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The taming of the republicans Punk rebellion has been suppressed by hazy nostalgia

God save the King? Credit: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty

God save the King? Credit: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty


September 14, 2022   7 mins

If the media coverage of the monarchy seems fawning now, it is nothing compared to that of the Fifties. Even the corgi “had a smile on his face”, gushed the papers, as they sought to describe one Royal appearance. The young Queen Elizabeth II was seen as existing beyond criticism, certainly beyond humour. The BBC vetoed Peter Sellars doing an impression of her on The Goon Show, and it was not until 1964 that a national newspaper ran a cartoon of her. She was treated with such po-faced reverence that the News Chronicle could call her in 1954 “the world’s principal human being”.

John Osborne, the world’s principal Angry Young Man, was incensed by that sort of talk. There was a “trough of Queen worship”, he raged, “the National Swill”. And he described monarchy as “the gold filling in a mouthful of decay”. His attack was only to be expected, of course — there’s no point in having Angry Young Men unless they’re working themselves up about something or other.

But other isolated voices of dissent were beginning to be heard, and some were harder to ignore since they came from within what had recently been dubbed “the Establishment”. There was, for example, Woodrow Wyatt, then a Labour MP though later a disciple of Margaret Thatcher. “Mooning about the Royal Family is one of the main contributory factors to Britain’s plight,” he complained in 1956. “It saps our dynamism. It makes us dwell on the past.”

Or there was John Grigg, who could hardly have been more Establishment: Eton, Grenadier Guards, Oxford, Tory parliamentary candidate, latterly the 2nd Baron Altrincham. So when he said rude things about the Queen in his 1957 article “The Monarchy Today” — published in the magazine he edited, the National and English Review — it proved especially controversial.

He was no republican, Altrincham insisted, he was merely seeking to reinvigorate the monarchy, which was too remote, surrounded “almost without exception by people of the ‘tweedy’ sort”. But at the centre of his criticism was the Queen herself. Five years into her reign and she really needed to buck her ideas up. Her public persona was that of “a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for Confirmation”, while her “style of speaking is frankly a pain in the neck”. What was to become of her “when she has lost the bloom of youth”?

The article didn’t win him many new friends. It was roundly condemned by pretty much everyone, from the Archbishop of Canterbury (who hadn’t read it), down to the leader of the Conservative group on Altrincham Council in Cheshire, who wanted to distance the town from the man who bore its name. Nor did the abuse stop there. “Altrincham, if we ever see you in the street, we’ll do you in,” said one of the many letters he received. “You go too flamin’ far when you criticise our Queen.” It was signed: “Eight (loyal to the Queen) Teddy Boys”.

Nothing came of that threat but he was thumped in the face by the Deputy Chairman of the League of Empire Loyalists (a far-Right group that went on to co-found the National Front). The assailant was 64-years-old and didn’t pack much of a punch, so he got off with just a one-pound fine, together with the sympathy of the magistrate: “96% of the population were disgusted and offended by what was written”.

A couple of months later, journalist Malcolm Muggeridge — still then in his incarnation as iconoclast — joined in with his own article, “Does England Really Need a Queen?”, written for the Saturday Evening Post. His analysis was hardly startling. “The British monarchy does fulfil a purpose,” he wrote. “It provides a symbolic head of state transcending the politicians who go in and out of office.” But as he made his way to his somewhat obvious conclusion, he dropped in some wonderfully scandalous titbits of upper-class gossip. “It is duchesses, not shop assistants, who find the Queen dowdy, frumpish and banal,” he revealed. The whole thing had become “a kind of Royal soap opera”.

Like Altrincham, Muggeridge found himself under severe and sustained criticism. Angered by the distorted, misquoted accounts of his article, he consulted a lawyer on whether he could sue for libel, but was told that, while there undoubtedly was a case, “in view of the circumstances, and the particular matter at issue, I could not count upon a jury or a judge taking an unprejudiced view”.

What these early critics demonstrated was that in a world of sycophancy, there was a good deal of media mileage to be made from thumbing one’s nose at the royals. Played right, there was a career in this.

