On Thursday 18 January, I appeared as a guest on Miracles and Atheists, a live Facebook show in which believers and non-believers engage in civil discourse. I discussed atheism, my view on miracles, the collision between religion and secular values, Christopher Hitchens, faith healers, and much more. A replay is available – my guest spot begins at around 02:36:00.
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. Bibliography 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. Clips ‘Blackadder II’, BBC Television, 1986. ‘The Devil’s Whore’, Channel 4 Television, 2008. Images ‘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
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At a cost of £369m, the British Treasury has announced a controversial 10-year refurbishment plan for Buckingham Palace, which since 1837 has been the primary royal residence.
It is quite apparent why this development has been so fiercely debated on both sides of the argument. Indeed, those in support of the investment are not exclusively proud monarchists; even some republicans have declared that the palace must be preserved and be treated as the state would any other national landmark, such as St. Paul’s or the Houses of Parliament. But equally, in a time of such austerity, it is an astonishing amount of money for the taxpayer to part with.
As the BBC’s Royal Correspondent, Sarah Campbell, pointed out:
“Questions will be asked over why the palace has been allowed to get to such a state and whether the enormous estimated costs could have been reduced if services had been regularly updated.”
From what the Treasury has stated, the intended works are essentially maintenance and repair; to replace old pipes, dodgy electrics, etc. The splurge is not going to fund a private 4D cinema to help one relax after a hard day’s waving. However, Richard Palmer reported in the Express only last year that repairs were estimated at a mere £150m, which makes the new figure all the more disconcerting.
Back in 2010, Robert Verkaik wrote in the Independent that royal officials asked ministers whether cash intended for “schools, hospitals and low-income families could be used to meet soaring fuel bills” to assist in funding the palace. This was rebuffed because, as should have been obvious to anyone, it was deemed a public relations nightmare in waiting.
The current public relations battle is underway. Online, the most prevalent defence of the investment is the tourism factor, but on the other side of an already bitter argument, Piers Morgan summed up the views of many when he tweeted: “On Children In Need day, the Royals get handed £369m of taxpayer money to refurbish Buckingham Palace. Is this a ****ing joke?” It will be interesting to see how the debate develops in the coming weeks, but either way, the Crown’s dodgy pipes will be repaired.
R. Palmer, Queen may have to move out of Buckingham Palace: Repairs could cost £150million, (Express: London, 24 June 2015)
Buckingham Palace to get £369m refurbishment, BBC News online, 18 November 2016
R. Verkaik, Queen tried to use state poverty fund to heat Buckingham Palace, (The Independent: London, 24 September 2010)
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