Ladies and Lords: The Official Class System
Lords, Ladies and Contempt for the Common People
"National essence (for the British Broadcasting Corporation is) now in implicit values - such as accuracy and fairness in news, a celebration of equality in difference in class, accent, race and religion". (Our emphasis)John Lloyd in the Financial Times
Only a racist would tolerate an expectation that black people address white people as "Master." Yet in Britain the forms of deferential address used when the nobility had their heels on the necks of the people are still generally accepted without question.
The Quakers said No in the seventeenth century. The Americans made it unconstitutional in 1787. But the British state still insists that "lords and ladies", "princesses" and "dukes" have a place in a democracy. And the British people do not complain.
But complain they should. For they are being denied what we should consider a basic civil right. The state that tells its citizens that in its eyes they are anything but equal is failing in its first duty.
Individual citizens may choose to think of others as inferior or superior, better or worse, good or bad. But a state that is democratic and in which the people are sovereign, should have no choice but to recognise the equality of its citizens as citizens. And while there are other duties that it may sometimes find hard to meet, it has no good excuse for failing in this one, no excuse for setting up one citizen as superior to another.
But the British state fails wilfully in this duty. At birth it marks all of us who are not members of the Windsor family as, at best, second class. Only the members of that "royal" family are considered fit in the eyes of the state to hold the nation's chief public office, that of head of state. But it is not content with that insult. Throughout our lives it takes our money and spends it on setting some citizens up as "lords", "dukes", "princesses", "knights", "viscounts", "princes", "earls" and so on. Those of us not so honoured are expected to defer to these people, to recognise these titles as valid, to accept the supposedly superior status they convey.
Where the people have a healthy regard for their rights it would be unwise for the state to behave in this way. For what self-respecting person would willingly pay taxes or feel obliged to be a good citizen where the state offered them such insults? A white American who claimed to be the "master" of an African-American might expect a punch on the nose. A Briton who claims to be the "lord" of another is safe in expecting a deferential bow.
Corrosive Fairy Tales
These titles sound as if they belong to the fifteenth century or in a children's story. But whether they are seen as childish nonsense or as socially corrosive relics of a feudal order, the strangest thing is the willingness of the majority to go alone with this.
There is no coercion to make us pretend to recognise another as a "lord" or "princess". Most people, however, are willing to call others "my lady", "your grace", "your highness", or to curtsy to the chief Windsor. Most shamefully, the Prime Minister humiliates himself and the nation by walking backwards out of a room, rather than turn his back on Liz Windsor, the "queen".
A few use these titles because they take them seriously. They approve of a state organised class system and think that class deference is admirable. They may hope themselves to be awarded or to buy a feudal title some day.
Some believe them to be useful rewards for contributions to social well being. But if we value our personal judgments and our personal beliefs more than those of the state, it is unlikely that we would want the state to spend our money telling us who it believes to be worthy of our respect or admiration. We would decide ourselves and each one of us would decide differently depending upon our personal interests and enthusiasms.
Apologists for this class system sometimes say that those titles that are not inherited have value as a recognition of the achievements of outstanding individuals. It has even been suggested that they may encourage entrepreneurship! Apparently personal satisfaction, financial advantage or the admiration of others will not inspire Britons as they do those of other nations. They need the hope of a feudal title, a vision of others deferring to them, or a free pass to the legislature, to motivate them to achieve distinction in the twenty-first century. This justification is, however, almost as big an insult to the character of the British people as is the class system it seeks to excuse.
The majority who use these titles probably do so just because most everybody else does. They have inhaled the stale air of the British class system since birth and have not imagined how fresh and sweet the atmosphere might be.
They would perhaps say that the titles mean nothing to them. That they call some people "Lords" just because its a title like "Ms" or "Mr" or simple because it is an official title. Their use of it does not mean they accept that the person with the title is entitled to the deference it implies.
But these titles are profoundly different from others. When we use them do not merely show respect, we defer to the person we address. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in Bring Home the Revolution, in effect we bow to them. The Collins English Dictionary tells us that a "lord" is "a person who has power or authority over others", or is a "feudal superior".
All of these titles met the needs of a feudal society and so should have no place in a nation that has replaced feudalism with democracy. Why would we keep the titles of feudalism if we have rejected feudal values? When the racial oppression of slavery was ended in the USA, those black American who had called their white owners master stopped doing so. In Britain we still fail to show the pride that black Americans have.
