Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

The Jubilee celebrations have come at a time when many citizens are keen to have something positive to focus on. The strain of the Brexit saga and the Covid 19 pandemic, followed by the ongoing nightmare of a brutal war in Europe, and an economic crisis which appears to be spiralling out of control, have all contributed to a bleak picture in the 2020s.  The 1920s is regarded as a decade of hardship and tragedy, and the current era looks as though it does not wish to be outdone.

Therefore, taking all of this in account, it is understandable that people are pleased to think about street parties. Large sections of society are prepared to cluster around Jubilee celebrations, and even some notable Republicans have caved in.  Does this mean that Monarchists are justified in their assertion that the Royal Family provide a powerful source of unity, national identity and link with tradition?  At one level, manifestly this is the case, there is widespread support and celebration at a time when much of the news is bleak, and some light and joy is much needed.

However, at the risk of being a Jubilee Grinch, social cohesion, in and of itself, is not necessarily positive.  It is important not to underestimate that a majority group can cohere around ideas, symbols and identities which exclude minorities. Sometimes the rejection of outsiders is unintended and unconscious, at others it can even be part and parcel of signalling and affirming group identity: e.g. we support this football, rugby team, etc, and we oppose that rival team.  These responses are a consistent feature of human behaviour, but if not observed and controlled properly, they can have both disastrous and tragic consequences, leading to exclusion, prejudice, violence and hatred.

In having a hereditary Monarchy, the United Kingdom, arguably, embraces the idea that only members of a particular, very privileged and wealthy family can be the Head of State.   It means that if, for example, you are born black and gay in social housing in Hartlepool, you have precious little chance of fulfilling any role in the “First Family” of the nation.  Social and educational opportunities mean that you are highly unlikely to mix in the same circles as the heir to the throne, a prerequisite for love and marriage. You also have precisely zero possibility of being the representative of all citizens as Head of State, not having been born into the line of succession.   Do we feel comfortable with that scenario?

This is a challenging question, but it is a legitimate one to ask. The Jubilee is an opportunity to celebrate a huge range of positive achievements, and even for Republicans to acknowledge that the current Queen is a person who has worked commendably to serve her country and respect her coronation oath. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should not take the opportunity to ask what we want going forward.   We are not suggesting that this question could be answered in the scope of a blog.   It might be suggested that a Monarchy is, in principle, an outdated system, but once this is acknowledged, we could conclude that the positives outweigh the negatives, so long as society in general makes strides forwards in terms of diversity and inclusion.   At the other extreme, we might ask whether the time is coming to adopt an alternative model, where any citizen has a chance to become a national symbol and representative, whatever their gender, religion, sexuality, race, class or other characteristics. There is also a third way, which would consist of radically re-shaping the current Royal Family and the manner in which it operates.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: if as a society we want to cohere around a symbol, then it is only right to pause now and then, and ask what message that symbol is actually transmitting, and whether we are content with it.


Related Articles

“LGBT Campaigner Peter Tatchell refuses ‘national treasure’ jubilee offer” The Guardian (15/2/22)

“The Queen now has her own limited edition Barbie doll and we need one immediately” Marie Claire (21/4/22)

“Queen makes generous donation to support Ukraine aid appeal” The Metro (4/3/22)

“Clearly Britain loses more than it gains from the monarchy: Let us be brave and end it” The Guardian (17/2/22)

“A History of Royal Jubilees” Historic Royal Palaces