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Tuesday, April 19, 2005
HariWatch V: "God Save The Queen?" book review

As Johann Hari excerpts the first chapter of his readable book on the monarchy on his homepage, I post again my May 2003 review of it.

In understanding God Save The Queen?, it is important first to acknowledge the sizeable portion of our political and media class for whom the fact that their country is a monarchy is a cause of sickness. They feel great shame when meeting foreigners who are not so governed and feel that Britain's continued retention of and reverence for the institution is a dagger in all the values they hold dear. If Johann Hari does not himself belong to this class of person, then this book was at least written for those who do. It is they who will most enjoy it and most appreciate its arguments. What I say from here on is unlikely to change their minds one bit.

And indeed, there are virtues that all can recognise. The book is certainly very readable and gripping, its chummy, colloquial, Boris Johnsonesque prose most endearing. The subject matter equally keeps you turning pages, its anecdotes and revelations if nothing else very interesting. Whatever anyone may think of this book, it is difficult to imagine it being labelled boring.

The central thesis of God Save The Queen? is that the institution of monarchy itself has harmed the Windsors and made so many of them intensely miserable. Combined with the intrusiveness of the modern press, the effect of the customs of this institution is to produce charmless, unpleasant and warped human beings for whose own sake the monarchy ought to be abolished. As evidence, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince and Princess of Wales, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Princes William and Harry each get a chapter, along with another devoted to the three youngest children of the Queen. Throughout, these essays are bitchy and nasty, more often than not verging on character assassination and descending to smug cruelties.

The anecdotal basis for its arguments about every major royal certainly makes the book a fun read, as mentioned above, but it all makes for poor evidence. As tabloid editors know so well, it has to be immensely easy to find someone disgruntled enough to say unpleasant things about an aquaintance, and then to return to report them as fact - and beyond this to draw all sorts of far-reaching conclusions from these statements. But are such statements really suitable material for meaningful character judgements? Is there anyone who would survive such an analysis?

Hari stretches credulity repeatedly by reference to a few idle comments and minor incidents from lives that spanned decades, and drawing damning conclusions on that basis. So Princess Anne is "a horrible, weird little person". The Queen Mother is a "monster". Even if the events described took place, is there anyone who has not occasionally acted foolishly? Or made silly or odd comments? If this is all that is required to avoid Hari's categorisation as "warped" or much worse, then we are all in trouble. Chapters like so many in this book could be written about most people, royal or not, rich or poor, average or extraordinary, so they do not convince in showing that the monarchy produces especially warped and peculiar people.

There is certainly no pretense of balance or any examination of the finer qualities of so many members of the Royal Family. This would be fine to the degree that the book is merely a case for the prosecution. But Hari seems to allow this to prevent him from indulging any critical examination of his ideas. Multiple subjects he describes as being "obsessed by geneaology". But even if their interests did border on obsession, is this particularly surprising or peculiar given that for these descendants, their ancestors have for centuries ruled their country, and in other cases most of the other nations of Europe? If Johann Hari discovered he was a direct descendant of a string of Roman Emperors, or had Russians Tsars for ancestors, would he not also take a great interest in the subject?

As another example of this excessive bias, one piece of evidence he offers that the late Queen Mother hated the ill was her own alleged aversion to her sickbed. He writes:

The 'Queen Mother' had even been known to ignore a fever of 103 degrees so that she could keep an appointment at Cheltenham. To admit to her temperature would have been to concede she was somehow inferior.

Is it not more likely that she simply felt obliged to keep to an appointment? This was perhaps a reflection of the same sense of duty that led her to stay in London during the Blitz - a brave decision that Hari describes cattily as "the one achievement of her entire life". It seems perfectly plausible to wonder about this, but the author's role as chief prosecutor makes it impossible for him to look at such suggestions fairly.

