The UK has been a pretty weird place to be for the past few weeks, as one era comes juddering to a halt, another begins, and the public try to make sense of it all – and our place within it.
There’s been a lot of airtime to fill and a lot of hot takes. But here’s a slightly cooler one, with the benefit of a couple of weeks of hindsight, that explores why some institutions can survive for so long despite their apparent anachronism.
This week’s article
Sometimes, the most successful option isn’t the one you’d have chosen – and the least-worst option is the best
If you were founding a society in 2022, it seems pretty likely that you wouldn’t decide to make a single family its perpetual hereditary rulers-for-life. You wouldn’t design an elaborate system of pomp and pageantry with which to support this family, and you wouldn’t advance religious arguments that claimed they’d been chosen by god for the purpose. Monarchy is, on the face of it, a system at odds with the principles of the modern world.
It’s certainly entirely at odds with my own, as an egalitarian who believes that one’s prospects in life should be determined as little as possible by mere accidents of birth. The idea of an anointed monarch, chosen by god and deserving of the throne by birthright as a result of their superior blood… it’s not exactly up my alley.
And yet it’s interesting that something so seemingly flawed, opposed by so many, contrary to so many principles that we claim as a society to value, could have survived for so long and to have won so much support from all strata of society. In that context, the monarchy is an example of lots of interesting dynamics, dynamics that allow ideas to survive in society even when they’re seemingly irrational – and that show that the seemingly irrational might not be so irrational after all.
These dynamics are Chesteron’s fence, the least-worst option, the Lindy Effect, and parasocial relationships.
The writer G. K. Chesterton observed many strange, irrational, and on-the-face-of-it unnecessary aspects of society; he used the example of a fence across a road. But he recognised that they’d emerged for a reason, and suggested that reformers only be allowed to reform if they could advance an argument for the current situation, showing that they understood it. This idea is called Chesterton’s fence.
It’s straightforward to view the monarchy as such a fence. On the face of it, it’s straightforwardly irrational, and you’d be tempted to reform it away. The question then becomes: why hasn’t someone done it already? There have been plenty of opportunities, and yet the monarchy has survived. To follow Chesterton’s argument, that probably means we’re missing something. Seemingly irrational things are often thoughtful and necessary compromises, put in place to solve a problem you haven’t anticipated. And so it is with the monarchy: once you think of the problems it solves, you understand its survival a little more. To be able to have a non-political head of state that everyone can theoretically rally behind; to have some socio-political stability on the scale of decades, not years; to skip the hassle of regularly electing a figurehead; to somewhat decrease the chances of that figurehead exploiting popular sentiment to install themselves as dictator. This particular fence has some arguments going for it, at least.
As a messy and pragmatic compromise, then, monarchy might well be the least-worst option. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. That is, it exhibits manifest flaws, but remains the least bad of all the possible alternatives. In the messiness of human society, with individuals’ competing desires and vast differences of power and wealth, the best solutions are rarely perfect and rarely designed; they rarely feel like the straightforward best, but merely the “least worst”.
Things that we see as Chesterton’s fences and the least-worst option, but which solve real problems in society, tend to exhibit the Lindy effect. A 70-year-old person has less remaining lifespan, on average, than a 5-year-old; for humans, each additional year of life decreases the remaining life expectancy. But the same is not true of ideas and institutions. If an organisation has been around for 5 years, we don’t have a good reason to think it will be around for much longer in the future. If an organisation has been around for 70 years, though, it’s demonstrated staying power; it’s already adapted to many changes, and shown itself to be useful enough that successive generations have maintained it. You can more comfortably predict that its future lifespan will be equally long. It’s as though each additional year of life increases the remaining life expectancy. This is the Lindy effect.
The monarchy is a shining example of this. The new King Charles will be crowned next year at Westminster Abbey, the same place that his ancestor William the Conqueror was crowned nearly one thousand years ago and the same place all but two of the intervening monarchs have been crowned. Few other institutions have demonstrated the same longevity and consistency, and you wouldn’t bet against one of Charles’s descendants being crowned in the same place in another thousand years.
If that is so, it will be because we’ve sustained the institution through our parasocial relationships with the personalities involved. In parasocial relationships, audiences who encounter personalities through the mass media come to think of those personalities as friends, despite having had no two-way interactions with them. One-sided relationships somehow feel reciprocal.
