Women Say...on the Republic

The UK Republic – A Feminist Republican 

Beatrix Campbell in The Guardian, 11 December 2000

Beatrix Campbell writes of contemporary Britain with a Labour Government. It makes an interesting comparison with an independent Australia one hundred years on from Federation. She is the author of Diana: How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy (Women’s Press).

What – short of storming the gates of Buckingham Palace – has to happen before Britain allows itself a decent debate on the monarchy?

A feeling has settled among half the electorate that the Windsors have had it. And yet, no parliamentary party has had either the courage or the confidence to sponsor the great debate. Much of Labour is doing what it did throughout the 20th century – rescuing the royals. In the progressive portion of British society, republicanism has been cauterised. Why?

Despite the radical rhetoric of recent Labour and Conservative governments, the culture of deference has seeped into their souls: our parliamentary culture not only bends its knee to the Queen, it bows and scrapes in the Prime Minister’s court, too. The democratic deficit is palpable in the unseemly symbiosis between the House of Windsor and the Houses of Parliament.

The royal family bequeaths something visceral to the body politic, a mystical discipline of sovereignty and subordination – the cult of supremacy that sponsors not only the monarchy but the modern idea of Britishness. What else would make grown men walk backwards in the company of a grown woman who thinks she has been exalted by the hand of God?

The cult’s significance extends beyond the ministry of silly walks to the timbre of official society. We witnessed it recently when the master of political culture would not even contemplate the Parekh Commission’s subtle ruminations on the "racial connotations" of Britishness.

We recognise it in the authoritarianism of appointments, from the Lord Chancellor’s smoky semaphores to the authoritarian aura of drugs/schools/homelessness tsars.

But we also see its effects in the sexism of both British leftism and liberalism, smugly scoffing at the sensibilities of the mere masses, whether black Britons, Essex woman or Maida Vale man, who saw that something important had happened when a woman called a future king to account for his bad behaviour as a man – a petulant prince who would sacrifice more than one woman to his mania to be monarch.

Diana’s death finally compromised the reputation of the Queen, hitherto seen as dull but dutiful, now revealed as a jealous empress, the Countrywide Alliance personified. We saw what this meant with the recent headline Queen Wrings Bird’s Neck. Quite a skill, they say, particularly in a woman whose role means she doesn’t need to catch a bus, bath a baby or use a switch card. However, unlike other rich people, the public performance of power over other people is the monarchy’s mission.

Like Thatcher, the Queen presided over a profoundly patriarchal project at precisely that point in human history when it was losing its legitimacy. It was sexual politics that undid the becalmed consensus that protected the royal family’s fortunes.

The 20th century was a bad time for British republicans. While other royal houses lost their heads, the Windsors triumphed. They were the true heirs of George III who, according to the historian Linda Colley, gave to his successors a simple mantra: be domestic but be seen and, above all, be seen to be spectacular. David Carradine’s theory of the "invention of tradition" explained the monarchy’s remarkable ingenuity in surviving democracy: as its powers waned the monarchy mobilised everything, from theatre to technology, to improvise sovereignty-as-spectacle.

Republicans were bored. They evacuated the territory taken by the royalists. So, neither the Windsors’ cheek in expecting us to pay for the repair of their castle, nor the all-party deal giving them immunity from financial scrutiny, nor their personal belief in their supremacy and our subordination touched the national nerve.

The Charles-Diana scandal affronted popular feeling but found no echo in Parliament – unlike the crisis caused by an earlier Prince of Wales, whose abuse of his wife Caroline invigorated a popular culture and brought the way men treat women into 19th century political discourse. Then, as now, we witnessed both the potential alchemy of gender, finance and power for republicanism, and at the same time republicanism’s failure to recognise its resonance.

The difficulty is compounded by the failure of misogynists to feel the Zeitgeist. The misread the runes, traduce feminist republicans such as me as feminist royalists and mock sexual politics as mere "soap opera".

However, all is not lost. Everyone wonders why Charles’ son should be doomed to a life spent in the service of this horrible dynasty. He can be rescued only by republicanism.

Meanwhile, we have got our own queens. We’ve got Julie Burchill and Tracy Emin who entertain and enlighten us in their salons and bedchambers. We’ve got real princes – the nice Naseem; David Beckham, a great footballer and, by all accounts, a diligent dad who enjoys sharing his wife’s stardom in the kingdom of OK! And finally, the Royles’ Nana: she’s got the handbag, the hat and – unlike the other Queen – we know exactly what she does on the toilet. 

 Go_up.gif (869 bytes)

Send mail to women.republic@webone.com.au with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: November 04, 2003