An elderly multi-millionaire dies in her castle

It is never a happy occasion when someone dies, and I therefore wish to extend my condolences to Queen Elizabeth II’s family.

Monarchy, inheritance and meritocracy

Turning now to the institution of monarchy, the overly saccharine treatment of Queen Elizabeth’s inevitable death, after a very long and cosseted life, is depressing. I agree with many of Patrick Lagacé’s pertinent questions and remarks.

The monarchy is an archaic institution. There is no justification for privilege, social position, power, or – indeed – vast fortunes, to be inherited. I am well aware that, in many instances, privileges are inherited without the help of royalty – business empires (e.g. the Bronfmans), politics (e.g. the Bush or Kennedy dynasties), education – but the inheritance of power should not be enshrined in a constitution.

Granted, Michael Sandel, amongst others, has clarified the limitations of our current meritocratic myth; but the British constitution legitimises and institutionalises hereditary privileges, including those that ‘meritocracy’ shores up. Indeed, the language of meritocracy is (and has traditionally been) used to justify hereditary privileges.

As a case in point, much commentary surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s death appears to justify her vast inherited wealth and power on the basis of meritocractic arguments. She was so good at her job! Her hard work justifies her vast inherited wealth and power! Yet I am sure many nurses, teachers, social workers, etc. are also extremely good at their jobs, without the bonus of inherited wealth, power and privilege.

There is no merit in being born into the right family. The fact that some people who inherit power and privilege use it well is beside the point: attempting to justify inordinate inherited privilege and political power by resorting to meritocratic arguments is an exercise in obfuscation. It is also why revolutions occur.

Un-royal royal behaviour

The British monarchy is not benign. It stands at the pinnacle of land expropriations and enclosures that date back to William the conqueror (1066), who instigated the first census in order to better divvy up common land amongst his barons. The monarchy and its myriad of hangers-on – whose complexion and interests evolve throughout the ages – are only too happy to preserve this archaic system, which anoints their privilege with the divine.

The current royal family is not above meddling with laws – which are supposed to be the preserve of parliament – to protect their financial interests and tax exemptions. Environmental enforcement is strangely absent around royal castles, where princes can shoot rare birds unconcerned by simple rules. Indeed, the Guardian recently ran a series of articles about abuse of the royal consent procedure.

People and countries which struggled from under Britain’s colonial yolk are not unanimous in their praise of monarchy: indeed, many recall atrocities undertaken in the Royal name, not to mention colonisation itself, designed to enlarge the scale and scope of aristocratic and royal expropriations (and of businesses operating under their protection – this protection was both military and in terms of story-telling: ‘For queen and country‘ sounds better than ‘To make loads of money’).

To conclude

It is difficult when anyone’s mother or grandmother dies. So I wish the royal family well. However, I am saddened and dismayed by the continued attachment – not only of British people but of people in many countries, such as Canada – to the archaic institution of monarchy.

And, before anyone chimes in and tells me how the monarchy has maintained Britain’s stability, I invite them to examine the decimation that Thatcher, Major, Blair, Cameron, Johnson and now Truss have left in their wake. The monarchy does not prevent national fissures – at best it papers over the cracks and provides a veil of justification for the inequalities that drive these cracks.

No system of government is perfect: but a system that enshrines privilege, that anoints right-born people as ‘liege lords‘ and others, the wrong-borns, as vassals, is not one I adhere to.

Is this an exaggeration? To conclude:

… by the Death of our late Sovereign of Happy Memory, [The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George] become[s] our only lawful and rightful Liege Lord Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories, King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to whom we do acknowledge all Faith and Obedience with humble Affection; beseeching God by whom Kings and Queens do reign to bless His Majesty with long and happy Years to reign over us…

The Proclamation of King Charles III, Saturday 1oth September 2022

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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