May 4, 2023

I have a bone to pick with Charles III. Some years ago, while he was still a lowly Prince of Wales, he granted an audience to some Rhodes scholars from Oxford at a time when I was teaching there. “Who teaches you?” he asked them. “Not that dreadful Terry Eagleton, I hope.”

I was devastated on hearing this news. Not because I doubted the Prince’s right to pass judgement, however harsh, on one of his subjects. On the contrary, I would gladly have submitted to a torrent of vile abuse from the royal tongue, feeling it to be no more than his prerogative. If he had officially announced that I was a despicable worm, and was to be treated as such throughout the kingdom, my loyalty would have remained unshaken.

Even so, I couldn’t help being shocked. It was like discovering that God couldn’t stand the sight of me, or that the Pope threw up whenever my name was mentioned. Hearing Charles’s words made me feel like a shadier version of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin. “Do you think the King knows all about me?” he asks his nursemaid plaintively, to which she replies with the consoling lie: “Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea.” It was clear that the Prince knew all about me as well, but more in the way that MI5 or HMRC might. This didn’t bring me the sense of cosmic security one imagines young Christopher felt. It was as though his nursemaid had replied: “She sure does, honey, and she thinks you’re a right prat.”

I assumed that it was my political views, rather than the cut of my jacket or my reluctance to ride to hounds, that Charles found distasteful, and it was this which disturbed me most. I had imagined that royal persons like himself were set above the political realm, impeccably even-handed in their treatment of Tories and Trotskyists. It’s true that he had sent his sons to Eton, but I’d assumed that this was because they might be knocked around a bit at the local comprehensive.

Was it possible that I had spent my life so far sunk in delusion? Fragments of memory floated up, stray anomalies to which I’d shut my eyes: the Queen Mother’s pathological hatred of Germans, Princess Margaret’s comparison of the Irish to pigs, the Duke of Edinburgh’s genial racist gaffes, the vast private wealth of the lot of them. Might there be a pattern here? Even back then, Prince Andrew no longer seemed to radiate the aura of mystery and enigma I had felt about him before. However hard I resisted, it was becoming impossible to avoid the conclusion that the royal family are not politically neutral.

Christopher Robin’s words reveal a certain insight. The idea of sovereignty involves the fantasy of being known by an omniscient power, one which despite searching you to your depths continues to love you unconditionally. The usual word for this is God, but a more familiar term is parent, and the monarch is the ultimate mummy or daddy of us all.

The fiction is that the King knows all his subjects from the inside, but this doesn’t mean that his knowledge of them is stretched so thin that he can’t know any of them in particular. Like Bill Clinton, the sovereign can talk to everyone in a crowded room as though they’re the only person present. It’s natural, however, to think that the King might not have such intimate knowledge, which is why there’s a certain anxiety in Christopher’s question to Alice the nursemaid. If God or the King is transcendent enough to know and love everybody, doesn’t this involve a detachment which means they can’t love or know anybody? How can you be both intimate and all-seeing?

Trying to solve this contradiction is the point of those folktales in which the king moves among his people incognito, observing them at close quarters but in disguise, and thus with no threat to his majesty. He becomes a fifth columnist in his own kingdom. What if the sovereign is so distant that the people feel bereft, abandoned, as the British seem to have felt when the Queen refused to mourn Princess Diana? The Sun’s headline at the time, “Where Is Our Queen?”, can be translated into one fearful infantile howl: “Mummy!”

There’s a problem, however, about parental love. Parents are like political authorities because they are supposed to care for all of their offspring/citizens alike, and in the case of parents to do so unconditionally. You can see this in action whenever someone is accused of a serious crime. All his relatives will flock spontaneously to his support, testifying that no more loving son or big-hearted brother ever trod the ground. “He can’t have done it!” they insist to the press. “I mean, I know him. I’ve known him ever since he was born!” The fact that the Boston Strangler was also known to others is strangely overlooked. I myself am a father, but if one of my children were accused of murder, I wouldn’t automatically assume that they were innocent. All murderers have fathers. Everyone is capable of losing their cool and doing someone in. There’s no inconsistency between being a loving son and wielding a machete.