The man for the job was Willie Hamilton. He was a Labour MP from 1950 to 1987, yet the only national coverage he ever received was in his role as an outspoken republican, “the Hammer of the Windsors” as the press liked to call him. He complained about the cost of the monarchy, describing the royal family as “scroungers”, but there was a deeper complaint that sometimes surfaced: the Queen represented a class that had “deeply hurt the class to which I belong and which I represent in our sovereign Parliament”. For years he was Fleet Street’s go-to guy for a bit of outrage on a royal news story; a happy event such as a wedding wasn’t complete without Hamilton carping about the cost. His autobiography was titled Memoirs of an Anti-Royalist, because this had become his identity; effectively he’d been subsumed into that great royal soap opera, the pub cynic who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Others were drawn in as well. Come the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, John Grigg, the former Lord Altrincham (he’d renounced his title in the interim), returned to the storyline. This time he praised “her exceptionally steady character” — which was pretty much what he’d condemned her for back in the Fifties. “She looks a Queen,” he now wrote. “She behaves decently because she is decent.”

The Silver Jubilee also saw the soap opera acquire an alternative theme-song: “God Save the Queen” (1977), the second single by punk band the Sex Pistols, sneering about a “fascist regime” and how the Queen (who “ain’t no human being”) “made you a moron”.

It was incendiary stuff, and would have been so at any time, let alone when the Jubilee was reaffirming the nation’s love of monarchy and providing a desperately needed moment of unity in the midst of strife. The promotional artwork, picturing the Queen with a safety-pin through her lip, added visual injury to aural assault. The record was banned by radio and television; it was deplored by MPs; leading retailers declined to stock it, and pub chains refused to have it on their jukeboxes. Meanwhile members of the group were assaulted on the streets by the contemporary equivalents of the “Eight (loyal to the Queen) Teddy Boys”. But the single still shifted 200,000 copies in Jubilee Week alone.

Punk now being associated with anti-monarchy sentiment, others followed, from the underachieving — the Exile’s “Jubilee 77” and the Drones’ “Corgi Crap” (both 1977) — to the over-ambitious: Derek Jarman’s movie Jubilee (1978). But it was the Sex Pistols who became so closely associated with the moment that they got dragged into the soap, not as regular characters, but always there or thereabouts at special times. When the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 2002, it was marked by a band reunion, accompanied by yet another greatest hits compilation (inevitably titled Jubilee), and a re-release of the offending single, now seemingly part of the ceremonial trappings.

The single was back 10 years later for the Diamond Jubilee, with excited talk of it getting to #1 in Jubilee Week. (It didn’t.) This time, singer John Lydon disowned the whole thing: “I wish for no part in the circus that is being built up around it.” The band also declined an invitation to appear the opening ceremony of the London Olympics that year, though a snippet of “God Save the Queen” was included. It didn’t upstage the Queen’s double-act with James Bond, though.

As the Sex Pistols’ rebellion faded into the warm haze of nostalgia, the problem for others was that there was nowhere much further to go, short of summoning up the spirits of Oliver Cromwell, Madame Guillotine and Yakov Yurovsky. And there was no call for that.

In any case, republicanism had rather lost its forbidden allure. This was apparent even before the martyrdom of Diana in 1997. Five years earlier, Alastair Campbell, then the political editor of the Daily Mirror, denounced the royal family as “the apex of a class system that exposes John Major’s ‘classless society’ for the slogan that it is,” and called for Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons, to be elevated to the monarchy: “Queen Betty has a rather truer ring than Queen Diana.”

The same year, Sue Townsend’s novel The Queen and I was premised on the election of a republican government, leading the royal family to be rehoused on a rundown council estate. The Queen and Princess Anne are sufficiently practical to adapt to their changed circumstances; Prince Philip not so much. Less seriously, there were books such as Stephen Haseler’s The End of the House of Windsor and A.N. Wilson’s The Fall of the House of Windsor (both 1993).

And then in 1994, the Independent on Sunday became the first mainstream paper to declare itself in favour of the abolition of the monarchy. We needed an elected president, the paper declared, and it asked its readers who that should be. Again, Betty Boothroyd won support, coming in second, ahead of Jarvis Cocker, the singer with Pulp, but behind the people’s choice, Tony Benn. (The highest ranked royal was Princess Anne in eighth place, just behind Richard Branson.)

In such a climate, it was hard to make a mark, though many continued to try. In his first book, God Save the Queen? (2002), Johann Hari, then writing for the New Statesman condemned the Queen’s “cruel neglect of her children”, and said the abolition of the monarchy was necessary “for the mental health of those involved”. The book helped launch Hari on a career that saw him win the Orwell Prize for political journalism (even if that was subsequently withdrawn), but it was incapable of generating the same notoriety as Lord Altrincham or the Sex Pistols had managed.

