“The Leader of the Tribe”
Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee
In 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee seemed to epitomize the seismic shift that punk had caused to the cultural landscape. Violent, nihilistic, and filthy, Jubilee raised the aesthetic potential of punk to a higher artistic form.
In the film, Elizabeth I is transported to the England of the late 1970s by the angel Aerial who is evoked by her astrologer-magician John Dee. Walking around this wasteland, aurally punctuated by gunshots and billowing with smoke, they seem to have entered a different world.
Indeed, it is an alternate reality, one in which the monarchy has long since disappeared, and where Buckingham Palace has been bought by the monopolistic and creepy entertainment impresario, Borgia Ginz.
But there are portentous undertones to the film that ring true. “As long as the music’s loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart,” Ginz says at one point. All of the characters utter platitudinous slogans, sometimes giggling as they do so. The scenario resembles Godard’s One Plus One, the Black Panthers replaced by King’s Road punks, The Rolling Stones replaced by Adam and the Ants, French pretension replaced by a two-fingered Anglo Saxon salute. The film oozes a dark nihilism entirely in keeping with the subcultural ethos of the time.
Thirty-five years on, Derek Jarman is dead but the Queen still reigns and is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. A post-monarchist future for England seems, if anything, less likely now than it did 35 years ago. Whereas in the 1970s the Queen seemed to be the ultimate embodiment of everything relating to the establishment, and a pertinent hate figure for punks, there has been an extraordinary turnaround in recent years, largely inspired by the death of Diana.
It is probably true to say that people generally now feel more embittered towards politicians than they do towards the Royal Family, and there seems to be a feeling that there is a need for a symbolic head of state who can stand above the grubby corruption of the Westminster class. This idea of the Royal Family as a higher, more trustworthy, representative of the people is essentially a mythic, or Traditionalist, view. It is a view that was shared by a recent Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, who described the Queen as, “the leader of the tribe.”
The arguments of republicans are becoming increasingly stale, partly because their idea of what should replace monarchy appeals to no one at an instinctive level. When republicans complain that the monarchy is not democratic, everyone looks to the fruits of democracy (money corruption, national debt, unemployment, immigration, etc.) and feels that we could live without further democratization. When republicans complain that the Catholics are forbidden from succession to the throne, we may find this restriction unfair but we secretly enjoy the fact that at least some discrimination and self-assertion is still legally sanctioned. The republican argument against male priority to succession is also a weak argument against monarchy. If ideas of gender equality should be applied to the process then why not extend equality further and question why it should be restricted to one particular family and based on the hereditary principle? Ultimately, this would lead to an elected monarchy and the absolute nightmare scenario of politicians or pop stars fulfilling the role.
Republicans are arguing for the wrong things. They can see that the present system of monarchy is flawed but they wish to destroy everything good about it and replace it with something much worse. The important thing about a monarchical regime is that it should be filled with the best members of the aristocracy and that it should act as a mediator between a tribe and their gods.
During the Anglo Saxon period (449–1066) Kingship was a fundamentally important part of social organization. The Anglo Saxon Kings all traced their ancestry back to the god Woden, and it was by virtue of this divine legitimacy that they were able to become leaders. The question of lineage was not deterministic, however. The King was supported as long as he could demonstrate that he could maintain the favor of the god, but he would be overthrown if the god deserted him. A successful king would become more popular and more secure by demonstrating that he was channeling the luck of the god. Success would be demonstrated by the outcomes of battles. Kings who were poor warriors clearly did not have the support of the warrior god, Woden, and would have a short career.
If the king had to be disposed of, a replacement could be found from the same family, or perhaps from other members of the aristocracy. The aristocratic families really were representative of the best of society as they had achieved their position by proving themselves as warriors. They all claimed descent from Woden, so that if King was replaced, he would be succeeded by another Woden descended King, and one who had proved himself to have greater durability. Thus, there was an unbreachable sense of elitism to the institution, but it was a healthy elitism validated by warrior virtue rather than by convention.
Due to the highly militaristic nature of Anglo Saxon society, and the consequent fact that the king had to be a proven warrior, leadership was almost exclusively male. But this was not an abstract rule imposed dogmatically. In 911 Æðelflæd took over the leadership of the Mercian kingdom from her husband Æðelred. There were political factors at play here, most importantly the political alliance with Wessex (Æðelflæd’s father was Alfred the Great of Wessex and her mother was Mercian). And it is also true that she never had the title “queen,” although her husband was never known as “king” either. But nonetheless it is the case that she was the ruler of Mercia for several years at a time when England was under assault from the most effective Viking attacks it had ever faced. By 918 when Æðelflæd died the future of Mercia, and England as a whole, was secure. Her reign as ruler of Mercia demonstrates that the Anglo Saxons had no particular taboo against women being leaders, but the scarcity of such female rulers attests to the fact that the best military leader in a warrior society is always likely to be a man. This situation is quite distinct from that found in other institutions that have a specific doctrinal prohibition on women taking certain roles, such as the church. The Anglo Saxon position is primarily one of pragmatism, choosing the best person from an existing elite, and allowing the hereditary principle to continue as long as it continues to show results.
The problem with the present system of monarchy is that the principles of excellence on which Kingship was originally based have become ossified. The ethos of excellence has become codified into strict laws about succession and precedence. And the role of the monarch as the head of the Church of England is no longer a fit reflection of the monarch’s duty to mediate with the gods, although it does at least retain a residual sense of this function. The hereditary principle of Kingship is a sound one in a relatively dangerous society as it provides a continuity of leadership through an aristocratic elite. When the family in question can face no possible challenge to their position then it becomes problematic as there is no longer a need for them to maintain their warrior standards. The present Royal Family have actually done a great deal to maintain their commitment to the armed services and this attachment is certainly genuine, and it demonstrates their willingness to fulfil the continuation of the King’s warrior role.
But the big question that may determine the future shape of the monarchy has to do with the constitutional basis of the Union. With the very real possibility of Scotland becoming independent in the next few years the entire basis of the present monarchical system may be undermined, and it may even possible for England to regain its own independence. Even if this scenario should come to pass we will still be left to suffer under the sort of politicians who have pursued the disastrously selfish and divisive economic and social policies that have destroyed England. Perhaps though, if there could be found some way of re-establishing an English King in this imagined future, we might be able to rediscover some of the spirit that made England great so long ago, and perhaps even begin once more to assert the power of blood over that of money.
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