Friday, March 5, 2010

The British Monarchy

Here's the wordiest post I'll have on the blog. It's an essay I wrote for my history of British politics class. It discusses why the monarchy is still around. There were significant movements in other parts of Europe away from monarchy, so it's interesting that the Brits still have theirs. I was talking to Ben from Norway who said there's still a Scandinavian country with a king (though he's also just a figurehead). It's even more surprising that a nation in that region would have a monarchy given their strong commitment to social welfare and other very democratic elements of government.

British Democracy Essay #2: Why was there no significant republican movement during the early twentieth century?

In the early 20th Century, Conservatives look to the monarchy as a source of unity and use religion and an artificial conception of public image in their fight against republicanism and radical foreign influence.The monarchy in particular is able to stress the importance of national values (echoed by Conservatives, especially Baldwin) and maintain its relevance in an increasingly democratic time.

The monarchy stands to be eliminated in the face of liberal ideas flowing through Europe - republicanism, socialism, and Communism would all have eliminated the institution based on the principle of hierarchy, but it survived. Interest groups, including political parties, did not simply revere the crown and leave the institution unquestioned. This was not just due to media self-censorship and the taboo surrounding criticism. The lack of criticism was purposeful – organizations and individuals looked to gain from its patronage.

According to Philip Williamson, “The monarchy retained its considerable prominence in the more democratic conditions of the early twentieth century because it became more purely the symbol and exponent of a particular set of public values, values promoted by almost all public organizations and respected by most of the general public.” By finding ways to keep itself relevant through philanthropy and national unity, the monarchy could push its conception of a set of public values which would further support its role against republican movement.

This national unity was also seen in Parliament. Baldwin is one of the main proponents of uniting the country through public values. He speaks of “...that mysterious and romantic land of Shropshire, so close to us, from which my people came only three generations before... watching the smoke of the train running along the little railway through places...steeped in romance and redolent of the springtime of an England long ago passed, but whose heritage is ours.” He sought to ignite support for the status quo and spark patriotism to address appeals to class from the political left. Anything that was outside these ideals was denounced as unwanted foreign influence. His speechwriting skill was instrumental in creating homespun imagery which spoke to the public.

The monarchy’s main activities of self-preservation all fall under the umbrella dynamism. They have to find a way to remain relevant in a rapidly changing circumstances. To encourage further unity and national stability against republicanism, they pursue greater public visibility and give more speeches. This gives them a chance to dictate their own role and establish their particular ideas of public values. These values still have to appeal to the people – content and speechwriting is important. Central to being a symbol of unity is inoffensiveness with no partisan agenda. This meant the speechwriting duties were shifted away from the arguably undereducated monarchs to their advisors. The monarchs themselves are powerless: ‘The King would have to sign a bill for his own execution had the government put one before him.’ Politicians on the left say this powerlessness is democratic. They say it’s better to have a powerless head of state than a president with real powers who can become an autocrat. This was more important than the hierarchical principles that a monarchy explicitly represents.

We can see this inoffensive approach to politics highlighted in monarchs’ dealings with the Labour party. George V keeps a level head rather than panicking with Labour’s rise to power. Maintaining ‘neutrality’ in this situation was key. Parties are not willing to drag the monarchy to their level for their own uses – even the socialist leaning Labour party. It would destabilize the system far too much and outweigh any potential short term gains. The 1923 Labour party convention motion to take stance against monarchy goes nowhere; nobody had any serious grievances against the Crown. The claim that 1937 Abdication Bill nearly included votes for a republic from 100 Labour MPs is founded on misread sources, according to Williamson. Indeed, during the 1937 Coronation, Labour spokesmen promoted the monarchy as a democratic institution supported by the people.

Prochaska is one of the main historians to point out the importance of the Crown’s work with hospitals, welfare charities, religious, education, youth and sporting associations, the British Legion, etc. Capitalists donating to charities that cure what the socialists decry as the ailments of capitalism takes the wind out of socialist sails. Many of the over 1000 groups the crown supports work to ameliorate the effects of poverty.Although this role has been lessened somewhat with the emergence of the welfare state, it is still central to what the monarchs do. They have found ways to support similar organizations to maintain support.

In addition to philanthropy, there has to be something to overcome the backwardness of hierarchy if the question of class is to be settled and the monarchy preserved. I am convinced by the argument that philanthropy and the monarch’s role as the head of the Anglican church create a duty (called ‘unbearable’ by some) to the nation, thus engendering support. I do not believe, however, that significant support arises from seeing royal blunders and realizing money does not buy happiness. The monarchs reached out through rhetoric to those most susceptible to radical anti-monarchical ideas during the first part of the 20th Century.These are the kind of people discussed in Orwell’s 1937 Road to Wigan Pier, chapter 7. Orwell stresses the kind of regional divide and class based inequality the crown must address. The royals and Orwell find common ground in pointing to the family as the central unit of working class families. In a similar move, the king seizes on the photo-op of the royal palace bombing in the blitz, showing that they are in this to the same extent the (working class) public was.