Parasocial relationships with the monarch are particularly powerful: with a constitutional role that restricts them to waving, cutting ribbons and making small-talk, and that expressly forbids them from making any sort of interesting statement in public, monarchs become blank canvases on which their subjects can paint whatever they like. And so the Queen could be the nation’s collective cuddly granny, a stirring symbol of dignity and resolve, a connection to the past, a wit, a disser of Donald Trump, a style icon, or an anointed servant of god – whatever people needed her to be at any given moment. And so the position of the monarch becomes more secure over time, even without – especially without – them revealing any more about themselves.
On one level, to subject institutions like the monarchy to rational enquiry is somewhat like trying to explain an operatic aria using the physics of soundwaves – it’s certainly possible, but it somewhat misses the point. As Martin Amis wrote back in 2002:
“The Royal Family is just a family, writ inordinately large. They are the glory, not the power; and it would clearly be far more grownup to do without them. But riveted mankind is hopelessly addicted to the irrational, with reliably disastrous results, planetwide. The monarchy allows us to take a holiday from reason; and on that holiday we do no harm.”
It might not be what we’d design if we were starting from scratch, but that’s moot; we don’t have that luxury. Politics and culture and society are the product of countless emergent processes and are full of ugly, pragmatic compromises. These compromises have the appearance of rust and barnacles on a ship’s hull, something to be chiselled off and cleaned; but they’re actually the whole hull itself, the whole ship, holding everything together. That shouldn’t stop us reforming things, least of all the monarchy. But there’s no perfect alternative – just another set of compromises.
This week’s three interesting links
Another great example of niche businesses made possible by the internet:
“In the beginning, I figured we would do floppy disks, but never CDs. Eventually, we got into CDs and I said we’d never do DVDs. A couple of years went by and I started duplicating DVDs. Now I’m also duplicating USB drives. You can see from this conversation that I’m not exactly a person with great vision. I just follow what our customers want us to do. When people ask me: ‘Why are you into floppy disks today?’ the answer is: ‘Because I forgot to get out of the business.’ Everybody else in the world looked at the future and came to the conclusion that this was a dying industry. Because I’d already bought all my equipment and inventory, I thought I’d just keep this revenue stream. I stuck with it and didn’t try to expand. Over time, the total number of floppy users has gone down. However, the number of people who provided the product went down even faster. If you look at those two curves, you see that there is a growing market share for the last man standing in the business, and that man is me.”
Toby Shorin with a superb long essay, the product of six years’ work, that’s both an eerily accurate summary of the last decade of culture and a vision of the future that it’s hard not to be depressed by.
Shorin characterises the 2010s as the era of “lifestyle”:
“The 2010s is what I want to call the era of Lifestyle. You know what it felt like, because you lived through it. And I did too. Since 2014 I have lived in New York, inside the machine where Lifestyle is made. Spending my waking moments moving through these branded experiences, I felt they they pointed to something I could say but not name.”
Now coming to an end, what replaces it? Shorin argues that brands will begin to manufacture and shape culture far more directly, rather than merely reflecting it:
“The Lifestyle era was not about creating culture; it was about attaching brands onto existing cultural contexts. It was not about shaping people; it was about sorting consumer demographics into niche categories. The new order we are entering into reverses this. For some organizations, culture has become the product itself, and products have become secondary, auxiliary, to the production of culture.”
The South African journalist R. W. Johnson, who The Economist memorably described as “a romantic contrarian liberal”, is no monarchist. Reviewing Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy for the LRB in 1988, he skewered a particular kind of fatuousness exhibited by those who meet royalty:
“Similarly, Nairn catches Kinnock at the Andy-Fergie wedding delightedly telling the media about how Fergie had smiled and ‘that smile was worth all the rest of it!’ Or Ken Livingstone, after a brief handshake with the Queen: ‘I have always thought that the Queen is a very nice person indeed. Today confirmed that view.’ As Nairn points out, our Ken ‘had no basis whatever for this observation in the normal sense of the words’. We see this phenomenon all the time, even from the leaders of the Left. People are so overcome with pleasure at meeting a royal personage that they seek to rationalise this ecstasy by investing the said royal with impressive human qualities, often appearing to claim knowledge of the royal which they cannot possibly have. Again, monarchy makes them lie. And hence the phenomenon of the Royal Joke during which people fall about in near-hysteria when Philip or Charles say something like: ‘If it rains today we could all get wet!’ People then queue up to tell the TV camera about ‘the Prince’s wonderful sense of humour’. More lies, always more lies. The cultural compulsion is truly strong.”