The idea of sovereignty, then, is both consoling and unsettling. To be accepted by an authority inconceivably greater than yourself is for your identity to be grounded and confirmed. The sovereign gazes benignly at you, and you gaze gratefully back. You have been plucked out of the common herd and invested with special status. You are, in a word, UnHerd. The relationship is, of course, unequal: God or the monarch can know you, but you can’t know them in return, because they are transcendent beings shrouded in mystery. You can only know that you are known. Yet you are also aware that this special relationship is also true of everyone else, in which case it isn’t true of you. If everyone is special, nobody is. And this is one reason for the anxiety which authority engenders.

Real democracies, which is to say republican ones, don’t work like this. They are the only political form which doesn’t need to invoke a legitimating power external to the people themselves. Instead, the people legitimate themselves, in their everyday speech, action and law-making. This lends them an unusual authority, but it breeds uncertainty as well. It means that political society is founded only in itself, with no pre-written script or divine agenda, and this feels close to a sense of groundlessness. Democracies have to make things up as they go along, more like experimental theatre than Shakespearian drama. “The people” sounds like a firm enough foundation, but in reality the people are divided, diverse and keep changing. This is why democracy is the kind of politics suitable to modernity — to a sense of societies as historical rather than eternal, and men and women as self-fashioning rather than determined by tradition.

Being known, meanwhile, isn’t always pleasant, as “that dreadful Terry Eagleton” would suggest. If there’s the benevolent King who is acquainted with what Christopher Robin has for breakfast, there’s also Big Brother. Sovereignty isn’t far from surveillance. “Thou God seest me” can mean “Stop that sinfulness because He’s watching!” as well as “Isn’t it nice to know that God watches over me?”.

The 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a prison with a central watchtower and a circle of surrounding cells. The warders didn’t have the divine ability to supervise all of the prisoners all of the time, but they could take a look at any of them whenever they wanted to; and since the inmates didn’t know when they were being scrutinised, this was equivalent to being surveyed all the time. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault uses this as an image of the surveillance state long before we actually were watched all the time. It’s no longer true, to adapt Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated saying, that you can watch some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time, but you can’t watch all of the people all of the time.

Democracies work as long as we all agree they should do so. Ironically, however, the same is true of the monarchy. It survives only as long as we maintain the collective fiction that, for example, a young fogey turned old fogey notorious for his fussiness, petulance and self-indulgence, with no claim on our allegiance other than a genetic one, should be revered in quasi-religious fashion. In fact, we know well enough that being king is a job that almost anybody could do, as long as you can walk, smile, shake hands, cultivate a concerned look and do what your courtiers tell you. Manchester United could take it on in turn, with each player doing the job for a year or so.

If Christopher Robin displays a degree of wisdom, so does the child who proclaimed that the emperor had no clothes. Or rather the Emperor is nothing but clothes — only his outward trappings and ceremonial garb. Coronations are solemn charades in which we agree to suspend our disbelief in myth and divine order in order to assuage our fear that, as democrats, we may be standing on nothing more solid than ourselves. As with the currency, it’s our faith in something intrinsically valueless that makes it work. We need an Other, and the Windsors are on hand to provide it. In the days when the monarch had real authority, he or she would dress up in finery partly to dazzle their subjects, but also, as Edmund Burke argues, to cloak and soften the brutality of their power. Kings were men in drag, draping the ugly phallus of their dominion beneath alluring feminine garments.

In the end, however, it doesn’t work all that well. Royalty is meant to represent an oasis of stability and continuity in the increasingly fluid, unstable, unpredictable environment we know as market society. What’s happened instead is that the moral behaviour of that world has now invaded the inner sanctum of the royal family itself, with its litany of break-ups, cock-ups, publicity wars and dysfunctional relationships. It’s worth keeping this in mind as our democracy bows to an unelected head of state.