The title of "lord" makes it particularly clear that there is more to this than a quaint regard for tradition or a wish to honour the worthy. The holder does still have mastery over others when a fee pass to the legislature goes with the title. The second or "upper" chamber of parliament is occupied by these "lords" who are legislators-for-life, legislators unaccountable to be people but with an exceptional power in the making of the laws of Britain.
And when the people of his constituency again elected him as their representative, what is often called the "mother of parliaments" would not let him take his seat. Not until 1963 was the law changed so that the state recognised the right of a citizen in a democracy to reject feudal titles that they carry by no fault of their own. That allowed Benn to take the seat he had been elected to. For once British feudalism gave way to the rights of the people.
But the power of feudalism in Britain is strong. In 2014 Benn's eldest son shamed himself and traded a democratic heritage for the dross of feudal privilege by reasserting the right to be a "lord". Now he too will be eligible to sit in the legislature whatever the people might think or want.
These "lords" are complicit in the theft of one of the most precious rights of the people. That is, their right to government of the people, by the people. Yet Britons greet them not with anger or contempt but with exaggerated respect. This is really not very different to serfs bowing to their masters.
They draw attention to the irony of this class system. For those who accept the title of "lord" thereby mark themselves as unworthy of the respect that we owe by default to those of our fellow citizens of whom we know nothing. Those who accept a free pass to a seat in the legislature, those who want social deference, are among the least worthy of our respect.
They show no qualms about sitting with fellow legislators who were given their seats as partisan political rewards. Or with others who bought their legislative seats for cash. And with some who inherited their seats from their fathers in what is the most primitive aspect of Britain's attenuated democracy.
In Britain revolution was overturned and progress towards democracy has been made by the gradual concessions of the powerful rather than being seized as a right by the majority. One result is that the British have failed to decisively reject the relationships of feudalism and have not become fierce defenders of their democratic rights. It they had done so they would not tolerate feudal titles, nor a feudal legislative chamber. What could better hinder the growth of a deep belief that the people are sovereign, that the people are the source of political authority, that the people are in charge, than having most of the people defer to an elite? And what could better restrain the development of an equality that amounts to more than the recitation of a litany, than the daily recognition of a state sponsored social hierarchy
In a nation in which the sovereignty of the people had been embraced, and in which the state had been obliged to recognise that it was subservient to the people, it is unlikely that that state would believe it had the authority to set up some of the people as superior to others. But a state like the British, that assumes its own status to be higher than that of the people, feels free to do so. It considers an elite it has created to be worthy of more respect than the majority to which it owes its authority.
Call Him Mister
Often we must wait, patiently or impatiently, for a law to be changed before we make progress towards a democratic society. But not in this case. We do not have to use these titles just because the state bestows them. We are no more the slaves of the state than we are serfs with feudal masters. We need not do that which we believe debasing or dishonourable. Indeed, it is our duty not to do so. If we do use the titles of feudalism we must accept individual responsibility for the harm we do to the ideal of a democratic society.
Those of other nationalities should ask themselves why they should bow to British "lords" when they have chosen not to do so at home. The United States made feudal titles unconstitutional many years ago. It may amuse Americans to observe this British absurdity. But if you will not call an American "lord" why would you bow to a British "lord", which is what you do when you call him such?
If we recognised the class system as the foul smelling, toxic thing it is we would stop using these nonsensical and, for the user, degrading titles.
Call them Mr. or Ms. Call them Jo or John. But don't call them your "lord" or your "majesty". When we, the people, do this, when we stop recognising that such creatures as "lords" and "princesses" exist, they will in effect cease to exist.
"Lord" Jeffrey Archer was found guilty in 1987 of perjury and perverting the course of justice. He was given a four years goal sentence. Archer remains a legislator-for-life and there is no way that the people can remove him from their legislature.
The "King" of Italy
According to newspaper reports in 2006 Vitorio Emanuele, son of Italy's last "king", has been recorded admitting to murder. Mr. Emanuele is said to have told a cell mate that he shot a 19-year old in 1978. A French court in 1991 acquitted him of unintentional homicide. In the recording he says that he "conned those French judges" and described the magistrates investigating him now as "penniless, envious turds".
The man who might have inherited the throne in Italy was under house arrest on suspicion of recruiting prostitutes from eastern Europe and corrupt business deals involving gambling. In another recording he asked a business associate to "give a good slapping" to a prostitute.