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Monarchy: an authoritarian weapon in the politicians` armoury

by James Graham 

Posted: 24 July 2014
Word Count: 1323
Summary: This first appeared eight years ago in the now defunct Journalism Group. It's been revised and updated.

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Monarchy: an authoritarian weapon in the politicians' armoury
'Times have changed', we are told in an article on one of the many anti-monarchy websites. 'There was a time when the Royal Family was looked upon with respect. They are now figures of ridicule'. The article goes on to claim that at least half the Royals are the offspring of adultery. They should be made to take DNA tests, and if they refuse - as well they might - the British people 'will wonder why they should continue to pay taxes to support a bunch of whores and adulterers'.
This is perhaps the extreme end of the foibles-and-misdemeanours wing of the anti-monarchy movement. There is a more cautious mainstream which stops short of slander; but the argument is much the same. Abolish the monarchy because individual Royals can't behave themselves.
These personalised arguments are often unfair, and always beside the point. The persons of the Royal Family deserve as much respect as any other human beings. It is the institution that is defective. The story that follows seems to me to make at least part of the real case against monarchy. Its relevance will become clear very shortly.
In the late sixties the US set up a military base on Diego Garcia, largest of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, a base from which countless innocent people of South Asia have been bombed in the pursuit of US geopolitical aims. In order for this to happen, the British government handed the islands to the United States in exchange for a few more Cruise missiles to add to the collection at Greenham Common. And the entire Ilois people of Diego Garcia were evicted from their homeland and transported to Mauritius.
In the run-up to eviction, the Ilois were variously described by US officials as 'Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure' and 'illiterate, untrainable and unsuitable for any work other than the simplest labour tasks of a copra plantation': misrepresentations of a cultured people reminiscent of the Nazi term 'sub-human' (Untermensch), applied to Jews, Gypsies and Slavs.
This forcible clearance of a whole people, which took place under the Labour premiership of Harold Wilson, and the succeeding Tory administration of Edward Heath, is one of the most disgraceful episodes in British political history. The Ilois were told they would be given homes, land, animals and money on their arrival in Mauritius; in reality none of this ever materialised except for long delayed and derisory compensation, and the islanders were abandoned to extreme poverty in the shanty suburbs of Port Louis. Survivors have testified that in the early days, some islanders who had travelled to Mauritius to visit relatives were summarily told on arrival that they could never return.
It is instructive to consider the instrument of power which made all this possible. The dispossession of the Ilois was carried out, not through an Act of Parliament, but by means of an Order in Council.
With these magic words we return to the issue of monarchy. An Order in Council is effectively a decree issued by the Prime Minister or other Cabinet Minister, using the Royal Prerogative. It is the constitutional status of the monarchy which allows the Prime Minister and others to exercise power in this way without democratic accountability. It is not that the Queen herself has any formal power. But the institution of monarchy allows an undemocratic element - an element outside the democratic process - to persist within the power structure.
Orders in Council can in some cases be challenged by Parliament; others can not. In the matter of the rights of the Chagos islanders, there was no obligation on the part of the Cabinet to bring it before Parliament. At a stroke, the society and culture of these people who had lived self-sufficiently for generations in their Indian Ocean homeland, was dealt an almost fatal blow.
After three decades of campaigning and litigation, in November 2000 the islanders were at last handed down a High Court ruling that their original eviction had been unlawful and they had a right to return. It seemed that the exiles had won a historic victory.
Not so. By this time the installation on Diego Garcia had become one of the most important US strategic bases anywhere in the world. (Since 2001 it has been used for rendition and secret detention.) The Bush administration asked Tony Blair to intervene; and of course he did. We would expect nothing less of him. He blocked the High Court order and overturned the ruling that the Chagossians were free to return home. How did he manage this?
It was quite simple. He reached for an Order in Council.
At a very late stage in their campaign, the hopes of these persecuted and impoverished people were dashed. The long-awaited decision that had restored some of their self-respect and seemed to make their long struggle worthwhile, was nullified by an act of arbitrary power.
Whether any member of the Royal Family was ever guilty of misdemeanours great or small - from adultery to putting on a swastika armband for a party – is of little consequence. In fact the Queen has continued admirably into old age, carrying out the ceremonial duties of the monarchy with a detachment which does not seek celebrity. Her demeanour and behaviour have been perfectly appropriate to the task.  As for the others, it is hard to think of serious grounds for individual criticism at any time since the courting of Hitler by Edward and Wallis. In many instances there has been cause to sympathise rather than criticise - certainly in the case of Charles's sons after the death of their mother.
What matters is not personalities. Even if every Royal had led an irreproachable life - indeed, even if we had a monarch of the intellectual quality and cultural sophistication of a Frederick the Great - the monarchy would still not be a democratically legitimate institution. Its very existence makes possible the sort of device represented by Orders in Council - a means of side-stepping democracy; an authoritarian, elitist element in a system of governance which ought by now to be fully democratic but is not.
In 2006, after another six years' litigation, the High Court restored its original ruling and threw out the government's case, declaring British treatment of the Chagossians to be 'repugnant'. These were six years the Chagossians did not need; six years in which aged exiles died - most of them in poverty - having lost for ever the possibility of having even a last sight of the homeland from which they were driven half a lifetime ago.
Even the High Court ruling of 2006 was not the end of the story. Instead it became ever more complex – too much so to trace in detail within the limits of this article. Various points of international law have been manipulated to assert UK sovereignty over the islands and to claim that the current status of Diego Garcia is valid. The ocean surrounding the islands has been declared a Marine Protected Area – an environmental measure which is worthy enough in itself but which conceals an ulterior purpose of further strengthening UK claims around the issue of sovereignty, claims which for some years have been challenged by Mauritius.
The litigations and other political manoeuvrings may be complex, but one element of the story is very simple: it is 2014, and still no Chagossian family has been able to return home.
Clearly the UK government has ways and means other than Orders in Council, but the device has been pivotal in delaying justice for the victims of this ‘repugnant’ act of colonialism.
It was not the Queen who ordered the dispossession of the Ilois, or denied them right of return. Neither she nor any other member of the Royal Family is personally responsible. But in a very real sense, Monarchy is responsible.