And maybe it was all grist to the mill. The monarchy has survived the centuries by adapting to new social demands. Its function, as Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out, was as “a useful unifying element in a society full of actual and potential discord”. And if society wanted a pantomime villain or two to express republican views, then that requirement could also be accommodated. “God save history,” sang Johnny Rotten. “God save your mad parade.” And then he too took his place on the periphery of that mad parade, forever associated with the institution he so disparaged. In his respectful tweet to mark the passing of Elizabeth, he included the picture of her that had been used to promote “God Save the Queen”. This time, there was no safety-pin.


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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Angus Melrose-Soutar
Angus Melrose-Soutar
1 year ago

The last two days in Scotland and the following few days in England will demonstrate that while the monarch may be fragile the monarchy is strong.
More importantly than that, we can clearly see that the British people are tough, resilient and cohesive. This despite the setbacks of the last few years, including the suppression of the entire population under malevolent and unnecessary Covid laws, the uninterrupted ongoing arrivals of an army of parasitic young men, and the deleterious nonsense of making everything electric while shutting down the power stations that produce electricity. The stupidity of, or malfeasance of, our politicians is beyond comprehension.
They have failed to support the people, quite the opposite. Yet the people continue in their way, resilient and patriotic. I don’t suppose that politicians will notice or draw any understanding from this.

Jacqueline Burns
Jacqueline Burns
1 year ago

Unfotunately the arrival of those ‘armies of parasitic young men’ have weakened the British people not strengthened them as previous arrivals have done. Who could put these illegal moneygrabbers in the same class as the hardworking, eager to help & delightfully colourful immigrants from the West Indies, India & the far East who added their culture to ours bringing new foods & experiences to share with us not to act against the country & its people in a violent, racist manner seeking to turn our green & pleasant land into the hellholes they supposedly fled from.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Republicanism sounds attractive – until you consider how elected presidents have ‘gone wrong’ in some countries. Especially when those presidents have vast power and authority, unlike our constitutional monarchy.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Where does ‘power and authority’ stop and ‘influence’ start? Is there a real difference, as long as the lackeys are willing to do the enforcing?

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  John Solomon

It’s a paradox of politics but power in the UK does not belong to the person with authority. In the human part of the British Constitution the highest authority (under God, of course) is powerless, the exercise of power being progressively devolved downwards to a point just above everybody’s head. Thus the Queen (or a Prime Minister) couldn’t normally arrest you, nor a judge, but a policeman can. But a policeman can’t punish you if you’re found guilty. Only a judge can do that. This disempowering series of allocations of authority is one of the glories of the British system.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Ragged Clown
Ragged Clown
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper


and in many other countries, elected presidents have not got wrong and do not have vast power and authority. We should choose one of those.
Monarchs and executive presidents are not the only two options.

Kevin L
Kevin L
1 year ago
Reply to  Ragged Clown

FWIW, Unherd has asked me to use my real name rather than the pseudonym that I use on all other media. From now on, I will be posting as Kevin L. (this is a test)

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 year ago
Reply to  Kevin L

Woo

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

‘Peter Sellars’ is a stager of operatic works. ‘Peter Sellers’ was a comedian and actor.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Funny how the cultural and political historian who wrote this piece didn’t know that.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

There is an American Peter Sellars who does indeed stage operas; updated and idiosyncratic operas.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

Yes, the fact the Guardian thinks him important was an instant warning to myself.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago

Thank goodness a faint sense of perspective is starting to creep into the discussions. It’s been pretty nauseating up until now.
It struck me a couple of days ago that if Henry VIII had not played fast and loose with the Roman Catholic Church, Elizabeth would already be well along the route to beatitude.

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 year ago
Reply to  John Solomon

Time the CofE had another Saint. I think Charles 1 was the last one. Well, martyr anyway.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago
Reply to  David Simpson

I wonder if Charles III stood in Westminster Hall remenbering that Charles I was tried there…….

Getting your head cut off puts the idea of the divine right of kings into perspective, doesn’t it?

