Review: The Monarchy by Christopher Hitchens

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The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish by Christopher Hitchens book cover
The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish (1990) is an extended essay by polemicist Christopher Hitchens in which he debunks the myths surrounding the Sovereign and argues persuasively for a re-evaluation of the United Kingdom's deference to the Monarchy in favour of an open Republic. Hitchens discusses the national identity built around this “fetish”, the nation of subjects who choose servility over independence, and the distortion of history when it threatens the portrait of the Royal Family. This is not an attack on any specific individuals within the Monarchy, it is a demolition of the very notion of the Monarchy.

In trying to explain the nation's continuing love affair with the Royal Family, Hitchens perceptively suggests that for many, the tradition of the Royal Family, who are so firmly tied to the country's history, points back to past greatness, and that in the second half of the twentieth century they provided a splash of colour in a fading empire, which was increasingly devoid of promise and character. This he suggests, leads the subjects of the nation to adapt history to favour the status quo - peaceful and blind consensus might, Hitchens argues, be to the Monarchy's benefit, but is it to the people's?

Far from a powerless institution, Hitchens suggests that, in fact, it is the nation's subjects who are kept servile by bizarre and meaningless practices like the honours list while ultimate power is retained at the very top. What's more, far from simply dividing the nation down the line of Ruler and Subjects, the Royal Family in fact help to propagate the class system which serves the few and suppresses the majority.

This is a 40-page essay and as such lacks the depth of more extended arguments against the Monarchy. Instead this is a thoughtful, brilliantly argued piece that cuts right to the heart of the matter and presents Hitchens's points in his own eloquent style. He offers no substantial discourse on an alternative, but rather limits himself to discussing the problem as he sees it, and the refutation of the arguments put forward by supporters of the Monarchy. This pamphlet is "an invitation to think", and claims to be nothing more, yet it is scathing in its decrying of the nation's position to the Monarchy. Here's Hitchens in full flow:

"The British monarchy inculcates unthinking credulity and servility. It forms a heavy layer on the general encrustation of our unreformed political institutions. It is the gilded peg from which our unlovely system of social distinction and hierarchy depends. It is an obstacle to the objective public discussion of our own history. It tribalises politics. It entrenches the absurdity of the hereditary principle. It contributes to what sometimes looks like an enfeeblement of the national intelligence, drawing from our press and even from some of our poets the sort of degrading and abnegating propaganda that would arouse contempt if displayed in Zaire or Romania. It is, in short, neither dignified nor efficient." p19

Hitchens's position on the Monarchy is more than faintly reminiscent of his position on Religion, on which he wrote much more widely, identifying the servility, backward-thinking, and blindness to the 'flaw' in one's own beliefs that might be so readily identified and sniffed at in others, that for Hitchens represents the position of the believer. Indeed he is keen to highlight and lament the link between the state and the Church of England - a link enshrined in the country's composition. There are many similarities between Hitchens's thoughts and those of one of his heroes, Thomas Paine, who he here labels "the first republican". Separated by some two-hundred years, it is perhaps testament to the Monarchy's ability to adapt and rule that both men faced a remarkably similar institution (at its core, at least), and that despite regular attacks from those with Republican leanings the majority remain loyal to the Queen.

Hitchens's own closing remarks sum up the essay's stance far more eloquantly than this reviewer can, so I close with them:

"Is this an argument for abolition? Of course it is. But not for an abolition by fiat: for yet another political change that would come as a surprise to the passively governed. It is an invitation to think - are you serious when you say that you cannot imagine a life without it? Do you prefer invented tradition, sanitised history, prettified literature, state-sponsored superstition and media-dominated pulses of cheering and jeering? A people that began to think as citizens rather than subjects might transcend underdevelopment on their own... Only servility requires the realm (suggestive word) of illusion. Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown." p42 

An enjoyable and persuasive pamphlet, perhaps a little short of the humour that so often peppered Hitchens's very serious arguments, but still a powerful, if brief, introduction to the Anti-Monarchy position.


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Reviews of The Monarchy on Amazon (UK)
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6 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

For those wondering about levels of support for The Monarchy in the UK, there are apparently only 10% of the population in favour of moving to a Republic after the current Queen abdicates according to this poll:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/may/24/queen-diamond-jubilee-record-support

Petra said...

And there are many people in the Czech Republic who want monarchy back. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Aha, then you are quite certainly in step with the British people!

Petra said...

I'm not sure, but I suppose what they want is some kind of reformed monarchy. For example, not many people here would love the idea of a monarch being connected with a church (or any religion).

Matthew Selwyn said...

It's interesting, why do you suppose they would like a Monarchy back? I will profess my ignorance of the Czech situation, so do enlighten me. :)

As for myself, I think I would be quite happy without a monarchy, whether they're linked to religion or not.

Petra said...

I think mostly because they aren't happy with how much power politicians have, and that they are corrupt and some of them don't really care about anything but themselves. And they believe constitutional monarchy would be better - less power for politicians, less corruption.
And it's true there's a lot of corruption and some politicians are liars etc., but I'm still quite happy with democratic republic.
What I miss though is aristocracy. After WW1 and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, First Republic was created here, it was a joyous time and it was all about democracy, and aristocrats somehow didn't fit in that idea. So all titles were abolished in 1918. At that time it kind of made sense. But later, under Nazis and then communism, aristocrats (and everything they represented) disappeared completely. I think that's a shame, aristocrats are important part of society. They are those who support artists, and they know how important culture and cultural heritage is.