The announcement last week that the UK taxpayer is going to have to fork out for an extensive remodelling of Buckingham Palace, whose occupant is one of the richest people in the world, was met with more hostility than one would expect from a country that has been immersed fully in the royal psychodrama, and mesmerized by its attendant fantasies, for centuries.
The renovation of the palace, projected to cost £370/$450 million, comes at a time when, thanks to the policies of a callous Conservative government, levels of poverty and homelessness are approaching heights not seen since the 1930s. In the face of such misery and destitution, the Treasury announced that funding of the royal family is to increase by 10% to meet the cost of repairs to the palace.
The opposition Labour party, led by an avowed anti-royalist, immediately fudged the issue by saying it would not oppose the use of the public purse to fund the renovation, since Buckingham Palace is “a national monument”. Which only begs the question why someone is entitled by an accident of birth to have a national monument (or two or three or more), with ample subventions from the taxpayer, as their place to call “home”.
The Brexit vote has generated a constitutional conundrum. London voted Remain, the north of England was for Leave, Scotland voted Remain, Wales was for Leave, the North of Ireland voted Remain. A jumble of motives underlay this variability of outcomes.
London’s prominent globalized service sector (which is hugely reliant on migrant labour) serves the interests of workers and consumers rather than citizens. It conduces to an inclusivity and cosmopolitanism of a certain sort, evinced by the large Remain vote, but catering to the cosmopolitan dispositions of an international bourgeoisie puts London at odds with most of the rest of England, and, moreover, does little to advance democracy and greater equality in the UK.
Scotland is deeply hostile to the UK’s reigning neoliberal dispensation and tired of playing a bit-part in an English-dominated Westminster system. Scots have fashioned, piecemeal, their version of a modern constitutionalism capable of expressing their national identity. Given that the EU is a congeries of national identities, continued EU membership is seen by many Scots as the best way for their country to entrench these initiatives.
The key to the political situation in Northern Ireland is the agreement between two sovereign states (Eire and the UK) designed to overcome civil conflict. This two-state agreement is premised on power-sharing between the two communities—unionist and nationalist—while upholding the principles of equality, toleration, and acceptance of difference. The Northern Irish vote to remain in the EU was motivated in large part by the perception that an EU framework, as opposed to a Westminster dominated by England and decoupled from the EU, is more likely to safeguard the cross-border cooperation vital for continued peace in the north of Ireland.
The north of England and Wales have suffered more from postindustrial blight than other parts of the UK, and their Leave vote has affinities with the vote for Trump in similarly blighted American regions. That is, this was a “backlash” vote born of anguished desperation, and an expression of the collapse of the Hobbesian compact– subjects obey in return for protection from the sovereign– that has prevailed up to now. People living in these devastated regions have come to realize that governments since Reagan and Thatcher care more about corporations and banks than supposedly ordinary citizens.
The referendum on the EU, then, was in no way a conclusively collective expression of the “will of the people”. What it expressed more than anything else, and with a jumble of underlying motivations and desires, was the uneasy but growing realization on the part of the electorate that the UK’s ruling elite has since the 1970s been less concerned with the interests of “the people” and much more invested in its own self-servingly avaricious ends. Hence the weakening of the hitherto dominant Hobbesian compact.
The implementation of Brexit has been chaotic. Theresa May, who voted Remain but held her finger up to the prevailing wind and caved-in to her party’s Eurosceptic wing by opting for a hard Brexit, contradicts herself on the implementation from one day to the next, and members of her cabinet contradict her Brexit positions on an hourly basis. It is impossible to tell how this will pan out, but whatever happens “Ukania” could be on its last legs. (“Ukania” being Tom Nairn’s term, who in turn used Robert Musil’s “Kakania”, a fictional central European nation in deep dysfunction, as his model.)
The Scots, and to a lesser extent the northern Irish, are likely to make their own accommodations with the EU regardless of what transpires in Westminster. The Scots are going to want a second independence referendum, and with EU membership on the line, the vote of the first referendum, which was against independence, is likely to be overturned.
The northern Irish may do something deemed wildly improbable even a few years ago, and see that they may have more in common with the country south of the border, which is solidly ensconced in the EU, as opposed to belonging to an increasingly alien UK without Scotland and hamstrung by a pervasive Little Englanderism, with its customary loathing of all things Irish.
All the above is conjecture at this point, but if any of it comes about, the monarchy will almost certainly be jeopardized, or at least profoundly transformed.
The nonagenarian queen is generally respected, at least for her perceived decorousness, but the erratic Prince Charles is not (the social trauma over Diana still disquiets the British soul).
Australian friends assure me that once the queen has had her state funeral, Australia is almost certain to declare itself a republic– after all, how many countries have a foreign monarch as their head of state?
With Scotland gone as well, it will be more difficult for Brits to sustain the psychodrama underpinning the principle of monarchy. The disintegration of the politically backward Ukania and the decaying remnants of Empire (marked decisively by Australia’s soon-to-happen dumping of the English monarch) will make it easier, in principle, for Brits to remove the collective blindfold wrapped round their heads.
The foreignness of its monarchy has always been difficult to square with the ethno-nationalist and nativist impulses driving the Little Englanderism that was one of the main propellants behind the Brexit vote. It has always been puzzling to some of us how Brits can be oblivious to the history of their monarchy, which in the last millennium has seen three foreign houses constitute its royal dynasties.
First there was William I, the conquerer from Normandy, in 1066. When the Tudor blood-line could no longer be maintained due to a conflict over a rivalrous Protestant or Catholic succession, William III and his wife Mary, from the House of Orange in the Netherlands, were invited by the aristocracy to take over in 1689. When the blood-line of the House of Orange came to a halt, the House of Hanover, from the minor German principality of that name, was invited to take over in 1714.
Moreover, the queen’s great-great-great grandfather was the Belgian Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Prince Phillip, aka Phil the Greek, is the father of the next in line to the throne, Prince Charles.
And yet there are royalist Brits who typically undergo a sharp blood-pressure spike when they hear the accents of a Polish plumber or Romanian hotel maid.
Will Brits see that submission to the monarchy is integral to Ukania’s political backwardness, and that overcoming the latter will require the abandonment of its royalist psychodrama?
Ukania’s political backwardness (its lack of a proper constitution, the retaining of a wholly unelected second chamber, the absence of proportional representation in elections, a hideously corrupt honours system abused by all the mainstream political parties, the deliberate production and maintenance of its Celtic periphery), of which the royalist psychodrama is simultaneously a prime cause and manifestation, ensures that the monarch’s subjects are incapable of seeing their true relation to the country’s social surplus.
Billionaire tax-dodgers who run virtual Ponzi schemes and raid pension funds are overlooked by a rigged legal system, while the right-wing tabloids run melodramatic features on those who chisel the benefits system for gains that are minuscule in comparison to what’s snagged by the pension-fund raiders and tax-dodgers (the recent prime minister David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne amongst the latter).
Eradicating this royalist psychodrama will therefore be an important first step in a radical reshaping of institutions, enabling in this way a less distorted view of the UK’s unfair and unbalanced division of the social surplus, and hopefully making possible its truly equitable division as a potential next step.
For another thing, it would save a lot of taxpayer-money spent, now and in the future, on the refurbishment of those presumed “national monuments”!