Last edited 1 year ago by John Solomon
Andy White
Andy White
1 year ago

Republicanism is no longer shocking for one simple reason- because there’s a lot more of it about than there used to be. We used to be a very small minority, but now it’s perfectly normal to be a republican. The wall to wall BBC coverage is not reflecting this at all, but when was the royal fairy tale ever about reality?

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy White

What irks me is that by declaring yourself a dissatisfied Republican, in a State constitutionally founded as a Monarchical Union, you are saying , ‘I choose to live here, but I will, if I can, force the rest of you to accept my notion of a political settlement, rather than find some other already republican country which suits me better’. Which is of course a form of gross arrogance. It’s like walking into someone’s house, claiming joint ownership and proceeding to criticise their taste in wallpaper and furnishings. No-one asked you. You are, for instance, quite free to emigrate, upon which we would wish you all the best.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
James Kirk
James Kirk
1 year ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Good description of a commissar who adds nothing to the common purse but mysteriously dips into it.

David Kavanagh
David Kavanagh
1 year ago

The main problem for me is that the abolition of the monarchy would mean more politicians, and you know what John Major said about that!

John Turnbull
John Turnbull
1 year ago

Apparently if you have a major surgical operation scheduled for Monday you have to cross the Channel to have it done.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  John Turnbull

Make every health person a state official and they’ll take State holidays.

David Kavanagh
David Kavanagh
1 year ago

What a rubbish poster! Wasn’t it worth spending more than 30 seconds on?

Last edited 1 year ago by David Kavanagh
James Kirk
James Kirk
1 year ago

The outspoken and uninformed republicans at the moment are not looking good. They remind me of spoilt children rebelling against their parents. A pointless annoying exercise for all now, today. When they grow up their perspective changes, especially with their own parenthood.
If republics are so admired then there is generally freedom to emigrate but that would involve learning another language and possibly, these days, a loan from their ‘evil’ parents. Perhaps, instead of university or gap years, a sponsored ticket and some money for a year in Venezuela, N Korea, Colombia, or even Russia? if you’ll excuse the Oxford comma.
Having said that I don’t get the excessive public grief either. I wouldn’t be seen dead in London this week but what fools to interrupt such emotion. The wise republicans keep quiet, they know a losing wicket when they see one.
As for the cost of the RF, I wonder what Biden’s entourage cost. Concorde was supposed to be ÂŁ10 each. I bet the RF, about ÂŁ1. Here’s two. Enjoy.

Richard Stainton
Richard Stainton
1 year ago

I expect the monarchy will fizzle out rather than be chucked out in a republican blaze of glory. The Royals may save themselves in the short term by shrinking and being more human, but that will only make more people realise they are just like everyone else and therefore the whole idea is a bit silly. They will lose their main cheerleaders as the traditional mainstream media makes way for the new. That and the generational shift will see the Royals’ role and budget whittled away, till the republic becomes the final inevitability. It may take a hundred years, but it will happen.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

We tried it once – in 1649 – and didn’t like it.
Britain will always be a monarchy.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

And in many ways it’s been a de facto republic in all but name since then.

As a luke-warm monarchist I can’t say the coverage of the Queens death has been edifying; in fact I find all the sycophancy a bit nauseating. This isn’t healthy!

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Yes, watching a 73-year-old man have a petulant hissy fit because his fountain pen leaks is not an edifying spectacle. The first time I watched “The Windsors” (with Harry Enfield as Charles) I thought it might be a bit over the top – I am beginning to wonder if it is, like good satire, holding a mirror to reality – but not actually a distorting mirror.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Solomon
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  John Solomon

“Yes, watching a 73-year-old man have a petulant hissy fit because his fountain pen leaks is not an edifying spectacle.”

Jeez, my whole world has turned upside down. Remember Auden’s words about the tyrant leader and the children who die in the streets when he cries. This ain’t that.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Sycophancy is one way of looking at it. Though there are others: love, respect, dignity. Why is it not healthy?

Jacqueline Burns
Jacqueline Burns
1 year ago

You forget that a great asset of the monarch is the depth of knowledge & experience accumulated over the years of each reign. In my opinion, we are all the poorer for the loss of Elizabeth II & none more so than Liz Truss & all future Prime Ministers who will not have that fountain of wisdom so gracefullly given without reproach at those closely guarded private weekly meetings with no others present.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

The whole shenanigans is reminiscent of the passing of Kin Jong Il in North Korea.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
1 year ago

People who complain about the unearned wealth of the monarchy, do they play the national lottery?
If republicanism is no longer shocking, perhaps that is the success of the late Queen.
Nicola Sturgeon reminded everyone in her reading from Ecclesiastes in the service at St Giles cathedral that there is a time for everything under heaven. A time for a divine right of kings. A time for a constitutional monarchy. A time for a funeral. A time to have a ‘conversation’ about Scottish independence.

