A guy named Charles (Creative Commons license)

The Problem Isn’t the British Monarchy, It’s British Society

I lived in the UK from 2012 to 2018. It was long enough to get a strong sense of what makes the Brits tick. It was also long enough to learn what are the goods and bads of Britain. As a place to live, it’s not too bad, all things considered, but like the Americans, and probably most people, to be honest, the Brits have a huge blind spot when it comes to looking at themselves.

A guy named Charles (Creative Commons license)
A guy named Charles

Some guy named Charles is about to be coronated as King of the United Kingdom. It’s a bit of silly pomp and circumstance because he’s already been king for nearly nine months. But then, so much of what people do are ritualized traditions followed for no good reason other than they are traditions. So what?

Well, the coronation is, like most things these days, a political football kicked around by Britain’s various ideologues. Some people are demanding that the monarchy be abolished. Others are demanding that people who are against the monarchy should be abolished. This battle ties in with the ongoing “culture wars,” but the fight about King Charles is more about how empty British society has become and how emptier still British sociopolitical dialogue has become.

Who’s Wearing No Clothes?

When Queen Elizabeth II died last September, I penned a piece reminding people that she was a human being. That reality seemed to have been forgotten by many people as they reflected in her reign.

A young but dutiful Elizabeth
A young but dutiful Elizabeth

Like all human beings, Elizabeth had her strengths and weaknesses, but she was vividly aware of one reality. The British monarchy hasn’t had real power for centuries (even Victoria, despite her popularity, had little political influence). Elizabeth knew her role was as a figurehead, a symbol of service to the people. She did what she believed to be her duty — very Kantian of her.

Charles will, no doubt, plod along in his ceremonial role following the example of his mother. He’s been doing it his whole life, playing the part of the figurehead prince, now finally promoted to figurehead king. He, like his mother, is a symbol, and the British public treat them as such.

All of the posturing and vitriol over Charles is not actually about Charles. Whatever strengths and weaknesses he has as a person are immaterial. He, like his mother, and her father before her, and so on, are just symbols, empty figures on which people paint their own preferred narratives.

Britain has yet to reconcile itself with its imperialist past and its loss of empire. Those blind spots have a lot to do with all of this, as both the pro and anti monarchy camps see what they want to see and push their own agendas, using the royals as props.

Those on the Right project onto the British monarchy their lost dreams of British glory. Led by the tabloid rags of The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express, and Daily Star, the reactionary Right treats the royals as god’s gifts to humanity and the paragon of virtuous Britain. The Right treats criticism of the royals as a form of treason.

Those on the Fake Left — importantly, not the real Left — project onto the monarchy all the sins of empire. Shouting angrily online or on the streets, the Fake Left demonizes the royals as evil. They treat a lack of hostility toward the monarchy as an endorsement of imperialism.

Unsurprisingly, these two camps are talking past each other. They assert their projections, strawman the other side, and all in all accomplish nothing. The soon-to-be-king has clothes; it’s everyone fighting about him who are ignorantly walking around naked.

Abolish the Monarchy?

That’s the demand of the Fake Left. They post the hashtag #AbolishTheMonarchy and hold cardboard signs reading “Not My King” and the other way around. They act as though this is a meaningful solution. Is it?

One argument usually made is that the monarchy is costly. Is it? Yes and no.

Accounts for the Sovereign Grant, which funds the Monarchy’s household’s official expenses, released in June of 2022 show that they cost the taxpayer £102.4 million during 2021–22. (Source)

For you and me, that seems like a lot of money, but it is a pittance within the UK’s government annual spending of £1,189 billion. (Source) In comparison, the British government spent £8.1 billion in one fiscal year alone on costs incurred from Brexit. (Source)

The anti-monarchists say give the money elsewhere. Are they making the same demand of other sectors in society that are taking more than they are giving? Some people are, for example, protesting the greedy corruption of British energy corporations, but how many anti-monarchists are voicing concerns about how corporations are stealing billions from the British people?

Shouting “abolish the monarchy” is a form of slacktivism. It attacks an easy, visible symbolic target rather than the entrenched and largely hidden forces that are costing people. Brexit has cost Britain so many billions. Tory policies even more. In comparison, the cost of the monarchy is nothing. Queen Elizabeth, who made her pro-EU feelings known, did not do any of this. Attacking the monarchy because the Right supports the idea of monarchy is a waste of energy, if not just plain stupid.

The structural injustices of British society will not be solved by abolishing the monarchy. Empire will not be restored by cheering the monarchy. Why are Brits wasting so much time and energy on an empty issue?

Other European Kingdoms Don’t Have These Problems

There are no such battles in the other six kingdoms of Europe or the four other European monarchies. What, you didn’t know about the other nine monarchies? That’s because having a monarchy is no big deal in Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, or Monaco. Those monarchs, like in the UK, are the official heads of state, host foreign dignitaries, are honorary heads of charities, and perform a defined set of ceremonial functions. They do their bit, perform their roles, wave to the crowds, job done, no fuss, no one’s disturbed.

What’s different in Britain is, as I mentioned before, that Britain hasn’t dealt with its legacy and loss of empire. The other monarchies don’t have a right-wing full of simmering resentment over having let loose former colonies. They don’t have a Fake Left opposing figureheads rather than the actual power structures.

The Belgians don’t blame Queen Margrethe II for their social divisions. The Spanish aren’t wishing King Felipe IV would be the ruler of a worldwide empire like past Spanish kings. The Norwegians don’t see King Harald V as an obstacle to social equality. And so on. You go to these kingdoms, and the few times the people think of their royals, they think of them as a pleasant congenial family who show up at holidays and state functions, kind of like a distant relative. The other nations are being more realistic.

So, this weekend, Chuck gets to be crowned king. Well, good on ‘im. He’s just an old man, after all. Yes, a rich old man, but a pretty worthless old man. Britain has many more far greater problems than him.

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