Note also in the above quote the use of inverted commas in the mention of the Queen Mother. This extends to virtually every hereditary title in the book, from 'Queen' Victoria and 'Queen' Mary to 'Lord' and 'Lady' Strathmore. Apart from the sheer silliness of writing in such a way, it shows immaturity that the author should muddy up his sentences so casually in the hope of protesting against positions and roles he dislikes. It makes no sense, of course, to suggest that whether Queen Victoria reigned as sovereign of Great Britain is somehow a matter of individual stance on the monarchy. Whether Hari likes it or not, Queen was her job and constitutional role. I don't particularly think John Prescott should be Deputy Prime Minister. Nor am I entirely convinced that the job is necessary to the country. But for me to pretend by such linguistic games that somehow his position is a matter of taste would raise eyebrows among all sensible people, as it well should in Johann Hari's case.

Even sillier, when he does not use the proper titles of the individuals in question, the author uses their first names followed by the name of the House of Windsor. I can appreciate that, at least in a superficial way, writing of the Queen as "Elizabeth Windsor" may make her seem less majestic. But to continue this posturing throughout, and with every royal figure, is just petulance. It breaks up the otherwise sparkling flow of the book for the reader to have to pause for a few seconds to work out just who on earth Andrew Windsor or Margaret Windsor is - names that normal people who do not spend their Sunday afternoons at Islington tea parties will likely never have heard. "Oh, he means Prince Andrew!" you think. And by then you have to re-read what you started, having deciphered Hari's chosen pseudonym. One wonders why the publisher felt that such wordplay enhanced the central thesis so much that it should be left intact.

The worst case of misleading bias is over the arguments commonly put forward about the cost and financial benefits of a monarchy. The author goes into much detail on the former, but seems to ignore the latter completely. The (completely unmentioned) effect of an existing monarchy on British tourism is virtually immeasurable, but few would deny it. Less forgivable is how he stresses the cost of the Civil List while ignoring what the monarchy gives to the taxpayer in return: the much higher income from all the Crown estates. Unless Johann Hari would seek to argue that it is better to spend nothing than to spend £1 to get £10 back, then his case amounts to examining one side of the balance sheet without reference to the other - utterly meaningless.

The book can politely be described as riddled with contradictions, sometimes at its very core. Its central argument as to why it is now that the monarchy cannot last much longer is based on the determined intrusiveness of the modern press and how impossible that makes privacy and anything approaching a normal life. Yet the author also puts the lack of media coverage given to the Duke of Edinburgh's alleged adultery down to "how ludicrously quiescent the British press still is".

Hari describes how palace sycophancy has supposedly, and mistakenly, convinced the Prince of Wales that he is an "important thinker", while later acknowledging that this same sycophancy never had that effect on his mother or grandfather. Well, why not, if this deference is so much to blame?

He then goes on to write that Prince Charles' emphasis on spirituality is "a great temptation" for a man of "painfully deficient" intellect - for he can then avoid the pitfalls of his supposedly low intelligence by instead stressing the health of his spirit. But if the Prince is so convinced that he is an especially intelligent man and important thinker, why should he be tempted to shift the weight from his intellect? He cannot both be convinced of his intelligence and so ashamed by his lack of it to be determined to disguise it.

There is a large element of triviality not only to Hari's anecdotal character assassinations but also to his whole Guardianite world-view, which he seems keen to persuade the reader to advance by working for an end to the monarchy. According to this outlook, there is nothing necessarily wrong with alcoholism, adultery or drug abuse (he even describes breaking the law of the land for the sake of getting a high by poisonous narcotics as "chemical freedom") and me-first individualism is a pardonable product of the modern age and justification in itself for any refusal to serve as King. I hope that this is not a vision that could inspire many who care about purposeful lives, basic decency and their obligations to others. If the monarchy is one of the remaining instutions still representing something above instant gratification and always putting oneself first and last, then that has to be a strong reason to hope for its retention.

The viewpoints and ideas of the Prince of Wales on the environment, architecture, genetic modification and religion Johann Hari causually dismisses as "shallow, facile and at times incoherent". Well, maybe. But just add 'spiteful' and I can think of a book that fits that description far, far better.

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