The words with apparently straightforward meanings are often the ones which cause the greatest confusion. As I mentioned in a previous post (such as this one on the Press), the thinker Isaiah Berlin identified over 200 users of the word freedom making it almost useless for practical purposes! Another word is equal, fine when used in an arithmetic sense but when applied in a social justice domain things become opaque very quickly. Republic group’s #bornEqual campaign resonated with a lot of people, but also inevitably caused some confusion. ‘But we are not all born equal’ some members of the public assured me. So some clarification is in order.
The phrase Born Equal could either mean a declaration of the biological condition of our birth or, alternatively, an aspiration of the kind of society we wish to bring about (we should all be born equal). For most of us being born equal can be a statement of physiological fact, possessing a brain, two arms, two legs and so on. Some objections to born equal, however, arise from differences in the extent we come into the world with innate abilities in such matters as visuo-spatial or intellectual abilities. Debate still continues as to the extent to which ability is the result of nature or nurture but what is certain is that a person born with significant talent but with no opportunity to develop or use that talent will not realise its potential. This leads to the second sense in which people claim we are not born equal since we are all born into different circumstances. Our parents have, for example, different skills as parents and hugely vary in terms of wealth and social standing. But a progressive social system must be able to help those without the environmental advantages to flourish.
Where does this leave us with the monarchy? Firstly the heirs to the Brtish throne have massive opportunity in terms of wealth and privilege (environment) but there is no evidence that there is any ability to use this wisely (nature). As political activist Tom Paine pointed out, a hereditary Head of State makes no more sense than a hereditary mathematician! A boy or girl born in Britain today may have enormous potential to be a unifying and progressive Head of State, but such aptitude will be crushed immediately by the ultimate debasement of the concept of social mobility which is monarchy. Furthermore it is strange to me why many parents accept the social inferiority of their own children. Our present solemn commemoration of the huge loss of life on the Somme a century ago provides a final thought about birth inequality. The attitude of Queen Victoria engendered a cold and emotionless family life which bordered on the sociopathic. This attitude, combined with an feeling of inferiority resulting from a withered arm led her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II to become a dysfunctional autocratic ruler, prey to the manipulations of his aristocratic army generals. Although the causes of the war are numerous and hotly debated, the contribution of ‘Kaiser Bill’ to the 1914 disaster cannot be ignored. While inequality as a result of wealth is difficult to solve, the putrid inequality of an archaic social hierarchy has well known solutions!