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Michael Bradley

Lèse-majesté or less majesty: the republican’s dilemma

A lone man holds up a sign outside Westminster saying “Not my king” and is arrested. In Australia, an Indigenous NRLW player posts her disrespect to the monarchy on Instagram and is fined 25% of her salary for the whole season and suspended for one game. Apparently what she said was so “disgusting, distasteful and disgraceful”, Nine’s Wide World of Sports wouldn’t repeat it.

Ray Hadley, the moral guardian of rugby league, has been unable to think of anything ever that has brought more disgrace on that game than the scandal of foul words said about the queen. Rape, gang rape, domestic violence, violent assault, doping, match-fixing… No, none of that measures up to the treasonous power of mere words.

The obvious reaction to all this is bemusement that the crime of lèse-majesté is back, revived and being rigorously enforced with no trace of irony. 

We should, however, look beneath the surface of what appears to be a spontaneous, organic re-emergence of love and respect for the monarchy, the few naysayers being shouted (and physically pulled) down by the crowd, literally banished, in the old meaning of that word, from the public square.

It is anything but spontaneous. Not that the enormous crowds of people gathering, milling along the A40 or outside the palace, who answer the question “Why did you come?” with an honest “I don’t know” are not following an instinct rather than a rational thought. Or that the temporary public feeling of attachment to the security of hereditary rule isn’t real either, just because it makes no logical sense. It’s real.

There is, however, conscious design in play, and it follows an ancient script. The flipside of what republicans thought they saw coming — the opportunity that Queen Elizabeth’s death would present to end the stranglehold of monarchy on our polity — was what the monarchy itself knew would be the real impact of that event. Her death would leave a vacuum, and vacuums are always filled.

The solution is simple, and its execution has been near-perfect (so far let down only by King Charles’ inability to not display his petty frustrations with stationery, making him look a little too human before his full ascension to the deity-status enjoyed by his mother has been secured).

It began with the expedient convention that the heir became monarch at the instant of his predecessor’s death. No gap; no vacuum to fill.

That’s just the opening shot. The key to success is what’s been unfolding since and will continue until absolutely everyone’s capacity to think straight has been drowned: a ceaseless, grinding reinforcement of the permanency of the institution itself.

That’s what it’s all about: the pageantry, idiotic ceremonies, silly uniforms, dragging of the royal coffin around from place to place like an oak-clad pinata, the endless manipulation of the roles and privileges of the variously honoured or shunned members of the royal family, ooh he’s not wearing a uniform, ooh she’s wearing the brooch that Queen Victoria was presented by the Nabob of Bullshitistan after the15th Regiment of Foot and Mouth added it to the empire in 1854, or was it 1845, let me recheck the official guide…

It is all pointless, and it all has a very specific point. By the time it’s over, the “now is not the time to talk about” period of mourning which is really the period of succession, the monarchical arrangement will — this is the plan — have re-entrenched itself with such weight of permanence, nothing changed except the figurehead, that there’ll be nothing anyone can be bothered trying to talk about anymore. Fait accompli.

To pull off the trick, the institution of royalty requires help (otherwise, the house of cards collapses entirely). The media, of course, and isn’t the Australian media performing above and beyond expectations in its forelock-tugging hysteria? 

The executive and legislative arms of government, yes these too are needed to be not just supine but positively enthusiastic. In Britain that’s a given, but our own government has been outstanding in its willingness to play colonial realm. What’s got into the prime minister, I really don’t know. OK, I do, but I wish he’d stop.

That takes care of all four estates; all are working in seamless conspiracy, not just to uphold the peaceful transition of power but to ensure that there isn’t a squeak of dissent to ruffle the smooth waters of succession.

“Nothing strengthens authority,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “so much as silence.” He knew a lot about it, living between the dictatorial authority of the House of Medici and the spiritual authority of the Vatican. Both, like all institutions of power, did not enjoy or tolerate disagreement with their right to rule.

The modern British monarchy seeks no power for itself over our lives; it has learnt to thrive without it. It goes on, in mindless perpetuity. Ask yourself though: who does prosper, in terms of the wielding and maintenance of actual authority, from the monarchy’s continuation?

That’s why the frantic insistence on silence. The institutions of power in our country, all of them, like things just as they are. Suggest otherwise and you, like the man in the crowd who shouted the truth — that an alleged child sex abuser was marching behind the queen’s hearse — will be squashed.

Is the seemingly endless pomp and ceremony a little too much for your taste? Let us know your thoughts by writing to Please include your full name to be considered for publicationWe reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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