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Comments by other Members

Alex29 at 06:39 on 25 July 2014  Report this post
Hi James - Interesting piece. Might be good to point out The Monarchy is also still in place as we don't have a written constitution in this country. A situation that would need rectifying  before The Monarchy is stepped down and as there is no political will for this and little public demand or understanding it would be unlikely in my opinion that a bicameral system with an elected President and PM would function any differently in regards to Orders in Council - which would likely be assimilated in any change.
I think the nub of your argument is based on our historical aggressive overseas policy which has left us and any one over taken in such a manner vulnerable to archaic tools of Government operated by elected politicians to suit them selves - if it suited the elected Government it could easily remove Orders in Council by taking back the power to the Executive  where they would then go through due scrutiny - but it suits elected politicians to let this remain a tool for over riding democracy when convenient to our perceived interests - I am not sure there  fore that I follow your argument here that The Monarchy is  'in a real sense' ultimately to blame.
What Monarchy we have is entirely in the manner the electorate want or it would be changed - I doubt that would help these islanders in any way so I think I would say this is how the British people have chosen to deal with this and by not acting in any way to the contrary they condone such activity.
Highlighting this subject is interesting and thought provoking - for me - to help anyone targeted by such arbitrary power operated by the PM of the day I don't feel that blaming The Monarchy is necessarily helpful, as attention is then drawn to the persons of the Monarchy and not the residual power that we have conveniently left with it. Clamors to remove the personalities still leaves the power in my opinion - which you point out fairly...
I enjoyed this piece it really made me think. Thanks for posting it .

James Graham at 15:05 on 26 July 2014  Report this post
Hi Alex – Thanks for reading and commenting.
The Monarchy is also still in place as we don't have a written constitution in this country

This is a significant point. ‘Monarchy is responsible’ at the end of the article probably reads like simplistic finger-pointing. What I meant – but didn’t make clear enough – is that the lack of a written constitution allows ‘archaic tools of government’, including residual powers of the Monarchy, to persist.

The Netherlands has both a written constitution and a monarchy. I’ve had a look at some online commentary on the Dutch constitution, and as far as I can see they don’t have an equivalent of Orders in Council. Several articles of the constitution appear to state that governments cannot use any such instrument of power. The King/ Queen ‘accedes to’ new laws (by signing them) but for all political decisions and enactments, ministers are responsible and accountable to the parliament. For all I know, Dutch politicians may sometimes find loopholes if they need to; but the constitution must make it harder to do so.

Abuse of Orders in Council, as in the case of the Chagos islanders, is not the fault of the Monarchy per se. Certain politicians have used the fact of monarchy together with the lack of a written constitution to do things that Parliament would be unlikely to approve. The Dutch seem to have steered clear of that.


