There is no doubt – aside from the constitutional/legal arguments previously advanced at Troppo, that there is a political dimension to the monarchy. This is a matter of symbolism in two senses. One of the earliest modern critiques of monarchy in Britain in the Nineteenth Century by proto-Republicans such as the Liberal MP Sir Charles Dilke (whose accession to Ministerial office was effectively blocked by Queen Victoria), was that it reproduced and represented social division and unequal hierarchy and status. This argument is still valid.
There’s a more interesting argument that the role of symbolism in politics has recently made a return, displacing the rational system of representation and debate characteristic (at least normatively) of democratic modernity. The politics of the gesture and the spectacle is everywhere, and rhetoric has made a big return (think the culture wars, the practice of wedging, all the symbolic initiatives from Left and Right that are never followed through in policy terms in a meaningful sense) to the political sphere.
So to answer Sophie’s question “is the monarchy more postmodern than the republic?”, there’s an interesting sense in which the monarchy is postmodern (apart from the sense, following Guy Debord, in which it’s a key node in the “Society of the Spectacle”) – in that it’s basically a pre-modern institution. The French sociologist Bruno Latour argues that there’s a certain squaring of the circle from pre-modernity to postmodernity in “Why We Have Never Been Modern” (though I’m drastically simplifying his argument) and there’s been another stream of commentary on “refeudalisation” and the “new Medievalism” referrring to things like blurred borders, globalisation and the revival of symbolism rather than rational representation. Tom Nairn is the best writer on the cultural and political significane of the English Monarchy, particularly in sundry New Left Review articles (mostly collected in Faces of Nationalism) and his 1988 polemic Enchanted Glass.
Nairn argues that Ukania (the name for the state-form he adopts following the great Twentieth Century Austrian novelist Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities) is an archaic form of state, founded in effect by the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and renovating its foundations with what the historian Linda Colley calls the making of a British ruling class in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, and the Imperial project of colonial rule. Walter Bagehot’s arguments in The English Constitution are exemplary of Her Majesty’s Imperial Ideology. In the late 1980s, Nairn thought that the monarchy was about to come crashing down in the face of the reality of the decline of Britain, and he saw evidence for this in the crash of public support which was associated with Princess Diana and her travails. He also thought Thatcher’s neo-liberal meritocratic capitalism undermined the symbolism of the Monarchy’s settled social order from within its domain. More recently, he’s revised his views, and noted the continuing power of the Ukanian state ideology in the piecemeal attempts at reform by the Blairites (kicking 1 of the hereditaries out of the House of Lords but replacing them only with a new breed of New Labour Lord for the new millenium, for instance). The PR and polling tactics influencing the timing of the Charles/Camilla announcement are also indicative of the ability of an Ancient House to surf the postmodern media and public opinion waves to its advantage.
This is an interesting theme. Certainly symbolism as the political figure of pre-modernity and postmodernity rather than the rational representation of modernity is reflected in the revived preference for monarchy (which is also suggestive of the eclipse of neo-liberalism by neo-conservatism broadly understood). There’s no question, in my view, that in an age where symbolism matters in politics, the Ukanian monarchy is the wrong symbol for Australia. And, in my opinion, to support such a symbol is to oppose oneself to the rationality that ought to inform a modern (as opposed to a postmodern or pre-modern) democratic politics. Note how the arguments for a monarchy are couched in emotive rather than rational terms. We need a new Enlightenment to sweep away the crowned rubbish and detritus of the past, and we need to revive the rational understandings of democracy and governance.
Symbolism does matter, what the Ukanian monarchy symbolises is not helpful to Australia, and we should get rid of it.