The Worshipping of the Windsors
The Degradation of Democracy
At least nature is reliably democratic, something the British people find it very hard to be. The sky was grey. The temperature barely reached 60. And there was rain. But that did not stop countless Britons showing their deference to the Windsor clan on 3 June 2012 by assembling on the banks and bridges of the River Thames to salute their hereditary head of state as she passed through London on a stately boat.
Some wore headgear with small flags or crowns supported by stalks. Some carried flags in their hands. One flag hanging from the window of a public housing block in south London had no blue but much pink, possibly the result of washing at too high a temperature. Although it was reported that there was more enthusiasm south of the Thames, the crowds were not big enough for South Eastern Trains to run its trains into central London at anything more than 30 minute intervals, although the day before they had run every fifteen minute. But the baby buggies of parents taking toddlers for initiation into the rites of Windsor-worship made them crowded.
This was "jubilee" day, a celebration of the sixty years that Elizabeth Windsor has held Britain's chief public office, while millions of other Britons have been excluded because they were born into a different family. Sixty years, in each of which, the Windsor clan has been paid extraordinary amounts of money for doing little if anything. Jubilees were originally at fifty year intervals, when debts were written off. Windsor has had two jubilees but the people have never been relived of the burden of the extraordinary democratic and financial burden.
Yet again the finest traditions of British democracy were firmly pushed to the margins while feudalism had a field day. More than 1,000 republicans demonstrated on the river side outside City Hall as the Windsor boat passed. Nearby monarchists had to sing "God Save the Queen" to ward off the evil.
Warding Off Evil
The Financial Times seemed to be doing much the same. And because it is usually exceptionally intelligent in its journalism, its behaviour on this occasion may tell us something particularly interesting about the British aversion to true democracy.
For the Financial Times joined with the rest of the "establishment" in putting republicanism beyond the pale. This normally very serious and analytical newspaper referred without irony or shame to the British people as "subjects". It published two major opinion pieces, one editorial, and one piece on republicans in its jubilee weekend edition, all of which supported the Windsors' privileges.
The monarchy had "helped the UK stay a steady course" over 60 years the editorial concluded. No mention of the armed conflict in Northern Ireland, Scottish moves towards independence. industrial conflict, war, mass demonstrations or riots. Without Windsor on the throne, it seems, all of this would have been much worse. The Windsors had steadied the boat. They also now make tax returns now, the FT reassured us, with no explanation as to why they should be paid many millions by their "subjects" while elected representatives get so much less.
Republicans Get Unusual Attention
The newspaper did not ignore republicans, which is unusual. But it chose Matthew Engel to write its Life and Arts section article on these unwilling subjects. An if there was any doubt about Mr. Engel's point of view it was dispelled by a front page report he made in the FT the following Monday, a paean to Windsor-worship, in which he wrote of "a wave of national warmth and gratitude to Britain's indomitable sovereign". Mr. Engel did concede, however, that there were "reports of pockets of indifference in Liverpool and Hull"! The refusal of Welsh and Scottish soccer players to sing "God Save the Queen" at the Olympic Games just a few weeks later suggested that the lack of feudal loyalty in fact extended far beyond Northern England. Welsh team captain Ryan Giggs even had to ask the crowd not to boo the royal anthem.
Matthew Engel does not specialise in serious analysis so perhaps one should not have been surprised that his case that republicans are an odd bunch included the following:
- None of the republicans he met seemed "extremist or crazed". apparently unlike the French, Irish and Italians he has met
- "The Queen is there by consent". But he did not explain how that consent was given, how she can be removed with democratic ease, how the reservation of a public office for members of one family is compatible with principles of democratic rights, or how democratic equality and hereditary privilege may be made compatible.
- Because the English revolution 350 years ago questioned only the extent of the king's powers the case for a republic now is undercut.
- Although most citizens are barred from the position of head state and republicans barred from the legislature the UK is really a republic, albeit a "disguised" one.
- The British are probably not capable of choosing a democratic head of state. They might vote for footballer David Beckham.
- We should not worry about the monarchy while we have the worse indecencies of hereditary legislators, global warming and terrorism. Apparently good people must tolerate injustice, inequality, indignity and affront until the most major of evils have been eradicated.
- Mr. Engel does not mind being constitutionally barred from holding a public office. So, by implication, no one else should object.
- The British monarchy does more good than harm and probably makes a profit for Britain. There was no explication of this theory.
- Some republicans think the BBC is "a right-wing conspiracy". In fact most republicans just think the state broadcaster is biased in favour of the monarchy whatever its other biasses might be.
