Friday, May 05, 2006

On Monarchy: HT

God’s been saving the Queen, all right. Remarkably well-preserved at 80, the world’s best-known reigning monarch (the King of Pop has clearly abdicated) celebrated her birthday recently with much pomp and splendour. The media were warm and fuzzy as usual, reporting extensively on such thrilling moments as the Queen’s lunch with 99 ‘exact twins’, people born on the same day as her. The high point of the day was provided by one Mr. Bertie Huckleby who, rendered wobbly by the excitement of meeting his monarch, fell down the stairs leading to the Palace but rose again, like the phoenix, and partied on bravely, ultimately going home gushing in a wheelchair with plaster on his nose. Touching tributes to Her Royal Highness were also made by her son, Prince Charles Or Possibly George, who talks to plants and sings to seals, and grandsons William (notorious binge-drinker) and Harry (strip-club aficionado).

Elsewhere in the world, other royals are living it up as well. In Nepal, King Gyanendra was finally coerced into promising to give power back to the people, a transition which will hopefully happen without involving too much bloodshed. In Hyderabad, the last Nizam’s ex-Miss-Turkey ex-wife wants Rs. 21 crores and a few palaces as a decade-delayed divorce settlement. Monaco's Prince Albert (the human being, not the piercing device) recently went to the North Pole to spread awareness of global warming, which seems a bit confusing to me – he didn’t fall through the ice or anything, so shouldn’t he have gone a place that was, well, warm? In Spain and Denmark, they’re having babies, that time-honoured royal entertainment tradition, and a Japanese heir is also due in a few months courtesy Princess Kiko. Meanwhile, in Uganda, the world’s youngest monarch, King Oyo Nyimba Kadamba-Iguru, revealed recently that he hated being king and wished he could live the life of a normal 14-year-old. This is no doubt because he’s not in a position to have as much fun as Africa's sole remaining absolute monarch and biggest party boy King Mswati III of Swaziland, who last September selected his 13th wife from among thousands of bare-breasted dancing girls performing the annual Reed Dance ceremony, and previously removed the AIDS-discovering ban on under-18s having sex (to assuage his guilt, he fined himself a cow). Other royals haven’t been in the international news much – but no doubt they’ve been doing the royal thing in their respective countries, attending openings, marrying one another, having children and waving at people.

Which brings us to the somewhat relevant question – what on earth is the point? Monarchies have had their time. Now they’re just sad, ridiculous relics of a thankfully finished era. The dinosaurs are dead. Electricity has been around for a while. Smallpox is no more. Why do we still have monarchies?

The arguments for monarchies in previous millennia were as follows. They provided long-lasting, stable government. They actually had the power to kill you if you didn’t want to preserve them. Or they gave people something to look up to, some sort of national example – for example, British royals were either bland and dull, like British food, or entertaining in a slightly insane way, like British tabloids. None of these arguments hold any longer, at least in so-called ‘advanced’ nations where monarchs are symbolic heads of state and can’t really switch into full-time Evil Tyrant mode, or in other words, countries that cling on to monarchies through sheer inertia. The British monarchy has survived calls for abolition for four centuries by standing on two pillars: One, you have to have something to entertain the elderly with. Two, removing the monarchy would involve a lot of paperwork.

The only real achievement of the British monarchy in recent years has been this – they have proved, in Diana’s absence, that it’s possible for ugly people to be entertaining in this glamour-obsessed world, if they’re rich enough and have powerful ancestors. Sure, centuries ago, kings and queens were the only Page 3 people worth your time. Celebrities are, of course, what we all live for, and monarchs are born into celebrity. But most other celebrities have to do something to earn the fame and the attention. True, there are other people who are famous merely because they’re rich, which is very wrong – but we only have to look at the pretty ones, the young, anorexic ones with sex tapes and Chihuahuas, which is not so much of a problem. Why are royals worthy of our attention? Because their ancestors were better at killing large numbers of people than ours? That doesn’t make sense. Because they provide harmless entertainment? There are thousands of people to gape at if we so desire – talented, successful, brilliant, attractive people, as seen in newspapers, TV and the Internet every second of every single day. Because they’re uniformly weird and have circus freak value? Not always, and in any case one can just watch pro wrestling if one’s tastes run in that direction. Because of questions like ‘What would England be without the Queen?’ A lot richer, that’s what.

There can be only one explanation – deep down inside, we are an irretrievably silly species. Which is not such a bad thing to be. And we are also a nostalgic species, firm in our belief that the past was better, implacable in our denial of the fact that things were always bad. Keeping monarchies alive is our way of placating our ancient guilt for killing the dodo, the passenger pigeon and the VHS tape. But perhaps our preservation instincts could be used more fruitfully? If we want to save things that are unique and precious, perhaps we should save rainforests? Endangered animals? Non-celebrity human beings? But that’s unlikely to happen, and the reasons behind that are rather depressing. They don’t sell expensive products, except by dying. And they don’t make good TV. Monarchs, apparently, do.

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