Royal Pain: The Republican Case Against Britain's Monarchy

It isn't unpatriotic for Britons to be republicans. It's a sign that they love their country

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Photo-Illustration by Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

During one of the royal pageants that periodically choke the streets of London, a conservatively dressed American approached me.

"You must be so proud," she trilled, and she became quite truculent when I told her I felt nothing but shame. "How can you hate your country?" she snapped. "What's the matter with you?" "I don't hate my country," I replied, "and there's nothing the matter with me. Like you, I am a republican."

Foreigners rarely realize that British republicans have always opposed monarchy because they love their country and want to end the humiliation of a Hanoverian state's smothering our best democratic impulses. When the 18th century English dissenter Richard Price, friend of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, warned that fawning before royalty produced "idolatry as gross and stupid as that of the ancient heathens," he aptly titled his denunciation "A Discourse on the Love of Our Country."

If you doubt the patriotism of british republicanism, consider trying to explain to an American why the U.S. should import the British constitution. "You must make someone President for life," you begin. "It might as well be Barack Obama, as he's in power now, and all dynasties start with someone's seizing the throne. His heirs will succeed him, however haughty, deluded, infirm or otherwise unsuited for high office they may be. They will be the official heads of state, and the armed forces will swear loyalty to them rather than to the American Constitution." I don't believe you would strengthen your pitch if you concluded, "Tourists will love the American monarchy. Think of the profits for Washington hoteliers!"

Outside the tourist trade, it is hard to judge how brightly monarchical feeling burns in Britain as we witness yet another "fairy-tale wedding" and try to stifle the expectation that "Kate and Wills" will follow three of the Queen's four children into the divorce courts.

About 20% of the British call themselves republicans — a cheeringly large number considering that none of our politicians dare question the Crown's existence. In 2005 a parliamentarian proposed to end the system of male primogeniture and allow daughters to succeed to the throne ahead of their younger brothers. The then Labour government, nit-pickingly p.c. in all things except matters royal, slapped down this minor reform. A fine example to ambitious young women, I thought at the time.

Beyond Westminster, however, the paralyzing deference to the past is long gone. The mood in Britain today is one not of classic republicanism but of mild interest tinged with boredom. As of late April, about 5,500 applications to hold street parties to celebrate the nuptials had been received. There were tens of thousands of parties, by contrast, to mark the arranged marriage of Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer in 1981. The apparent waning of royalty's magic may be the result of communities' being not as tight-knit as they were 30 years ago. But whatever the complicating factors, only royal propagandists doubt that the marriage of this bland couple is failing to excite the nation.

The Charles and Di fiasco explains much of today's indifference. When they wed, it seemed that Britain was in the grip of a monarchical mania every bit as intense as the cult around Emperor Hirohito. But for women in particular, the discovery that the Prince never loved his wife and expected to carry on servicing his mistress represented the moment when they realized that the Crown had taken them for fools. They have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

The trouble with monarchy, however, is that, by definition, no one can stop the Prince from becoming King Charles III, because the British are not allowed to vote for their head of state. Charles Windsor constantly interferes in politics and promotes every variety of reactionary superstition and new-age quackery. He sounded like the leader of a messianic cult when he announced in a recent book, "I would be failing in my duty to future generations and to the Earth itself if I did not attempt to ... indicate possible ways we can heal the world." Yet whatever his personal failings, he will be King because he was born to the right mother.

On the "big day," the courtier journalists of television news showed cheering crowds outside Westminster Abbey. I don't doubt that millions of Britons celebrated with them. But if the media had taken their cameras to the beaches, parks and pubs of Britain, they would have found millions of others who no longer cared for the spectacle and maybe, just maybe, were beginning to agree with Price, Paine, Jefferson and Franklin that their country deserved something better.

Cohen is a columnist for the Observer