Christopher Hitchens asked in The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish, “Why, when the subject of royalty or monarchy is mentioned, do the British bid adieu to every vestige of proportion, modesty, humour and restraint?” This podcast episode seeks to explore this, and related, questions.
Why, after executing a King, did the British almost immediately experience a distinct feeling of buyer’s remorse? What purpose do the British think the Royal Family serves? And how intrinsic is the yearning for monarchy within the British identity?
In Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, wrote stridently that he thought the British monarchical system absurd. Indeed, he helped establish the United States of America in opposition to monarchy. Christopher Hitchens said the British have a ‘fetish’ for all-things Royal. George Orwell, a man who experienced, wrote and was fearful of autocracy, explained that the British see their monarchy as a safety-valve against tyranny. Orwell pointed to the dictatorships, in stark contrast to British constitutional monarchy, which had suffocated democracy in Germany and Italy in the prelude to World War 2.
These questions of national identity are, of course, subjective. But by looking at past events (such as the Civil War and its regicidal aftermath), analysing the various arguments made over time (Paine, Orwell, Hitchens and others), and seeking to understand the continued reverence for monarchy, we can gain an insight into the British identity and its apparent obsession with Royalty.
“Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the Judgment of God upon this Land, think well upon it, I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater; therefore let me know by what lawful Authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer, in the meantime I shall not betray my Trust: I have a Trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent, I will not betray it to answer a new unlawful Authority, therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.”
So said Charles I at his trial for treason in 1649. History tells us that those conducting his trial would have been well advised to have listened to these words of defiance. Indeed, republicanism in the UK is about as able to face down the monarchy today as Oliver Cromwell was when, already dead, he was exhumed after the Restoration, and beheaded. Such memories, such ghastly memories, are as much a part of the British identity as pomp and circumstance is.
At the beginning of the podcast, Aidan briefly comments on the high emotions surrounding the Catalonia referendum, and the awful Las Vegas shooting, which both occurred on 1 October 2017.
Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (Oxford World’s Classics), (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2001).
Linda Colley, Britons: Forging The Nation 1707-1837, (London: Vintage, 1992).
Christopher Hitchens, The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish, (London: Vintage Publishing, 2012).
‘HM Queen Elizabeth II — Coronation Day Speech — 2 June 1953’, YouTube website, https://youtu.be/S2pgmKeGEZg, 2015, accessed 1 October 2017.
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England, (London: Profile, 2012).
John Laughland, A History of Political Trials: From Charles I to Charles Taylor (Proquest eBook), (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2015).
George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume III, As I Please, 1943 – 1945, (London: Secker And Warburg, 1968).
J.A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760, (London: Bloomsbury, 1997).
Charles Spencer, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, (London: Penguin, 1985 [first edition 1781])
‘The Monarchy: popular across society and ‘here to stay’’, YouGov website, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/09/08/monarchy-here-stay/, 8 September 2015, accessed 1 October 2017.
‘The Trial of Charles I’, BBC In Our Time website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kpzd6, 2009, accessed 1 October 2017.
‘Blackadder II’, BBC Television, 1986.
‘The Devil’s Whore’, Channel 4 Television, 2008.
‘Queen Elizabeth II’ at Madame Tussauds, Madame Tussauds web site, www.madametussauds.co.uk
Queen Elizabeth I portrait, Royal Family web site, www.royal.uk
Queen Elizabeth II by Andy Warhol, Guy Hepner web site, www.guyhepner.com