- It's wrong to object to schools involving children in Windsor-worship. There is obviously nothing politically partisan about support for monarchy.
- The monarchy gave us an extra public holiday.
To be fair, Mr. Engle did admit that there are what he called "passive republicans", including the leader of Plaid Cymru. But when a newspaper as proud of its intelligence as the FT descends to a silly hatchet job on people with democratic beliefs taken as the norm in much of the world, you know that something has gone seriously wrong with Britain's sense of right and wrong.
Gideon Rachman, Financial Times. The "hash economic realities" ahead for Elizabeth Windsor will be made less harsh by a multi-million pound annual income.
Gideon Rachman writes more seriously but he thought that the working class are not against the monarchy because they have worked out that it is "not the source of their problems" I suspect, however, if he had not been writing about the monarchy he would expect the working class to be against many things that do not seem to be the source of their problems. A deeper understanding seems to be needed. But because he does not fear being locked in the Tower of London Mr. Rachman does not object to the insult of being called a "subject". And apparently he could not give a damn for those who do object and who find the requirement of swearing an oath of loyalty to a family deeply offensive. Like other monarchists, Mr. Rachman thinks they can go to hell, if not to the Tower.
Living in Financial Times
Usually the FT writes seriously about financial aspects of the monarchy. But not for the jubilee. In a headline it described the property from which the Crown Estate takes its revenue as the "Queen's property". It is not. It's the property of the people. Last year, when the government agreed that the Windsors could have some of the Crown Estate revenue in place of grants, the Financial Times reported that this was as astounding concession to Windsor claims on the Estate. It said that the Windsors were rejoicing. But this time there was only deference from the FT.
A newspaper that lives in financial times might also have asked what sense there is in allowing Liz Windsor to take £13m in just one year from the Duchy of Lancaster. Or in allowing her son to take £19m from the Duchy of Cornwall. It might have used the analytic skills of its journalists to tell us how much in real terms the Windsors have taken over the 60 years of Liz's rule. It might have looked at whether the 0.5 per cent GDP loss that the national jubilee shutdown was expected to cost was justified. But instead it gave us more Windsor-worship. Even a story about more people crossing the Channel to buy cheap booze because the exchange rate had moved in favour of the pound was angled towards the monarchy this weekend. The cross-channel trips were to buy drinks to celebrate the Windsors we were told, as if this business had not boomed in earlier years when there was no jubilee.
Max Hastings, while not as complimentary about Elizabeth Windsor as many of her admirers wanted, showed no doubt that she had done a grand job. He too feared that the British might choose David Beckham if allowed a democratic head of state. And while he conceded that "the young and immigrant population" might not take much notice of the jubilee, he thought their indifference did not matter at all. His colleague Matthew Engel had also noted that "the young and the casual were greatly outnumbered" by others in the celebrations.
The British Problem - The Class Problem
What was particularly noticeable in all of this was the lack of any respect for the republican point of view, any serious consideration of democratic rights and principles, and any discussion of the huge amounts of money transferred from the people into the pockets of the Windsor clan. It was not thought shameful to accuse the British people of an inability to choose a democratic head of state without opting for a football celebrity. References to another citizen as "Your Majesty" or "Your Royal Highness" were not laughed at.
The ban on republicans serving in the legislature, judiciary and armed forces was ignored. So was the illegitimacy of the head of state for a large section of the population. The British state was not faulted for its egregious failure to recognise its citizens as equal citizens. The connections between monarchy and the privileges given to the followers of the Church of England, the state Church, were not examined. The worship of a woman who is not ashamed accept financial rewards that would make an investment banker blush, a woman who is not ashamed to benefit from systematic discrimination against fellow citizens, was presented as admirable.
When tradition and continuity are given a higher value than justice and progress, when spectacle, class hierarchy and privilege are put above democratic institutions and values, when pragmatism pushes out principle, a price must be paid. It is paid by the republicans who are disenfranchised. It is paid by the people who are robbed of millions each year. And it is paid for in the debasement of the character of a people who instead of taking pride in their rights as citizens, bow their heads to a "royal" family and to a state that says they are second class at best.
Larson describes the strange travels of the head of England’s self-styled Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. It was sliced off in 1661, three years after his death, "impaled on a twenty-foot pole and mounted on the roof of Westminster Hall for the whole of London to see", found its way "into private circulation", then was "transformed into a curiosity, a precious relic and a business opportunity". Finally, "in 1960, during a small, private ceremony, Cromwell’s head was buried in its old oak box somewhere beneath the floor of the ante-chapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge".
Jonathan Yardley reviewing Severed by Frances Larson in the Washington Post.