Sunday 3 June 2012

A letter to the jubilee

Dear Jubilee,

Many people have strong views for or against the monarchy. I don't. The monarchy is one of those facts of British life to which foreigners become accustomed, and if some of them remain bemused by it, as I do, it is only because they are bemused by much else.

The line I took on the jubilee elsewhere was a one-liner that went: Thank you for taking me in. The bed's great and your taste in carpets is fascinating. Even if my thought proceeded much further on the subject, I would, as a foreigner and beneficiary of the state's goodwill some fifty-six years ago and ever since, feel somewhat hamstrung in expressing an opinion. Thank you for taking me in. The bed's great but your carpet offends my sensibilities sounds so churlish as to be downright ungrateful.

Those who are passionate on either side of the argument have no time for such niceties chiefly because they have had no occasion to employ them. My domestic analogy might make some sense to them (you don't piss on your host's carpet) but it will seem petty in view of larger issues.

It does not seem quite so petty to me. Were I asked to construct a state I would not begin with a monarch or with any form of hereditary privilege, I'd go for a republic. That would make me a republican under most circumstances. I have in fact many British friends who are republicans, possibly the majority of them, but I move in the world of the arts where monarchists are rare. There are more fiery revolutionaries among them than you'd find in most literature, but then again they are mostly literary revolutionaries who have never seen a revolution in their lives nor are likely to see one. They are very good people and right about most things, and I am of the left - that is to say of their party - by instinct, but in this respect we differ. Revolutions tend to eat their children and I keenly agree with the principle that eating people is wrong.

This does not prevent me having revolutionary feelings about the usual things including the excesses of capitalism and the injustice of hereditary privilege, feelings that a severe financial crash fuelled by market greed might intensify. In so far as I am egalitarian and quite fiercely democratic by instinct I would, as I have already stated, be of the revolutionary party should an occasion for revolution arise, but I do not see it arising just yet. In the meantime I lack the capacity to make even a show of literary revolutionary gestures.

And yet there is something disgustingly grovelling and toadying about the rhetoric afforded to royalty on royal occasions. I have friends who are monarchists, friends of quite conservative views who are intelligent, decent, sometimes quite brilliant people. They are not of the highly privileged classes and have no great sum of possessions, but they do have a belief in continuity, in a sense of obligation to history, in a scheme of values that is not inimical to a humane existence. I cannot quite see them toadying to dukes and duchesses simply because they happen to be dukes and duchesses. The toadying would, I believe, disgust them too.


We spent the broad middle of the day with our daughter, her husband and our grandchildren, leaving the TV on in a desultory way, occasionally glancing at the flotilla as it moved down the grey Thames, the Queen clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful, and Kate Middleton aflame in red like a self-combusting postbox. The gilded barge looked as if its prow had been anointed with yellow ice cream. The boats moved by, the oarsmen raised their oars and everyone was proud of being where they were precisely at the moment that they were there. The BBC, when we could hear it, was at its unctuous worst, toadying and blathering for all it was worth.

I realise my description of the events above is a little like the so-called Martian poetry of the Eighties so let me continue speaking as a Martian.

As a Martian visitor to your shores, on the very point of sending a postcard home, I pay respect to your ancient, honoured, somewhat extraordinary customs and am grateful for your kindness in accommodating me. Furthermore, seeing how your planet seems to be a happier and less barbaric planet than mine (which has had a few revolutions of a not entirely literary kind) with, it seems to me, more enlightened and generous people in it, such details as barges and kings and queens and even hereditary privilege (our rich parents tend to have rich children back on Mars), I am content to remark only on the fascination of your carpets. Your cruelties are genuine cruelties, of course, but they are less crude than ours. Should you happen to change your carpet I would find that highly understandable but, as things stand, I couldn't possibly comment and remain your humble Martian subject. Signed, etc.


Anonymous said...

Dear George
I'm very glad you came. I hope there are many more like you still to come.

Gwil W said...

Austria should have kept the Habsburgs on, but severely reduced their powers, after the first World War instead of expelling them.

In 1920 they opted for the First Republic, then Austro-Facism, then the Third Reich, then 10 years Occupation by Allied Forces, then the Second Republic, and now ... what next . . . The Republic of Euroland?

The monarchy such as we have in the UK is a form of insurance against these kinds of European extremes.
It is also, in a similar way, the glue that binds the Commonwealth countries. It is a useful tool to have in our tool box.

One comment I heard on TV was that it costs about 89 pence per person per year to run the Monarchy. If that's true then it's a real bargain.

