Sunday National, 22nd September 2019.
This week has left me in a Jacobinical mood.
The first Article of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen reads as follows. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good,” it says. A modest proposition, you might think, but in revolutionary France in 1789, a radical one. A year later, in 1790, the French National Assembly decreed “that hereditary nobility is for all time abolished, and that consequently no one whosoever shall use or be addressed by the titles of prince, duc, comte, marquis, vicomte, vidame, baron, chevalier, messire, ecuyer, noble or any other similar title.”
Two years earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, America’s founding fathers set down the first
article of their Constitution, decreeing that “no title of nobility shall be granted by the United
States.” And in 2019, more than two hundred years on, in the United Kingdom still wallows in this
foppery. Beyond time we cottoned on. In his Rights of Man, the great English radical Thomas Paine had this to say about nobility. It “marks”, he said, “a sort of foppery in the human character which degrades it.” With their ribband, star and a’ that, the lordling and knightling, the baron and baronet “talks about its fine blue ribbon like a girl, and shows its new garter like a child.”
A fish rots from the head. Monarchy isn’t a benign tourist trap for fanny-packed Americans who
want a selfie with a bearskin. It is a living, corrupting force in British public life. The toxic sluice of
privilege and preferment it glamorises and sanitises dribbles down through the whole system of
politics, government and society.
That influence resonates in this week’s headlines. A remarkable number of British media
commentators have been clutching their pearls at the idea that Boris Johnson “lied to the Queen”.
ITV’s Robert Peston suggests this week’s Supreme Court case turns on whether “the prime minister
unlawfully misled the Queen when proroguing parliament.” As a matter of law, it certainly doesn’t.
But I am interested in this stubbornly persistent framing of the issue. Why the royalist spin? Is it
worse for the Prime Minister to have been economical with the actualité to one 93 year old
grandmother, than to have lied to a 66 million people about his real intentions?
In parallel, we’re told the Queen is “displeased” that David Cameron admitted this week to asking
her to “raise an eyebrow” during the first independence campaign. Our apolitical monarch, you will
remember, took it upon herself to go further than that. In a coordinated appearance outside Crathie
Kirk back in 2014, asked about the independence referendum with the press conveniently on hand
to hear the exchanges, she said “well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” I’m
sure you’ll agree there’s nothing wrong with careful contemplation, but a nod’s as good as a wink –
or a raised eyebrow – to the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.
But here’s where it gets weird. Because most of the British press is inviting us to sympathise not with
David Cameron for coming clean – but with the monarch having her cover blown. We’re supposed to
conclude she’s an ill-used woman, more sinned against than sinning, betrayed by a blabbermouth
ex-PM who has undermined Her Majesty’s unimpeachable reputation for political impartiality by
admitting she had, in fact, behaved in a politically partial way.
Even nominally sane Tories buy into this rubbish. Matthew Parris criticised David Cameron for having “exposed” the monarch “where he should have protected her.” I doubt anyone was seriously
surprised to discover that Queen Elizabeth has staunchly conservative inclinations, and isn’t exactly a born-again home ruler – but so dribbly and craven is much of the UK media, that the Queen is given a free pass and Cameron is cast as the bad spam.
When judging the Queen’s political fides, it’s worth remembering this “raised eyebrow” isn’t the first
time she’s given herself permission to do a bit of politicking. Back in 1977, when the possibility of
Scottish devolution first came seriously into prospect, the Queen took the opportunity of her Silver
Jubilee address to both Houses of Parliament to pour cold water over the idea.
“I number kings and queens of England and of Scotland, and princes of Wales, among my ancestors,”
she said, “and so I can readily understand these aspirations. But I cannot forget that I was crowned
Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time
to remind ourselves of the benefits which Union has conferred, at home and in our international
dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of the United Kingdom.”
The corrupting deference dribbles downwards. When Theresa May was forced from office by her
party colleagues, she was graced with the opportunity to promulgate a “resignation honours list.”
This was published last week. The beneficiaries were a slew of Tory party functionaries who
accompanied her on her doomed foray into Number 10. The PM’s favourite cricketer was made a
knight bachelor. May settled another Kt on her chief Downing Street spinner, Robbie Gibb. The
official euphemism for most of their contributions is “political and public service”.
Other beneficiaries included special advisors, spokespersons, constituency agents, Tory treasurers,
including the terrible twosome – Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy – who were instrumental in sketching
out the red lines which made such a mess of Britain’s first attempts to secure a Brexit deal, and
masterminded the surprise general election campaign, which lost Theresa May her majority.
Because some effort must always be made to find one or two ordinary punters to give the whole
shameless enterprise an appearance of wholesomeness and legitimacy – May also bestowed British
Empire medals on Chequers’ head chef, and Downing Street’s housekeeper.
The fact that a failed Prime Minister should be able to dish our lordships like sweeties to her
loyalists, settling shining knightly stars on party hacks, and more modest gongs on party goons
further down the pecking order, is grotesque. What “common good” does this social distinction even
pretend to serve?
This nobility racket turns the honours system into a fully-owned subsidiary of the party of
government. It is only marginally less ridiculous than Caligula making his horse Incitatus a senator.
And the worst of it is, in Britain’s political system, this can happen without eyelids being batted, as if
it was all a harmless bit of fun. And behind it all, sits the Crown, the fount of honour, shamelessly
facilitating it all.
Scotland isn’t immune to these peculiar outgrowths. When she materialises in Holyrood, the Queen
is generally pursued up the Royal Mile by a ceremonial phalanx of stiff old geezers, wearing hunting
green, Balmoral bonnets, and carrying unstrung longbows. Under the command of the Earl of Airlie,
their 93 year old Captain-General and Gold Stick for Scotland (I’m not making this up), the Royal
Company of Archers is the sovereign’s bodyguard in Scotland, and best I can discern, a gentleman’s
club for retired upper-class army officers and elderly poshos with a penchant for cosplay. If any of
the lieges attempted to lob a scone at Her Majesty, these pensionable bodyguards would be obliged
to beat the bajesus out of them with their unstrung bows, arthritis and bad-backs permitting.
The Knights of the Thistle are supposedly the premier Scottish “order of chivalry.” In addition to a
couple of ex-Presidents of the Court of Session, it counts Sir Ian Wood, the Duke of Buccleuch, the
former Provost of Eton College, professional political failure David Steel, and George Robertson, the
former Labour MP for Hamilton South, in its velvet ranks. They have an annual dress-up day,
waddling around St Giles Kirk in green capes and a full ostrich-bum of feathers in their bonnets. The
noblest in the land. Give me peace.
As Angus Robertson writes yesterday, an independent Scotland must have a written constitution,
which fences in executive power – rather than perpetuating the arbitrary government whish crown
prerogatives enable. But beyond that, I’d argue, an independent Scotland must pull all the whole
system of monarchy and nobility, root, leaf and stem. You can’t have a crowned republic.
I want to put the Lord Lyon King of Arms out of a job. Tell the courtiers they can wear tabards on
their own time – I hear ComicCon is popular.
The Crown of Scotland must be extinguished. Someone tell the Captain-General to hang up his gold stick. There should be no knights and dames in this country, no lords, no dukes, no earls or baronets. Just men and women, elevated to a common democratic citizenship, on the basis of civic equality. Monarchy and nobility has corrupted public manners in this country long enough – far too long. Time for this lurching royal jig to end. Instead, as Dick Gaughan sang, let’s dance to the republican rhythm of Tom Paine’s bones.