This Thursday I am delivering the John Campbell Annual Lecture for Republic.
During the early years of this century John Campbell helped build up Republic into the prominent and active campaigning group it is today, one whose aim is to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. The Annual Lecture is Republic’s tribute to his memory.
The theme of my lecture is the depiction of Queen Victoria on the big and small screen since Herbert Wilcox first produced Victoria the Great (1937). Something of what I am likely to say has been published here. Some of what I say will also appear in my forthcoming book A State of Play.
Most students of British politics don’t take the monarchy very seriously. They think its political powers are so limited, it has an insignificant role; some even think the institution provides some stability to our system. And it is true that the formal powers of the monarchy are heavily circumscribed – although currently Prince Charles’ behind-the-scenes attempts at lobbying have aroused controversy.
My own research suggests, however, that depictions of the monarchy on the screen up to and including Young Victoria (2009) shows how far it still exerts an insidious influence over the way in which audiences think of themselves politically. For the monarchy is presented as existing only to advance the people’s interest and often in conflict with shifty and self-serving Prime Ministers – in other words the only element within British democracy that truly cares for the people is the unelected part, the one not subject to popular sovereignty. Moreover, Victoria is by no means alone in being presented in such terms. Most recently, The King’s Speech (2011) suggested that it was vital for George VI to overcome his stammer because the British needed his wartime broadcasts to inspire them to victory. Without his words, the film implies, the British might have given up.
Of course this is all nonsense; but it is powerful nonsense. It points to a deep popular discontent with representative democracy and also suggests the people’s lack of faith in their own political agency, given their dramatised dependence on the good will of a hereditary monarchy. Hence, I have called my lecture ‘The Heart of a Heartless Political World’.
It’s enough to make a republican weep – for how are they to tackle such entrenched attitudes? So I’ll be taking some hankies in case they’re needed.