The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, after a long and fulfilling life as consort to Queen Elizabeth II, provoked the usual debates about whether the British monarchy should continue, and what it actually does. Then just when everyone was getting involved in these debates they were given a sharp reminder of why the monarchy continues to be relevant.
In his lifetime Prince Philip was famous for making gaffes. One of the better known ones came when he was visiting an electronics factory in Edinburgh and described a fusebox with wires sticking out as “looking as if it was put in by an Indian”.
But the genuine tributes which followed his death demonstrated that all those mistakes were secondary to his record of public work representing his adopted country, which will live on for generations to come. People feel they have lost someone who represented the best of what they are, which is exactly what he was supposed to do as a member of the Royal Family.
The Queen has just turned 95. Without her husband, she isn’t expected to be around very long herself. You will hear very few complaints about the Queen as a person, even from virulent anti-monarchists. But there is a genuine concern that the public may not want the show to go on with lesser actors, and they feel that a presidency is cheaper, (unlike any of those which actually exist!), and would be more relevant to the modern world.
The UK doesn’t do revolution
Although it’s had them, most notably in 1688 when the Protestant William of Orange was brought over to depose the Catholic James II, if it abandoned the monarchy it would do so by a process of evolution. The System would replace it with another product of itself, an extension of the long tradition of parliamentary government which does set the UK apart from most nations.
But that is not going to happen any time soon. As most people have heard, the UK is run by someone who has the insolence to call himself a Conservative, whilst doing everything he can to subvert the UK’s institutions, public standards and everything and everyone else he can lay his hands on.
Boris Johnson likes to pretend he is the champion of the people against their institutions, such as the monarchy. He knows how to get away with everything which would sink anyone else, and prides himself as very clever for doing so, so is unlikely to ever cease such behaviour.
His problem is that when you declare war on civilization, eventually everyone has to take sides. Just as there are no British voters who are ambivalent towards Brexit, due to its radical nature, eventually each one of them will have to come down on one side or the other in a civil war for the soul of their country.
The highest ideals of national decency and standards, which the Royal Family are supposed to represent, are being forcibly pitted against the wilful destruction of all standards of decency in the name of “the people”. Most people currently don’t have a great attachment to either side. But as in any civil war, they soon will when the other comes knocking at their door, telling them they are traitors if they don’t go along with what they want.
Anything is possible
The Royal Family would never think it was involved in such a struggle. But if it going to stay there and do its job, it will have no choice but to lead one part of the UK population against the other.
In the eyes of many, it is ill equipped to fulfil such a role. The royals may be colourful, for both positive and negative reasons, but are also considered an anachronism.
Though there is no serious republican movement in the UK, or at least outside Northern Ireland, there is little understanding of the role or work of the Royal Family. It is something which only exists because it once did, and nobody is bothered enough to change it.
The common criticism of the Royal Family is that they are out of touch with everyday life, with all their hereditary titles and palaces. People support them in the same way they support pop stars or television personalities, not because of the work they do.
But the antics of the Johnson clan are about to make the Royal Family more relevant than ever. All the things they attack, whilst ostensibly pretending to support in principle, are there because they are considered the best alternative. Even if the Royal Family isn’t any more, it soon will be again, because anyone who wants that will have nowhere else to go.
The UK has a constitutional monarchy because it deposed and executed King Charles I in its civil war, and replaced him with Oliver Cromwell and his Protectorate. That regime had high ideals, like the Taliban, but behaved in a similar way, and did not long survive Cromwell’s death.
King Charles II was brought back from exile to reign because he represented legitimacy and fun, rather than unpleasant ideology. As long as he didn’t try and rule without public and parliamentary consent as his father had done, he was safe.
In time a genuine partnership between public, parliament and monarch developed which has continued to be refined into something the majority can put up with. Not because it is effective, but because it is considered the most moral, most acceptable, most appropriate system by the British public at all levels, no matter what the failings of individuals are.
Parliament underwent the same process of development. Its power and position have waxed and waned over the centuries due to the actions of both the monarchy and the public.
As the country developed, so did the franchise, however much parliament resisted it. Constituencies became broadly equal in size and voting qualification, women were allowed to vote and the voting age was reduced to 18 because these were considered the right things to do. Only then was it assumed, as a secondary consideration, that if you do the right thing you will get the best results.
The same can be said of the legal system, social welfare, fish and chips and any other British institution you can think of. It’s that way because most British people think, rightly or wrongly, that’s the best way to do that thing.
