievement” of simply not dying.  And people whose health is constantly monitored and who have instant access to the most expensive medical procedures imaginable seem to have no trouble living a very very long time these days.

Which brings us back to the problem with longevity, which is not an “achievement” of Elizabeth Windsor but rather the curse of monarchy itself.  Longevity – a dull uninspiring quality at best – reminds us that the choice for monarchies is either tedious gerontocracy or a vague notion of “retirement” that only focuses unwelcome attention on what the “job” is and how well it is done.

Once the British monarchy is subjected to a critical professional gaze one notes that our present Queen is socially awkward and is only slightly better at giving speeches than her father was, often sounding like a hostage forced to read out a prepared statement at gunpoint.  Her son and heir is a dangerous meddler who believes himself to be “above politics” and therefore allowed to interfere in politics.  His son and heir is so averse to public engagements that no comedian can do a recognisable impression of him.  Wills, whatever else he wants out of life, clearly detests carrying out ceremonial duties and it seems very cruel to insist that he ever becomes Head of State.

A Royal Family is supposed to suggest “continuity” – but royal families – thanks to the structural cruelties of the hereditary principle – thanks to the impossible pornstarry demands living a private life in public  and thanks to the sheer wrongness of knowing that you can’t do the job you’re supposed to do without the death or one or more parent – royal families are inherently unstable.  They are not happy places and never have been.  This oxymoronic serial nightmare called a “royal family” affords amusement to the rest of the world but cannot communicate “continuity”.  Nor, given that the UK, Spain, Canada and Belgium all have strong separatist movements, can they claim any special measure of success on the “national unity” front.  A republican constitution, meanwhile, would proclaim that “sovereignty” derives from and is answerable to the people, rather than something graciously conceded by a dynasty.  And monarchy survives within the British political establishment largely because politicians themselves would rather invoke the murky authority of “the crown” than face up to the chastening consequences of popular sovereignty.

I want to promote the royal family.  I want to promote them (and the rest of us) from their current impossible and undignified position to the eminence of free citizens of a republic.  Because a republican aesthetic has no time for the tedious non-virtue of longevity.  A republican aesthetic values the quality of leadership, not its mere prolongation.  A republican aesthetic can be exciting, aspirational, inspirational and colourful in a way that a monarchist aesthetic cannot.

The British Royal Family is a very loud way of describing Britain as a much duller country than it really is.

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