A result of turning to the media to highlight their more public image of common values and philanthropic work has been an increasingly public life for the royal family. Entertainment on the level of the human interest story has become a secondary, unofficial role for the crown. They have become another set of celebrities in British tabloids. There has been a change in the perception of media’s role with the monarchy since Bagehot wrote his English Constitution. At that time, it was the distance at which the public was kept that created the ‘magic’ surrounding the monarchy. Bagehot does still point to the popularity coverage of the royal family which would continue to the present day: the monarchy pulls the job of governance down to the personal level – people care more about people than government procedure. Bagehot explains where the appeal comes from: “Just so a royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events. It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to “men’s bosoms” and employ their thoughts.”

At this time, the monarchy was above criticism, seen largely as the central unifying force in British society. Keeping the monarch’s image gleaming in its usual lustre would maintain this image – self-censorship of the media was patriotic. “The more the monarchy had become elevated above sectional controversies, the more convincing and useful it became in symbolizing and universalizing values which most public and voluntary bodies considered essential for the general interest.” This does not imply an age of political consensus across all issues. It only extended to a basic level of constitutional, social, and moral issues.

Media support was further expanded with the advent of mass culture in cinemas and on television.WWI propaganda put royals in newsreels for the first time. Cinemas construction expanded greatly between 1914-1934 from 3 to 5 thousand with 23 million attending weekly(constituting 40% of the 1939 population).This highly visible image of the monarch in a role of national unity is the one Cannadine argues for in the ‘invention of tradition’. The newsreels, along with increasingly popular BBC radio were invariably supportive of the monarchs (even during the abdication). George VI’s shy nature and stammer were major problems given the new role of the monarch as a public speaker and his appearances on newsreels. Companies deliberately censored the parts that make him look bad. Elizabeth II’s coronation pulls in huge ratings in the increasingly important use of television in 1953. It was also released with great success as a film.

Though they were initially beyond criticism, the monarchy had become more dependent on the media for its own survival. To portray a morally upright family image to the public, they needed the media’s reporting. This eventually would mean opening their home to both good and bad press as the taboo surrounding criticism faded. This interest would later develop into coverage of scandal – what Richards refers to as a humanizing and relatable ‘super soap opera’. Despite the scandal of abdication and Diana’s saga, approval ratings for the monarchy remain over higher than 70%. “The most significant political feature of the [abdication] is that there was, after all, no real crisis.” Abdication may have been a slip in the monarch as an example of perfect morality, but the episode does stress is the call to duty for the monarch. He is held to a different standard; everything he does is for his country.

The monarchy also plays a lesser role as the head of the empire and head of the Church of England. The Statute of Westminster leaves the monarch as only link to the territories. The monarch promotes commercial and political interests as a figurehead overseas during the early 20th C. According to Grimley, “A pervasive sense remained that national culture and identity were inexorably tied up with Protestantism.” Religion, then is another tool for the establishment in their anti-socialist appeals. Though the number of churches and some attendance statistics declined during the period, their importance to national identity did not. This increased awareness of a national character gives the newly expanded electorate direction and civic education. Conflict between protestant sects had fallen off after WWI. This means Anglicans can talk about their leadership in religious matters of the country without division and dissent (and thus, the king can act as a leader of the entire nation rather than just one religious sect - we can see this through the official Day of Thanksgiving and Days of Prayer around the time of the Second World War.) Most in the Anglican Church who talk about unity talk about Englishness, not British identity. Religious unity did not have as strong an effect on the Welsh and Scottish populations.

The clear importance of religion to the English at this time makes it a key instrument for the monarchy to support national unity. “Religion was something that lay deep in the English people but that could not be controlled by outsiders.” Baldwin introduces a religious aspect to his discussion in his rhetoric by saying that the radical ideas bubbling in the rest of Europe create a spiritual crisis at home. Grimley emphasizes that English religious culture is non-revolutionary and moderate: “...the low temperature of Anglicanism—its reticence and aversion to enthusiasm—was one of the reasons why the alien plant of Communism would never take root in England. Anglican reticence was portrayed as a strength, not a weakness—part of the wider restraint that was so typical of the national character.”

By using traditional institutions, religion, and very specific ideas of public values, the Conservatives were able to stave off republican or socialist movements at a time when Europe’s traditional fabric was unravelling. Even if Baldwin’s images are not representative of every Briton, they create a sense of unity essential to democratic life. Citizens must see themselves as an important part of the political system to become an active part of it and preserve their rights. Without this sense of patriotism and duty inspired by the crown (and others who stress national identity), measures of involvement in government like turnout could be considerably lowered.


  1. Picture is fun. Working my way through the essay still. What do the young people from Durham think of their monarchy? Do they believe it is outdated? Or is it a point of pride? Or is the feeling mixed?

  2. Most I've talked to said they don't have any problems with it. That is in line with what the literature I reference said.

  3. Good essay, well written. You clearly did a lot of research. Learning a lot about jolly old England!