Dennis Tomlinson said...

I value the continuity of the British monarchy and the Queen as a national symbol in spite of the privileged cliques surrounding her. It would surely take a national existential crisis to bring the monarchy down, such as the defeat of the German Empire in 1918.

However, I also believe that the seas separating Great Britain from the Continent have helped to keep the state stable, probably a more important factor than the monarchy. If the armies of Napoleon and Hitler had been able to march in overland, then Britain might have had a chequered history like that of say, Belgium and Holland over the last 200+ years.

Liam Murphy said...

Agreeing with last caller - and adding this: to call yourselves a 'stable state' without taking account of your de-stabilising of others is a narrow definition... God is stable - but look at her subjects..

George S said...

Who is she destabilising, Mr Panash? It was the last commenter with whom you say you agree, but it was he who referred to a stable state. You have me confused now. In what way are her subjects unstable. Do you mean her British subjects or some other subjects?

Dennis, you have a case and I suspect you are right that it would take an existential crisis to bring the monarchy down. But it wouldn't begin with the monarchy being brought down. It would begin with public order and the other institutions of state - army, police, civil service - wouldn't it?

Dafydd John said...

Firstly with the Olympic flame, and now with this monumentous extravagance (we're all in this together, after all),I've been thoroughly fed up.

Still, I visited the Urdd National Eisteddfod today (held at Glynllifon, Gwil W) - the ultimate meritocracy. Today's attendance was the largets ever. Clearly, I'm not the only one looking for a sane diversion. And quite brilliant it was, too...

And now I feel much better.

Gwil W said...

Dafydd John,

It seemed to me that Camilla spent half her time hovering around the Queen like a moth and pointing her long finger here and there. It kind of put me off. I think they should skip quietly over her when the time comes.

I actually saw Caernarfon Castle put to good use when I attended a Bryn Terfel concert some years ago. The moon and stars shone down their blessings on us all or so I felt. I still have my Cadwallader dragon on its little stick.

I'm sorry to hear on this morning's news that Prince Philip is in hospital after his exertions. I hope he makes a quick recovery.

Liam Murphy said...

I think it was philosophical point I am making. Should we define 'stability' according to only domestic policy and practice? Is it plausible to include foreign policy and practice in definitions of 'stability'? If foreign policy results in destabilisation of other states, how should this affect our definitions of British stability? And be it queen or sea, might the instability of other states be another possible necessity to what we consider as our own stability. I believe a certain Ms Klein (ms decline?) has popularised similar ideas...?

Dennis Tomlinson said...

Drem makes some valid points. I was thinking of the general stability of the British state since the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, but of course the military, political and economic forces of the British Empire caused a lot of trouble overseas. I said 'trouble' because I must have had the Irish 'troubles' at the back of my mind.

George S said...

Drem - I take your point and I can imagine what you are thinking of, but few nations would be thought stable, or stabilising, by that rule. None of the great powers would, in fact none of the middling powers would either.

In this case the stability referred to was, I believe, internal. The argument for the monarch as head of state is that, providing he or she works within a strictly defined but unstated constitutional framework underwritten by tradition and practice, very much including the understanding that the monarch has no say in government policy, there need not be regular rounds of elections or party struggles, and a lasting bond of some kind can be built with the people of the country.

And indeed that seems to have worked. I cannot imagine a president of, say, eight years service commanding the level of trust the Queen enjoys, even at rocky times. I only have to think of the farce of the Hungarian presidency to be reminded of that.

The counter-argument on the internal level is that, by being anchored in the aristocracy, the sense of privilege and patronage is at the very core of the constitution and therefore established not just as an ideology but as a psychological habit. Somewhere or other someone is always tugging a forelock (the BBC in the last few days, for example).

The usual British argument is: if it's not broken, don't fix it. The argument usually wins. Hence the stability. It is just that circumstances might arise - they might possibly arise in the current situation - where the centre does not hold in which case constitutional powers might be called upon to exercise the military options reserved for them as a last resort. Either that or the whole thing collapses by popular mandate and a new written constitution is set up.

That is what would be called a revolution. Is that roughly your view, Dennis?

Gwil W said...

