Letter from Cambridge

From an old motherland comes a revolutionary concept the colonies have already implemented. Is Britain ready for a sea change?

Royal Pains

by Patrick Morris

The Queen Mother's state funeral -- her family walks by her coffin. From the Seattle Times Photo by Associated Press

Whether we like it or not, we in Britain are slowly being forced to take a long, hard look at ourselves as a nation what we want, who we are and where we are heading.

This year marks 50 years since the Queen ascended the throne, to reign as Queen Elizabeth II. She became monarch because her father, King George VI, had no male children and she was his elder daughter. The whole country is celebrating this Golden Jubilee, with concerts, street parties and public events the length and breadth of Britain. The monarchy seems entrenched, immovable, yet at no other time in the last 50 years have we had such an opportunity to debate its role, and indeed its future.

The absurdity of the institution was shown in its clearest light by the recent funeral of the Queen Mother. To anyone not familiar with Royal talk, she was the mother of the Queen, and that was her official title. The Queen Mother, who was 101, was the most popular of the living Royals, and this popularity increased with every passing year. She symbolised, more than anything, a bygone age, of honour, duty and public service all estimable qualities, but in the hands of the aristocracy these traits mean something very different. The emphasis on selfless duty is the way this class is able to justify its status and power to itself and to the public. Consequently, it appears that this is the natural order of things, as natural as leaves falling in November.

Seeing the members of the family sitting in line at the funeral (broadcast on 2 of the 4 national TV channels), was truly eye-opening. There they were, the present and future heads of our nation: the Queen, Prince Phillip (her husband), Prince Charles, and his sons William and Harry. Three different generations with three wildly different lives behind and ahead of them.

Pity the poor Queen. She has fought a determined, dignified, but ultimately losing battle, to retain some mystique, some reason to revere the Royal Family. But her children have let her down at every turn. Three out of four of their marriages have ended in very public divorces, the most famous being Charles and Diana's. Details of private lives, sordid details that no one wished to know, filled our newspapers year after year, slowly eroding the last remaining, even faintly justifiable reason for holding on to the monarchy that of being scrupulous about private affairs, and not letting them get in the way of duty, honour and public service. Now we know that Royals have feelings, doubts, petty jealousies, and size xxx underpants. We so want to peek into their lives, yet that very act diminishes the sense of them being "above" us, of legitimately having a right to reign. The Queen, at least, has resolutely refused to play that game. Instead she hangs on to her long-held notion of obligation to "serve" the people of Britain in the way she always has done.

Then there's Charles. Here is a man who's main role in life is to wait to wait until his mother dies so that he can ascend the throne himself. It's akin to being Vice-President in perpetuity (along the lines of the Al Gore model as opposed to the Dick Cheney model!). While he waits, he sees fit to intervene in the life of the nation whenever he deems it necessary, without having to account for his views. Although I personally agree with many of his environmental aims, I find it insulting that he is the one public figure who, due to his birthright, has the opportunity to pronounce without being debated, questioned or otherwise challenged in any meaningful way.

I feel sorry for him on a human level. He was devoted to his grandmother, the Queen Mother. As he sat there, he looked utterly inconsolable, the only one showing any emotion whatsoever. It seemed out of place, as if he was letting the side down by dropping his mask he just sat, and stared off into the distance. It really seemed as if he had lost his friend, confidante, as if he was gradually realising how terribly alone he really was. After all, he is the next in line to take the throne that is his awful fate.

Finally, his and Diana's two sons, William and Harry. William, with the brooding sense of his own destiny inherited from his father, and his smile inherited from his mother. And Harry, his younger brother who, most of the way through the service, rocked backwards and forwards on his feet, like the bored, ungainly teenager that he is. I kept expecting Prince Phillip to reach across and belt him one, with the words "For goodness sake boy, stand still! It's your great granny's funeral, have some respect!" These two boys, dear to many people's hearts after the death of their mother, are still portrayed as innocents, almost as saviours of the Royal Family. There is talk of missing Charles out when the Queen dies and placing William on the throne, as if doing that would expiate the dirt, the despoiling of the monarchy that has gone on due to their misdeeds and our knowledge of them.

Imagine then, these four people, surrounded by hundreds of other invited mourners monarchs, politicians, dignitaries from around the world, and a strong turnout from the British upper class. There they sit, backed up by their extended family and the setup appears so eternal. It is almost enough to persuade you to believe in the idea that some people are destined to rule over the rest. Here is the absurdity though the Royal Family are destined, they are born to be Kings, Queens, princesses, and princes. That is how the constitution works. But our desire to see them as humans, and perhaps their desire to be seen to be human, creates the faultline along which the debate about the status of the monarchy and our constitution is slowly taking shape. Prince Harry's nervous, impatient rocking back and forth typified that. He is simply a teenager, but a teenager who just happens to be second in line to be King, annointed from God!

If we, as a nation, seriously had to consider the question of voting for or against a republic, we would have to wake from this slumber of acceptance. We would actually have to contest history, not something we are used to doing on a national level. In the USA, history is still contested, partly because everything is so relatively recent the legacy of slavery still casts a very real shadow over the country, as do the more recent assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war and the resignation of President Nixon. More crucially, even if it ever did have a a singular version of its own history, that is certainly not the case today and that is part of the dynamism of the society. I certainly do not wish to lionise the American republic but its ability to incorporate competing versions of its dramatic history (even if those versions had to be forced into the field of view!) is one of its great strengths.

The prospect of a Republic of Britain is a remote one at the moment, but it helps to imagine what deep-rooted change we would need to undergo to get there. We would be forced to reassess our past, to draw a line under the first 1000-plus years of British history, perhaps calling it the "monarchic period". Republicans are often accused of wishing to wipe out the nation's collective memory. But is our collective memory tied into nothing else than its connection with the royal family? Surely, we can be mature about this. Surely, there are other ways to tell the national story other than through the prism of an hereditary monarchy. Also, the history of our monarchs is so strong, so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that it is just not feasible to talk of it being wiped out in such alarmist tones.

Finally, we would have to ask exactly what we want in place of the monarchy. Republicans blithely talk of an elected head of state, but because the republican voice is so muted in Britain, there is no serious debate about that person's role and power. One thing we do know is that it is not simply a case of paying off the Royal Family and voting in Joe Public. We are talking about a revolutionary shift in our relationship to our head of state. It opens up questions applicable to all countries how allegiance is secured, particularly from bodies such as the armed forces and the civil service; how political the office should be; whether popular elections are the only way of choosing the person; and indeed, alongside its functional role, whether the office can play a mythic role in expressing aspects of the national story.

As we go into what will most likely be the final ten years of Elizabeth II's reign, we have to engage in a creative debate which encompasses these questions. We must break free from unquestioning loyalty to a nakedly anachronistic institution which costs the country an enormous amount of money and only encourages obsequiousness and voyeurism. Lastly, as a multicultural society, we must insist on the opportunity for someone to be head of state who is not white, protestant and born from the right family.

Patrick Morris is Associate Director of Menagerie Theatre Company, Cambridge, England. He can be contacted at patrick@menagerie.uk.com and the company website is www.menagerie.uk.com.

© Spencer Creek Press, West By Northwest 2000-2002 All Rights Reserved unless otherwise noted.

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West By Northwest

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