Monday, April 11, 2011

Trading Bluebloods for Oil
Why anti-Monarchist activists and peak oilers should care about one another’s campaigns

Originally published at Transition Voice

This past November an announcement shocked the world.  We all suspected that it would be confirmed eventually, not least because of years of media speculation.  But suddenly we had a date for it - a date that could be stamped decisively into the history books.  It has dominated the headlines ever since and even threatened to overshadow the seriousness of the austerity cuts being implemented across most of the Western world, an issue to which it is closely connected.  I am of course talking about the announcement from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that global conventional oil production peaked back in 2006, signaling officially that our industrial way of life is on the way out(1).

Unfortunately, the media coverage wasn’t quite that which is given to your average Royal engagement (or even 1%).  And on the surface, perhaps that’s fair.  We learn when we are children that oil is a finite resource.  Those interested in peak oil have always known that the exact time of the peak wouldn’t be obvious until years after it happened, and a casual look at the data since 2006 made it pretty clear that we were probably already very close to the stage of decline.  But the Paris-based IEA is a conservative and restrained body.  Its coupling of the announcement with absurd reassurances that tar sands and other polluting and pathetic technologies would keep economic growth trundling along for a few more decades is proof of that.  For this organisation to finally give us a specific date in the face of its usual policy of trying to keep everyone calm (and in the dark), was a sobering moment.  This world-changing problem took on a solid form.

The fantasy world of energy resources is mirrored in the fantasy world of the Wills and Kate wedding.  Politicians and newspapers invited us to escape our economic woes by living vicariously through them and their Disneyfied lives.  Despite the fact that it is actually they who are living through us on their taxpayer-funded special day, it is tempting to buy into this logic – what’s wrong with a little innocent escapism?  The problem is that the Royal establishment is using this once-in-a-generation event to revitalise a positive image of themselves as saviours of the nation, at a time when dissenting questions regarding their place in the world are increasing.

The simplest criticisms of the monarchy are self-explanatory.  The head of state is a hereditary position, unelected and impossible to democratically remove.  They take money from everyday people to fund lavish lifestyles, with little in the way of a defense.  They portray a stereotypical image of British people around the world as out-of-touch, snobbish, arrogant and old-fashioned, to say nothing of the image that we all support having such Royalty.  The Queen represents a violent, shameful and embarrassing colonial past in her continuing position as head of state of 15 other countries. 

However the more alarming issues are rarely heard about.  The royals have been relatively shielded from Freedom of Information laws since their introduction in 2005, but in January of this year they were effectively given complete protection from disclosing their activities to their ‘subjects’(2).  Royals are given military ranks, medals and jobs irrespective of whether they are qualified for them or deserve them(3).  The monarchy is an area in which the BBC is most spectacularly far from impartial.  The monarch effectively holds the entire British government in her hands.  He or she (he will still always be picked over she, by the way) has the ability to veto any legislation passed by parliament.  They can appoint whoever they like as Prime Minister, dissolve Parliament (triggering an election) or even dismiss the entire government(4). 

All this is kept under wraps and unreformed by a mighty Buckingham Palace PR machine, which uses virtually unlimited public money to convince us that we cannot have any kind of national identity separate from an institution whose primary achievement is a thousand years of anti-democratic oppression.

Monarchists argue that these powers are hardly ever used as to do so would open the monarchy to criticism and threaten its existence.  But this is surely a tacit admission that the powers are unjustified.  We may have had a smart political operator in the driver’s seat since 1952, who knows to keep her opinions quiet or non-partisan and her interference in governance subtle and - perhaps - minimal.  There is no guarantee her successors would act in the same way.  Prince Charles, with his outspoken moral judgments and personal scandals, is being urged and maneuvered out of taking over the reins not just by republicans, but by some monarchists too, because he runs the risk of bringing the whole palace of cards down.

It is not difficult to see how increasing social turmoil caused by a series of interlinked crises – peak oil, the end of economic growth, climate change, food shortages – could lead to a return of using never repealed royal powers, subtly or otherwise.  Strong leadership may become welcome, but when you have an illegitimate platform to proclaim your leadership skills, and the public has no way to hold you to account, it becomes less appealing.  A state of emergency may make the ability to use privileges and power within the military, media, political and tax systems seem worth the bad publicity.  It might seem that if we’re going to have an unelected head of state going into a period of resource shortages, it would at least be beneficial to have someone like Charles who seems to have knowledge of some of the issues.  Yet putting aside that his mandate would still be entirely undemocratic, Charles’ understanding of energy is often exaggerated, simply because of his status. 

Unsurprisingly, his views are completely lacking in class analysis.  He routinely encourages regular people to green their lives, whilst ignoring the fact that his stolen millions commit him to spending his way through resources.  In September, shortly before his son’s marriage distracted everyone, Charles was traveling the country by train to promote the eco-consumerism message.  Once again letting the capitalist economy off the hook, the adventure cost taxpayers at least £50,000, caused untold pollution and demonstrated the ego of somebody who really has nothing new to add to the debate(5).  He has flown to Scotland by private jet for an Easter getaway and flown business class to New York to pick up an environmental award(6). His reliance on religious answers to our environmental troubles could lead into medieval territory, if he and those closest to him take the remaining oil, while the rest of us are encouraged to pray as we shiver around candles(7).

Even more worrying than the powers the monarchy holds onto are the powers the monarchy hands over to politicians in exchange for unwavering support.  These include the ability to make treaties, govern overseas territories, appoint and remove peers and ministers, declare war and deploy ‘Her Majesty’s’ Armed Forces – used most infamously by Tony Blair to invade Iraq.  All this can be done without parliamentary or public consultation, let alone approval(8).  The Queen meets up with the Prime Minister on a weekly basis to discuss policies.  As you can see, we really do have a choice: between a dictatorial head of state and a dictatorial head of government.

The point here is not that these two issues are of equal weight.  Even the main UK group working against the monarchy, Republic, has said itself that there are more imperative problems, and set itself a modest goal of success by 2025(9).  Unlike the end of cheap oil, on which everything from medicines to mass-produced food to waging oil wars relies, republicanism lacks urgency.  But both campaigns desperately need more supporters, action and widespread awareness, and it seems that some solidarity might be in order.  Anti-monarchy activists don’t want to see the royal family gain even more power and prestige.  Peak oil activists don’t want there to be even less freedom ahead of us.  If there’s one thing we’re not going to need in the coming decades, it’s the knowledge that we could have abated the situation if only we had connected the dots.

There is one more way in which the Royals are already making the future a more daunting place.  The “Wedding of the Century,” as Entertainment Weekly billed it(10), is the celebrity culture at its peak.  Every moment spent obsessing over the lives of the rich and famous is a moment not spent preparing for a fragile tomorrow, or even, living our own lives.  Does it seem likely that the monarchy doesn’t have a back-up plan, in the event that the lights go out?

  1. It’s official: Peak oil came in 2006. Transition Voice magazine. November 10th 2010.
  2. Royal Family granted new right of secrecy. The Independent. January 8th 2011.
  3. Royals and the Military. Republic.
  4. The British Constitution. Republic.
  5. And Finally. SchNEWS. September 10th 2010.
  6. Charles 'the hypocrite' takes private plane for 500-mile trip to Scotland. London Evening Standard.  March 31st 2007.
  7. God versus Greens. The Guardian. May 25th 2000.
  8. The British Constitution. Republic.
  9. Join Network 25. Republic.
  10. You are invited to a Media Frenzy! Entertainment Weekly cover story. March 4th 2011.,,ewTax:1144,00.html