Annecdotist at 14:11 on 01 August 2014  Report this post
 James, I enjoyed reading this very much. It's well written and informative and, perhaps because I agree with the sentiment, I found it an engaging read. With non-fiction, it's difficult for me to  see beyond the content to suggestions as to how the writing might be improved, unless some howler  jumps out at me which it certainly didn't here.
 I haven't checked your profile  so might be  about to embarrass myself here, but do you have suitable outlet for your non-fiction?  It seems to me – if you are prepared to write  just for the glory of it – that a blog would be a good place to post this kind of thing. You may already know that there's quite a lively community of  bloggers and readers who might be interested in this, not as a  replacement for Writewords, but in addition, of course.

James Graham at 20:21 on 02 August 2014  Report this post
Anne, thank you for commenting. I’ve had some essays published, but mostly literary and just one political, which was in the US magazine New Politics. They wouldn’t be interested in Orders in Council, though. Your blog suggestion is something I’d really never thought about, but I’ll certainly look into it and see if I can get started.



Wordpress looks promising, and easy to start up.

Account Closed at 09:30 on 03 August 2014  Report this post
Good luck with the blog idea, James.

I read your article and found it extremely interesting and thought-provoking. The latter sounds like a cliche, but it's fact.

I'd come across the issue of the Chagossians but had not understood the implications of what was going on behind the scenes to keep them back. I can see the link with the Monarchy and also note MC's point about this. 

I cannot critique this piece but I can say that I have enjoyed reading it and I have learned from it.

James Graham at 12:09 on 03 August 2014  Report this post
Thanks, Sharley. It's OK about not critiquing this - Alex's comment showed me the main thing that needed sorting. It's good to know that you found it interesting.


Bettyrunner at 20:02 on 04 August 2014  Report this post
Hi James, I want to critique this article as you have kindly critiqued my work but I feel sadly out of my depth. All I can say is that this is interesting, clear and well-written. Your writing is powerful and well-argued without being sentimental. I'm ashamed to say that I was completely unaware of the plight of the Chagossians and the injustice done to them. Thank you for informing me. I'm surprised at Tony Blair (not really!)
We flatter ourselves that we have a superior political system, but our complacence is clearly misplaced.Just one thing, isn't an unwritten consitution supposed to be more flexible, adaptable and transparant that a written consitution? It's a long time since I did A Level politics.
Thanks for an interesting piece.

James Graham at 20:35 on 05 August 2014  Report this post
Thank you, Betty. As I said to Sharley, it's OK about not giving a detailed critique as the main issue with the article has already been pointed out by Alex. I'm glad you found the article interesting and informative.

An unwritten constitution is certainly flexible, but that can go both ways - in this case very much to the detriment of the Chagossians. If Tony Blair could have been challenged by MPs on the basis of Article X of the constitution, things might have taken a different turn. In the Netherlands they have a monarchy and a written constitution, and it seems to work for them.
We flatter ourselves that we have a superior political system, but our complacence is clearly misplaced.

Churchill said it was the 'least bad' system, or words to that effect. When you think about what people in some other countries have to live with, maybe he was right - though I think the Scandinavian countries score a few more points.


Manusha at 01:21 on 09 August 2014  Report this post
Hi James,

Thanks for posting another of your well written and interesting articles. I always enjoy reading them and this is no exception. As ever, the writing is to the high standard you seem to effortlessly maintain. The subject is thought provoking, and for me, for even broader reasons than this article touches upon.
These personalised arguments are often unfair, and always beside the point. The persons of the Royal Family deserve as much respect as any other human beings.
This, I feel, is a fair point well made.
It is the institution that is defective.
This, however, in my opinion, needs clarification as far as which institution is being referred to. Because it immediately follows the reference to ‘the issue of monarchy’, it read to me as though it referred to the monarchy, which clearly cannot be correct because the Order in Council was used by the political institution, and not the monarchical one. If it did refer to the monarchy it would weaken the concluding line - But in a very real sense, Monarchy is responsible - because it was the political institution which caused this problem by misusing a right originally assigned to the monarch.
The example you give of the Ilois of Diego Garcia is very moving, and clearly unfair, but as far as the issue of misusing monarchical rights (or any other right is concerned), whatever example is used it ultimately remains as yet another example of how politicians misuse rights for their own ends. So perhaps the conclusion of this article should be that what needs to be abolished is the facility for politicians to use, in this case, a monarchical right for their own political machinations.
As in many such contemporary discussions, the article poses the democratic system to be the true solution to the problems of human society. Considering the obvious thought put into this article, I felt this didn't seem up to the standard you had set regarding the level of insight. To me, and according to certain schools of thought, the idea of democracy as a cure-all is a rather cliched assumption and has yet to be practically demonstrated. The idea being that the basic flaw of the democratic system is that in order for those who wish to attain a position of power they must win the votes of the people who can place them into such positions. Therefore, the motivations of those people who desire such votes must always be questioned, which is eagerly done by their political opposites and the media, yet questioning the motivations of those who would vote for them is generally neglected, while such motivations are often just as questionable.