Jacqueline Burns
Jacqueline Burns
1 year ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

Scotland had that dicussion & they didn’t want independence in the end!

Kit Read
Kit Read
1 year ago

The Queen’s death at Balmoral meant she was taken to Holyrood Palace to remain overnight before resting at St Giles Cathedral meant that Scotland both Church devolved government were greatly involved in paying respects to her and in the Accession of Charles. If Queen Elizabeth gad died at Windsor or Sandringham as her Father did there would not have been this Scottish dimension, Will it reduce the clamouring for Indyeef II?

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago

The Royals appear, from across the pond, to be a collection of pets in gilded cages. They are trotted out like sports team mascots to stir up the fans when spirits flag.
I say “keep ’em” since, after all, every team needs mascots. Drastically cut the cost, though. Fabric costumes are cheaper than jewel-encrusted crowns.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry M

People love their pets. Have you seen the price of a Labradoodle? Per head a King is pocket money.

Ragged Clown
Ragged Clown
1 year ago

I think we got lucky with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She was both the longest-serving monarch and among the best of them. They were not all so deserving of respect.
The Queen kept up appearances as the nation – and the Royal Family – began to decline but she maintained her dignity and received untold respect in return.
Perhaps the next monarch, or the one after that, will not be so deserving. Perhaps he will be found to have committed some misdemeanour like adultery or receiving bribes in exchange for power; perhaps he will be found to have manipulated the leasehold laws for his own financial gain; perhaps he will just lose his temper in a way that we the people find unbecoming of a national leader.
Support for the Royal Family has declined precipitously over the 70 years of Elizabeth’s reign and, aside from a temporary bump peaking about the middle of next week, will continue to decline. In a recent survey, support for a Republic was at 22% – much higher than support for Brexit was before the campaign began. A majority of people under 24 already support the abolition of the monarchy. These numbers will grow.
I don’t expect the monarchy will last very much longer and we should start designing a constitution for what comes after. We need a constitution befitting of our modern era.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ragged Clown
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Ragged Clown

What is this “Modern Era”?

Ragged Clown
Ragged Clown
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

It’s the era that we live in.
The old Britain faded with the costs of World War II and the decline of our empire. Queen Elizabeth II represented a transition from an older era to the one we live in now. With the transition ending with the death of Her Majesty, I don’t expect the undemocratic institutions of a past era, starting with the royal family and the House of Lords, will survive.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Ragged Clown

“I don’t expect 
 the royal family 
 will survive.”
What does that mean? When will this end happen? Or are you just saying they won’t survive forever? Which is a very long time.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

1917 socialism.

Tendentious D
Tendentious D
1 year ago
Reply to  Ragged Clown

The lucky young grow older and begin to understand the value of the monarchy.

If only for the tourism, England would be daft to relegate the monarchy to the status it holds in many other such arrangements around the world but the real value is the continuity it affords to the notion of liberty advanced by its imprimatur.

I am no fan of Charles and his goofy adherence to climate hysteria that is responsible for the actual suffering of the middle class and especially the poor but it is not the individual we support.

It is the idea of continuity and the position itself.
The rapid decline of GB after WWII and the acceleration of it caused among other things by its lack of the principle of free speech would only accelerate and the last vestiges of civilisation promoted by the royals would be replaced by a mewling secularism not much different than the authoritarian hellholes constructed by regimes who avoided the Dominion and so were/are unwilling to trust the people to rule themselves.

Ragged Clown
Ragged Clown
1 year ago
Reply to  Tendentious D

Regarding tourism, the French have done quite well with the trappings of royalty without actual royals to fill them.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Ragged Clown

Yes, it was so heartening to see their police beating up Liverpool fans and asking questions afterwards.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
1 year ago

I am shocked, shocked at the sexism and the classism of this article.
Any fool knows that the center of the pro-Royal Family cult is the women’s magazine in the supermarket checkout line.
But no doubt the writer would never be seen dead in a supermarket checkout line. Darling.