Ankh-Morpork is a fictional city state created by bestselling fantasy author Terry Pratchett. The city is ruled by a Florence-style Patrician, and citizens are always harking back to the days when Ankh-Morpork had an absolute monarch. That most of its kings were frothing sadists never puts a dent in the nostalgia. As Sergeant Colon remarks: ‘every time someone stubs a toe in this town, turns out it wouldn’t have happened if we had a king.’
A well-connected villain devises a plan to bring the monarchy back. He conjures up a dragon from some other dimension (seriously, you need to bear with me on this) and arranges for a good-looking youth of apparent nobility to slay the beast in the town square. Unfortunately, the dragon incinerates the knight in a microsecond, and is itself crowned king by townsfolk who have hung out their bunting and are damn well going to have a coronation. The following scene is a masterpiece in dark comedy as the terrified villain, now enslaved by his own creation, briefs city authorities in the dining hall of the Patrician’s Palace as the dragon stomps and prowls its way around the upper floors. The mood is tense, the walls shake, guildsmen try to pick their way through a dense and stodgy meal. The subject turns to ‘the matter of … the king’s . . . diet.’
‘The whole essence of the king’s feeding is that it should be, well… an act of bonding between king and subjects. It is, it is perhaps a living allegory. Reinforcing the close links between the crown and the community,’ he added.
‘The precise nature of the meal?’ the head thief began, almost choking on the words. ‘Are we talking about young maidens here?’
‘Sheer prejudice,’ said Wonse. ‘The age is immaterial. Marital status is, of course, of importance. And social class. Something to do with flavour, I believe.’ He leaned forward, and now his voice was pain-filled and urgent and, they felt, genuinely his own for the first time. ‘Please consider it!’ he hissed. ‘After all, just one a month! In exchange for so much! The families of people of use to the king, Privy Councillors such as yourselves, would not, of course, even be considered. And when you think of all the alternatives…’
They didn’t think about all the alternatives. It was enough to think about just one of them.
Pratchett’s satire on kingship is like a pint of beer and a cold shower after all the sycophantic documentaries, the glossy supplements, the totalitarian-kitsch billboards and flotillas, the beard-stroking op eds, the historical blockbuster movies in which a tactful curtain is drawn over the Royal Family’s support for appeasement of Nazi fascism. A royal event has this atmosphere of weird head-girl conformism (‘Play up! Play up! And play the game’) where provincial streets flutter with flags, aristocrats experiment with self-deprecating humour, and the whole country begins to look like the monoculturalist utopia that conservatives dream of it being.
It’s true, the courtiers are winning. The last big republican moment was in the late nineties with a wave of public anger in the wake of Diana’s death. The Windsors fucked up her whole life, and barely bothered to grieve for her. It looked bad, and for the first time in decades the throne was teetering. Since then, though, the Royal Family has turned itself around. Posh is cool and even our elected leaders are from the old and true bloodlines. Republicans are an embittered minority who haven’t advanced their cause a single inch in a hundred years. We’re like grumpy old Sam Vimes, badly hungover and kicking a can down Treacle Mine Road as the city celebrates around him.
I don’t want to cast a shadow over the street parties that will be happening all over my city. You must never, ever wag your finger at working class people having a good time. Most people work difficult and low paid jobs – if they are lucky enough to have jobs at all – and will seize any bank holiday with both hands. What I am against is being told I’m not a patriot because I don’t have time for this fucking medieval passion-play. What I am against is the condescension of so much of it, this idea that the monarchy brings a little magic into poor and simple lives. Here’s an example of what I mean from Sunder Katwala, who gives the Fabian case for the monarchy:
The final surprise has been how, against the backdrop of Britain’s increasing ethnic diversity, the monarchy has become more relevant. The journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown surely exaggerates when she writes that ‘I am the only black/Asian republican I have ever met’, but perhaps only a little. Bernie Grant, Labour’s most left-wing MP of recent times, was among the most vociferous royalists, taking much pride in the Queen’s interest and reputation in the Caribbean. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was mocked for wearing traditional African dress each year to the State Opening of Parliament. However, by making the connection between his black Guyanese origins and his seat in the Commons, he was reminding us that we share more history than we think.
Notice Katwala’s assumption that most black minority ethnic people are royalist by default. Same goes for the Chief Rabbi, who asserted in his ‘Thought for the Day’ that ‘Jews are intensely loyal to the Queen.’ The Heresiarch picked up on this: ‘What, all of them? How many has he asked?’ Monarchists don’t bring different cultures together under a common heritage, they patronise, deny and piss upon the individual human being.
Of course the court has moved with the times to some extent. The divine right of kings is not evoked anymore, because it is so ridiculous given the current shower and its all too evident humanity. Prince Charles is any middle aged philanderer with a creepy woo flirtation. Prince Harry is any middle class Cheshire thug outside a sports bar. With the original justification for the monarchy gone, its courtiers have to babble about national identity, cohesion, community, the living allegory… will this do? Oh, and they’re good for tourism. But maybe it’s not the royals all those tourists are looking at. Come to England! See the peasants!
It won’t do, not anymore. We’re a feudal backwater run by a kleptocratic media-political elite where success is built through family and connection rather than talent and hard work. We’re a country where more and more working people cannot afford to fucking eat. The misery, resentment and self-pity that infests so much of our public discourse, the infantile nastiness of it, derives, at least in part, from the fact that we have never been citizens, only subjects. Oh, we love to laugh at the vulgar Americans with their shotguns and four-wheel drives and their rather demonstrative patriotism. The fact is though, they got their country back, and we didn’t. As Polly Toynbee says, you should compare ‘land of the free’ to ‘long to reign over us’.
There’s nothing wrong with going to a street party this weekend or raising the Loyal Toast. But some of us will take time out to go outside for a smoke, tilt our gaze towards the ocean, and dream of something worth fighting for.
Update: If you still think that what happened this weekend was just harmless national conviviality consider this: unemployed workfare claimants bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards, doing 14-hour shifts on the river pageant, and sleeping under London Bridge.
As Nick Lezard said: what the fuck is happening to this country?
‘Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’