Photo of Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen

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Ladies and Lords

Britain's Class System: No Honour for War Dead

Every British postage stamp includes an image of Liz Windsor, who had simply to be born into the right family at the right time to claim this honour.

Steve McQueen, artist, winner of the Turner Prize and later director of Twelve Years a Slave, wanted to use these stamps to honour some who were born into other, perhaps more conventional, families. They were the 110 British soldier who have died in Iraq. He had been commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to create a work of art on the Iraq conflict. And he knew that "The only people who are allowed to be portrayed on stamps are dead people, or the royal family".

But the Royal Mail and the Ministry of Defence did not like the honouring of these dead citizens. "They fobbed us of" Mr. McQueen said in an interview with the Financial Times. The Royal Mail chairman seemed interested at first but that interest did not last. The Ministry of Defence "were horrified" according to McQueen and not because he was making a political comment about Iraq. He was not

Mr. McQueen made clear to the Financial Times his contempt for the Royal Mail, which has honoured cricket players on its stamps but refused to do the same for those who have given their lives in service to their country. "If (the Royal Mail) can react quickly enough to commemorate the Ashes (cricket) series, then an 18-year old who catches a bullet in this head can be honoured in the same way. I mean, come on. Catching a ball?"

McQueen had not reckoned with a state that awards honours for being born into an "aristocratic" family or for giving cash to a political party. But not for giving your life for your country. For being successful in business or as a pop musician. But not for giving your life for your country in a military that is riddled with class distinctions.

He had not reckoned with the British political system or the British social hierarchy. He had not reckoned with a system in which the state is not referred to as "the people" but as "the crown". He had not reckoned with the British preoccupation with elites. Not with the intricacy and bureaucracy of an honours system as complex as the class hierarchy it reflects. Nor with a system that uses as badges of honour feudal titles that make a mockery of the common people. In such a system the honouring of the common people is almost subversive.

McQueen went ahead and created the stamps anyway. They were displayed in February in the Manchester Central Library. The majority of the families of those commemorated have declared their support for the project that the British state rejected.

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