Thursday, 18 November 2010

William and Kate: why the gods are laughing

"UNEMPLOYED WOMAN TO MARRY INTO WELFARE FAMILY", so one wag wrote online, pointedly aping the "Daily Mail"'s normal approach to any examples, real or, as often, imagined, of out-of-work people or folk with a disability having the temerity to have the same human emotions and desires as those rich enough to afford them.

The difference here, of course, is that the woman and family concerned are Kate Middleton, aka "Princess-in-waiting" since her schooldays, and the Windsors, who live in a huge house at the taxpayers' expense at the end of The Mall in London.

No such derogatory treatment for this Royal lot, who ironically refer to themselves as "The Firm" -presumably a very heavily state-subsidised one. Rather than scream about the shocking costs of a state-funded Royal Wedding, or about the extra public cash coming Prince William's way once he acquires his wife, the Press has been predictably full of photos and speculation - what will she wear? (a dress, possibly?) What jolly japes and restaurant-smashing will his stag night involve? Should he have given her his mother's ring? Will Prince Harry be at the wedding or will it be restricted to family-only? (well, I made up that last bit, or stole it from a friend - you decide!)
William and Kate - just the same as all of us, really...
No one would want to rain on any one's parade when they decide to get married. That two young people feel close enough and sure enough to make such a commitment is fine. However, as they themselves acknowledge, they are no ordinary couple: one day, he is likely to be the Head of State, with notionally supreme power over the entire government and country. If William dies while his offspring is under 18 years old, Kate will likely inherit his authority as Queeen Regent until the child comes of age.

So, rather than worry about the fripperies of their wedding day (or even the cost, obscenely great as it will be in the midst of Austerity Britain), perhaps this is as good a moment as any to reflect more fundamentally on why we have a monarchy at all.

Britain is unusual even among so called "constitutional monarchies", like Sweden or the Netherlands, in that we don't actually have a constitution - not a properly written one anyway. Instead, we have a myriad of conventions and precedents which loosely sum up how the state functions. The monarch, although so often portrayed as a passive, somehow neutral guarantor of our liberty, is actually at the heart of this web of law and ritual.

In France, you are a citizen of the Republic: the state is your servant; the President is elected for a fixed term and their authority is derived from the People. The President has a duty among other things to uphold your rights as a citizen and the functioning of the organs of the state. Not perfect and like any system open to abuse by human beings; but by contrast to Britain, it is a truly revolutionary arrangement.

In the United Kingdom, you are a subject of the King (even if the King is actually a Queen, she is still the King). In the final analysis, you are a servant of the King and the state. The King's legitimacy and authority are inherited, lifelong and absolute; his right to rule stems from the descent of the monarch (in legend at any rate) from Cerdic, the first King of the West Saxons, who pitched up around Southampton from somewhere in Germany around 490 AD. Cerdic's authority in practice probably came from the size of his axe, but also rested on his claimed descent from Odin, Father of the Gods of Valhalla.
Pagan relatives on the guest
list dilemma: Odin on
his way to St Paul's?

On this divine provenance, the unwritten British Constitution rests. And while the monarch may no longer actively participate in political life, the fact of the office's existence and its supreme power over its subjects still matters very much indeed. The King's authority now rests with the Prime Minister, who is appointed by the King with the convention that they must have the confidence of parliament - though this is something that could be changed should the monarch decide, albeit with a major political storm certain to ensue.

This arrangement may seem so theoretical as to be meaningless, except that it is used to grant the Prime Minister and Cabinet very substantial powers to act without parliamentary approval. Acts of war, for example, did not require the support of the Commons until this right was voluntarily surrendered by the last Labour Government. In areas of finance, policing, covert operations and military action, there is little real democratic restraint, all because the government can trace its powers back to the P.M.'s position as "king-in-parliament-under-God".

In a modern age, is this seriously how we want to do things? The "war on terror" of the last few years has shown how popular fears have been manipulated and exaggerated to empower the authorities without any need to account of themselves to parliament or the public. As further serious issues loom about our resources and their distribution, these powers are already being used against people and targets unmentioned when they were initially made law - trade unionists and the environmentalist movement are likely early targets as corporate power seeks to defend its redoubt in the difficult times that capitalism faces. And whatever the intent of any current set of politicians, the concentration of such absolute power, ultimately of life and death even, is all too readily open to abuse by those of ill-intent.
Government in a democracy needs to be accountable to people who are its citizens and collective masters, with their rights inalienably their own rather than granted and withdrawn at the whim of the ruler. A republic with an elected Head of State is critical to establishing the framework for this. In turn, a written constitution needs to be established, clearly setting out the recognised rights of citizens, alterable only by  wide consensus. It must enshrine the human rights we all need to be safe and secure in an uncertain world.

A republic of itself is no guarantee of good governance: plenty of dictatorships have been run as republics and the USA can hardly be described as a paragon of democratic virtue. But at least the form of a republic establishes certain precedents and concepts, of citizenship and rights, which a monarchy simply does not address. Indeed, were some of the recent actions of British governments attempted by politicians in many republican democracies, they would have collapsed before they started.

Great Uncle Edward would
 have approved.
The apparent popularity of the chocolate box Royalty of the UK is used as a brocaded veil to hang over this subversion of freedom and democracy: a supposedly happy, just-like-the-rest-of-us family, smiling and waving back at a grateful nation. And after some years of repeatedly dysfunctional goings on being exposed, from the awful circumstances around Princess Diana's bulimia, to Harry's Nazi outfit and Philip's "slitty-eyed" outbursts, the superficial normality and evidently genuine warmth for each other of Kate and William must feel like manna from heaven for the beleaguered Firm. A new franchise has been created, hopefully to tide them over for another 20 or 30 years.

So amidst the Kate tea-towels and the William mugs, the Bride-to-be front covers and the reverential tones of BBC commentators, we need to reflect that this is indeed no ordinary wedding and no ordinary couple. They may not actively involve themselves in politics, but their gleaming smiles reflect nothing less than the grinning triumph of a velvet-gloved dictatorship, resplendent still in its continuing and absolute denial of our validity and citizenship.

In Valhalla, the gods are laughing. Odin must be proud of his boy.

The grinning triumph of velvet-gloved dictatorship?


  1. Abolish monarchy and royalty from the face of this planet!