The monarchy is still an integral part of such a structure, because its job is to embody and uphold the best of British. So if the UK’s institutions are under attack, and people want to defend them, they eventually defend the monarchy too.
Those who don’t want the monarchy still want parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press and checks and balances, the traditional principles the monarchy itself defends. They simply want decency another way – and their alternative at the moment is a political system patently not delivering it.
Not everything is acceptable
Boris Johnson may have sacked Dominic Cummings, the unelected spin doctor dedicated to waging a “culture war” against everyone who he chose to believe was frustrating the public will. But his policy remains unchanged: tell the people they think a certain thing; and then go over the heads of the UK’s institutions to get what he wants.
Boris converted to Brexit at the last minute, if he ever really did, and then continually attacked parliament for getting in the way of it until he got his own cronies elected instead. At this point parliament suddenly represented the will of the people. Previously he presented it as a self-serving institution devoted to abusing the people, though elected in exactly the same way, and performing the same constitutional function.
No other politician would be able to get away with what BoJo has. He seems to revel in each new scandal about paying party donors to do up his flat, trying to stop inquiries to protect his girlfriend, fiddling the tax system for Brexit backers, and on and on.
He keeps landing on his feet for one simple reason: he knows people have baser instincts, and rejoices in them. He makes no attempt to behave like a public servant, and too many people have too much to hide to prevent him doing so.
Public policy and public life in any developed country are about setting and maintaining standards – trying to do well—and no matter how that is perceived and expressed. Inevitably that leaves casualties along the way – those who are told their views and behaviours are no longer appropriate, whose skills are not needed, whose interests are not important, whose security shouldn’t be guaranteed.
These casualties are not bad people. But they have often been told they are by a high and mighty system, which has excluded them because somebody somewhere made a policy they were never consulted on.
Johnson does not include these people, or give them a voice. He encourages them to believe that everything the public institutions say is bad is actually good: racism, homophobia, violence, sexual impropriety, undermining the rule of law and authority. He tells people that the worse they behave, the more he will champion them, and he can do this effectively because he does the same things himself, and he is in public life.
Johnson is dedicated to turning genuine frustration and grievance into wilful misconduct and making this a virtue. The worse you feel you are being treated, the more you feel a part of Johnson’s gang. But to stay part of it you have to wilfully behave in ways you yourself know to be bad, rather than try and find alleviation of these grievances with those who have caused them.
Few of Johnson’s own supporters actually want to live in a world ruled by a mob deliberately behaving as badly as it can. Sooner or later people have to build instead of destroy, and set standards instead of wilfully tearing them down just because the other side set them.
When people have had their bit of self-affirmation they will want to create something they think is good and sustainable. They will then want someone to embody what they regard as those good and sustainable things.
They won’t want Johnson, and he knows that. He won’t transform into a statesman. His only hope is to remove everyone who gets in his way and then get out and leave others to pick up the pieces – to continue his war against civilization to the bitter end.
Superman is indestructible
Part of Johnson’s wilful misconduct is that he makes everything all about him, rather than the people he is supposed to be serving. This is all part of the con: when lying and cheating and abusing are part of Brand Johnson, with a personal embodiment, abstract principles and faceless institutions will find it difficult to compete.
It is the job of the Royal Family to compete with this. Other politicians might, but they are not Prime Minister, or they are foreigners. Institutions such as the courts might, but these are not bodies people can rally round, and have an ongoing daily relationship with.
Johnson is the belligerent in this conflict. As he has already shown with his purge of non-Brexiteer Tories, you have to be either with him or against him, as the armed militia in any civil war eventually have to demand of every unarmed and uninterested citizen, who just wants to get on with their life and hope the war leaves them alone.
Over time, even many of his supporters will choose the attempt to be good, expressed through the UK’s institutions, over the attempt to destroy it. The Royal Family has its own share of scandals, but nevertheless embodies that attempt by virtue of the job it does.
If you have to be for or against BoJo the Clown, you must also be for or against the other side. Deep down British people do know what the royals represent, love them or loathe them, which is why they read all the royal scandals so voraciously when they wouldn’t care about other people having affairs or keeping unsavoury company.
The anachronistic British monarchy has been made more relevant than ever by what it is up against. In the end people will rally round what it is and what it does. But the House of Windsor’s country is in for a very bumpy ride until it discovers that its future salvation has been there in its past all the time.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.