I’ve been reminded, thanks to my wife’s attainment of British citizenship this week, that nationhood is a fragile story. It’s fitting, then, that naturalisation should be subject to the truly defining properties of the British narrative: a refusal to take anything too seriously, and to never miss an opportunity for self-parody.
I can’t say the ceremony agenda is intimidating, but it certainly has the appearance of formality, with its declaration of allegiance, national anthem lyrics, and list of ceremonially titled officials in attendance. And The Old Marylebone Town Hall makes quite an impression, with its Graeco-Roman facade, Corinthian capitals, colonnaded tower, and toilets that wouldn’t be out of place in a 5-star hotel. Like the fabled English gentleman, though, beneath the surface is a reassuringly familiar farce.
‘We’re joined today by citizens who’ve come from all over the world,’ announced the theatrically camp Superintendent Registrar. ‘Canada, Greece, South Korea… Barbados? Hang on, why are you here?!’ Prefacing the arrival of the Lord Mayor of Westminster — a young Muslim lad, who’d soon read a scripted welcome with all the austerity of a first-year undergraduate student — the Registrar asked of the attendees, ‘Be gentle with him: he’s new, and we want this one to stay; he’s probably more nervous than you are.’
Those wondering what to expect of the final step in becoming British can look forward to a goody bag and a reasonable best man’s speech. Which, as the Registrar reminded everyone, ‘Is the least you could expect for the amount you’ve paid.’
Anyone suspecting some kind of anomaly here would benefit from reading David Zolkwer’s remarks on organising the Platinum Jubilee pageant, who took to reassuring journalists at The Times that the event wouldn’t ‘take itself quite so seriously’. Well, we’ve had bobbies bundling off vegan protesters, a prince pulling faces on the palace balcony, the family’s most embarrassing member pulling a conspicuously convenient Covid sickie, and the nation’s oldest celebrity vigorously applauded for smiling politely before quietly disappearing — to mark seven decades of smiling politely before quietly disappearing. It’s all going swimmingly.
You’ve only got to witness two people that actually like each other trying to decide what colour to paint a wall to realise how improbable it is that 68 million people, that mostly haven’t met, might agree on even the basics. Humanity’s proclivity to employ autocracy in the pursuit of some consensus, against such odds, accounts for the back story of every place the species has ever gathered. One would be hard-pressed to deny that autocracy’s seemingly more natural than any alternative to it; or that whilst the reality of it can be eliminated, the idea can’t: There will never be a shortage of egoists who consider it their destiny to rule by decree, or of others mysteriously willing to usher them towards their aspirations.
Thus did the execution of Charles I give us Oliver Cromwell — initially interred in Westminster Abbey among others honest enough to call themselves kings. The execution of Louis XVI, and the Reign of Terror, gave the French Napoleon. The execution of the Romanovs left the Russians with Stalin. Abdication of the German emperor soon left the people with Hitler. The extirpation of monarchy has quite the form on ‘same shit, different assholes’.
I believe it’s widely lost on republicans exactly what British parliamentarians did with our monarchy. With a bloodline leading all the way back to Alfred the Great, and the record of over a millennium of nation building, there remains no more compelling claim than the Royal Family’s to rally British autocratic fervour; and here it is, in permanent stasis, enslaved in an elaborate constitutional prison. Like Julius Caesar’s treatment of the captured King of Gaul, our elected representatives wheel out the family’s pre-eminent members for special events, for crowds to get their fix of national pride, catharsis for their desire to see nationhood personified — when the personification instead is of the subjugation of autocracy, in perpetuity.
By reign without rule, all is decreed in the name of autocracy, and in the absence of its will. Constitution ended the monarchy not with the bang of revolution, but with an everlasting ceremonial whimper. A zombie institution in a gilded cage, the strongest claimant to the nation’s historic dictatorship is a fossilised cog, on life support inside a 21st Century democratic machine: a living relic too alive to be resuscitated, but too dead to exist outside a museum.
Whatever the cost to us, I disbelieve it to be greater than the cost to them. Some will draw my attention to the family’s purported assets, but they look more fragile to me in royal hands than in any private citizen’s. Some of the nation’s wealthier Russian guests found their London assets to be theirs but for the grace of Liz Truss; the royals’ own are never more than an executive order away from transfer to… whatever might replace the Crown.
The smart republicans among us will be toasting their gains throughout this weekend’s festivities. The autocratic story of yesteryear is the slave of the democratic narrative of our age. Only the ideologues will be bemoaning the work yet to be done; but their agenda — of self-promotion in the language of someone else’s values — is a different brand of perpetual endeavour, and one much less in the public interest.