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Monarchy: an authoritarian weapon in the politicians` armoury

by  James Graham

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

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.