Here in the Second Republic of Österreich estab, 1955 the president is 'elected' by the parliament, the parliament having been elected by a system of party lists of hundreds unknown persons with a few prominent names scattered along the top. In other words hardly anybody really knows who he is really voting for - one elects one'e party which is inevitably a coalition. It can happen, and does, that the party with the 2nd or 3rd highest number votes supplies the Bundeskanzler. The whole process can take several months to sort out and does. Not one parliamentarian has a constituency for which he is responsible and where he has to return to periodically to hold a surgery. The number of parliamentarians in the Second Republic (where we have 100% more politicians per citizen than the UK), is to be reduced by more than a 150 (so they say but I'll believe it when I see it). New ministers suddenly appear from nowhere and do a two or three year stint and disappear to be replaced by other unknowns. We are now on the third parliamentary investigation in a month - but we can't watch it on TV - for it is as always behind closed doors and the end result will be as always a fudge.

I sometimes feel that I am living inside a theatre, a kind of Punch & Judy box, where a black comedy farce is continuously being played out.

J.Marles said...

Umm, so no republic has ever "caused instability" elsewhere...?

George S said...

Was someone suggesting that, J? I imagine Drem's point was that bragging about stability at home (whatever the constitution) is one thing, but that a stable state may cause instability elsewhere. That state might well be a republic for all we know, unless he is suggesting that it is the very stability of a constitution (such as a monarchy) that enables a state to destabilise other states. I don't know. He doesn't go into that. I understand his comment as a hint that the UK shouldn't intervene in other places. He points us to Naomi Klein in that respect.

J.Marles said...

Well, without further specifics I'm in the dark.

I'd say it's usually unstable states which are the biggest spreaders of instability, e.g. Lebanon during its civil war, Rwanda/DR Congo in the 90s and early 2000s, Afghanistan since the 1970s etc, Syria now maybe (not that the type of stability offered by the Assads was any more desirable).

Liam Murphy said...

George, you imagine correctly (not what imagination is for..!) - Perhaps, the internal/external division of stability/non-stability is, by its' own definition - a nationalistic consideration - or at least NOT an internationalistic consideration...

I am very pleased that 'stability' - is here being well discussed in terms of it's relation to monarchies/republics etc.

To make a further point - or at least raise one - The internal/external distinction might also considered next to the distinction between 'haves' and have nots'.

This might be an ignorant question - but I am un-aware of the existence or even possibility of - a communist state with a monarch...

Point simplified:

It is both un-fashionable and often un-acceptable to consider wealth and stability as a result of poverty and instability - capitalism (i argue) dictates so.

Many thanks for the consideration of all.


Ashwednesday said...

Surely the major point about the Queen is that she is extremely good at what she does. Hence like any consummate professional who excels at his metier the affect binds a certain spell. Perhaps it is in this spell-binding that any notion of stability and constancy lies?

Liam Murphy said...

Perhaps ASH - but to learn that the Queen is a man....! Has she any knowledge of the 'gravity pumped'?


Liam Murphy said...

and perhaps we both owe this discussion a photograph?

J.Marles said...

I've got to admit, Drem, that most of what you say goes over my head. Like the peace of God, it passeth all understanding.

This might be an ignorant question - but I am un-aware of the existence or even possibility of - a communist state with a monarch...

Well,North Korea is an obvious example. Three generations of the same family exercising the sort of power the most absolutist of monarchs could only dream of.

The Kims also had a European fan, as Wikipedia reminds us:

"Ceauşescu created a pervasive personality cult, giving himself such titles as 'Conducător' ('Leader') and 'Geniul din Carpați' ('The Genius of the Carpathians'), with help from Proletarian Culture (Proletkult) poets such as Adrian Păunescu and Corneliu Vadim Tudor, and even had a king-like sceptre made for himself [...]

"Such excesses prompted the painter Salvador Dalí to send a congratulatory telegram to the 'Conducător', in which he sarcastically congratulated Ceauşescu on his 'introducing the presidential scepter.' The Communist Party daily Scînteia published the message, unaware that it was a work of satire."

max mackay-james said...

Our Jubilee Toast here in Ukania (as the historian Norman Davies calls these our Misty Isles)should probably have been, "Franz Josef", in remembrance of that other great longlived monarch of recent times. His Majesty celebrated his 60 years in 1914... and (not unlike many of the peoples of the Twin Monarchy) in the future we will probably miss Her Majesty when she is gone. Yes, whether we are republicans at heart or not, we will probably all come to miss her dreadfully.

Dafydd John said...

No, Max, all of us will not miss her terribly, or, indeed, at all!

This is the kind of thing we've been getting from the BBC - and just about all the media - for weeks on end. I can understand why they say it - it's political. There is a message they feel compelled to communicate. I don't understand, however, why you see the need to say it, Max.

It's nothing personal against her, I just won't miss her - terribly or otherwise - when she is gone. Why is that so difficult to understand?