As far as my understanding goes, the problem lies not in the principle of monarchy, but in the fact that monarchs of recent history clearly lost sight of their true purpose (when I say recent times, I mean the past few thousand years - which in the grand scheme of human existence is a comparatively short period). The principle of monarchical rule has been tainted by the materialistic personally motivated ambitions of individual monarchs, which erodes a monarch's standing, and so has been ultimately displaced by democracy. Therefore, democracy arose because of the failure of individual monarchs to uphold their duty and not because there is a problem with the monarchy principle. 

Due to an interest in the subject, especially in light of the Vedic viewpoint regarding the leadership of human society, I would go on, but in terms of a critique on your article I fear I'm already going off too far on a tangent! I hope at least some of this has been helpful.

Kind regards, Andy

James Graham at 13:40 on 12 August 2014  Report this post
Andy, many thanks for this thoughtful analysis. Must give a brief reply though, because today I have to shut down my computer and take it to computer hospital to have some problems fixed.

Your point about the misuse of a constitutional right, as distinct from blaming the institution of monarchy:
the conclusion of this article should be that what needs to be abolished is the facility for politicians to use, in this case, a monarchical right for their own political machinations.

is exactly what I meant to say but didn’t argue clearly enough. I’ll try to come back to this as soon as things are back to normal.


Kat49 at 11:33 on 13 August 2014  Report this post
Well, that was enlightening, in a depressing way. It is a real paradox of our government that we have both democracy and monarchy. We are hoodwinked into believing that the monarchy is sustained as a glorified tourist attraction, but clearly this is not the case. The plight of the Chagossians reads like the plot of the comedy 'Johnny English' but there is nothing funny about it at all. Typical but shocking all the same.

I've often wondered, James, how we will be viewed in years to come, if the human race persists. They will look back to a time history when we had the most amazing technology, communications and transport, when we could televise, on an hourly basis,g much of the global suffering, and yet did very little to remedy it. When we had mountains of food left to rot, when we wasted our resources willfully and created unrealistic targets to attain higher and more impossible standards and no one was really happy. When we allowed ourselves to be governed by a raft of public school boys who understood little of the real world. 


James Graham at 20:08 on 14 August 2014  Report this post
Kat, thanks for reading this and commenting. I’m interested in your views and would like to expand a little on what you say. The story of the Chagossians is shocking, but the point has been made that the abuse of power that led to this injustice doesn’t necessarily mean that the monarchy should be abolished. In the Netherlands they have a monarchy but also a written constitution which – as far as I know – prevents politicians using the monarchy as a lever to exercise power. Having said that, I’m a republican – even though there are plenty of examples of republics which are badly governed.
I’ve often wondered how we will be viewed in years to come
If people in 500 years’ time see our age as uncivilised, that will be because they’re living in a much better world! World poverty a thing of the past; disputes settled without making war. I hope our descendants do see us as rather backward.
we could televise, on an hourly basis, much of the global suffering, and yet did very little to remedy it
You may be interested in some of the things that are said in the ‘mission statement’ of the UN Development Programme. ‘Poverty is no longer inevitable; it must be relegated to past history, alongside slavery, colonialism and nuclear war’. The cost of ending extreme poverty throughout the world is estimated by the UN at $30 billion per year. To put this in context, US defence spending is $740 billion a year. A reduction in US defence spending of 4-5% would be enough. Of course that’s not how it would work; the UNDP more sensibly states: ‘The cost of eradicating poverty is 1% of global income’. This would ‘ensure universal access to basic social services (education, health care, nutrition, clean water and sewage disposal)’.
As usual I’ve gone on a bit about this. On a lighter note, your ‘raft of public school boys’ is a good idea! Set them adrift! devil

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