THE HEADLINES ARE AGAIN dominated by No Deal news, but I won’t repeat my takes from last Friday. Instead, I’m highlighting a story I was forced to ignore in last week’s packed agenda, namely, the implications of Will and Kate’s “feelgood” covid jaunt.
It was heartening to see many Scottish commentators and institutions (our First Minister included) respond to the visit without the usual fawning. This reflects a growing recognition that the monarchy is waning in popular significance. The last polls I can find suggest that 41 percent of Scotland support the monarchy, 28 percent are opposed, and a crucial 27 percent are ambivalent.
Thus, in today’s Scotland, people who don’t like or don’t care about the Windsor pantomime are beginning to outweigh what passes for passionate royalists. Scottish nationalist leaders no longer have to indulge in weepy-eyed monarchism to get a popular audience (sadly, Sir Keir Starmer still does).
The Royal drama at its silliest, I would argue, has been the manufactured split between Meghan-Harry and Will-Kate. This represents everything wrong with state power today, an entirely intra-elite “culture war” division between conservative traditions and right-on Hollywood celebrity liberalism. Rather than pick sides, bravery consists of refusing to choose between unelected overlords. Perhaps Will-Kate is worse (Britain at its most pedestrian); perhaps Meghan-Harry is worse (the planet’s most privileged people hectoring the masses about privilege theory); in a more important way, both sides are worse.
Nonetheless, for all the healthy indifference to the Windsors, they remain among the more popular institutions of the British state. And the real problem for genuine republicans is to recentre the debate on state power away from the monarchy.
This often proves difficult, because the Windsors tend to infuriate the republican mind (Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass or Christopher Hitchens’ equally funny pamphlet The Monarchy are fine examples of the genre). Nonetheless, the sideshow of monarchism always risks distracting from what the republican debate should be about.
In our upcoming book on Scotland, Ben Wray and I will argue that republicanism should mean a shared public stake in state power. This notion, which owes a lot to Dan Hind’s excellent Magical Kingdom, has several implications. Firstly, true republicanism is the opposite of getting involved in a false polarisation between political leaders and the Windsors. The focus is rather on the “void” separating state leaders in general from democratic accountability, thus making them ever more reliant on public relations and borrowed credibility from celebrity culture.
Secondly, a truly free republic could actually choose a hereditary monarch as its head of state, absurd though that might seem. The problem with our current arrangement is not just that we have no mechanism of recall or referendum. It is also that our state and private media institutions are so thoroughly polluted by status quo bias and elitism that the public lacks credible information to judge its own rulers.
Thirdly, a truly republican perspective should be more interested in how state power is controlled by all wealthy elites. Danny Dorling has calculated that, for the price of Britain’s richest 1 percent, we could pay for 1,100 royal families. This group, much more than the Windsors, exerts disproportionate control over the state, and represents a far greater threat to democracy.
The Scottish independence movement could – I emphasise “could” – represent the most concerted challenge to British power structures in generations. It is an opportunity to rethink how we exert control of the state and our own rulers. In that debate, we cannot afford to be distracted by the mindless stupidity of British institutions. Our bigger task is to refashion our institutions to hold Scotland’s domestic elites accountable, and only the Yes movement itself seems capable of accomplishing that task.