The monarchy is kept in place as a result of its constitutional role, right? Not quite! In reality it is a grand exercise in the maintenance of public affection. In fact, way back in 1977 at the time of the Silver Jubilee, no less a person than the distinguished historian A.J.P. Taylor concluded that the continuance of Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy was not so much dependant on its executive power but in upholding its emotional and symbolic links with the British public. But authors had been pointing this out for a century! In reality much of the modern monarchy’s executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the other roles could easily be reassigned. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury would reasonably be head of a disestablished Church of England. So the Monarchy is nothing more than a complex exercise in the continual generation of popularity. How is it done in the sophisticated 21st Century? Enter the corporate branding experts! In two previous blogs (you can read them here and here) I outlined the fact that the Monarchy has become essentially a corporate brand and promoted as such (for example see this study).
In previous blogs I pointed to marketing experts who discovered that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods, for example, now being viewed as a ‘lifestyle choice’). It includes everything from cars to mobile phones to chocolate bars and so on (if you are in any doubt just look at Apple’s advertising!). As a result of the application of these principles to the monarchy, people often use the Royal ‘brand’ as a means of reassuring themselves as to the type of person they are (‘patriotic’, ‘loyal’, ‘British’ etc), as a means of self-expression or a lifestyle ‘beacon’ to others. People will often seek ways in which they can express this personal identity and the courtiers at Buckingham Palace are careful to provide a complete range of products and activities to support this; garden parties, parties in the Mall, walkabouts, royal visits so people can wave plastic flags.a whole range of tangible items such as mugs teatowels etc. This has led to a reliance on the monarchy by a greater or lesser proportion of the public for the maintenance of at least a part of their own identity. The result is a family, the Windsors, being psychologically addicted to privilege whilst a great many people are dependent on that behaviour in a form of co-dependence.
It is unthinkable that I should adopt an institution dedicated unaccountable privilege as an integral part of who I am as a person. But, as a British Republican I recognise that I positively adopt aspects from history and my environment as part of my identity. For example, many of my friends and family are aware of my deep affection for the poet Shelley. Similarly a part of my identity is bound up with the great scientists, artists and radical political thinkers who were born in Britain or moved here from other countries. My symbols are those which championed freedom, the Rosemary branch, Sea Green banner and suffragette tricolour to mention a few. Monarchy, empire and aristocracy have no place in my heart and thus form no part of the construction of my identity.
This blog post is very different from usual. Normally I present thoughts about freedom and equality; republican ideas jostle with reports of political events I have attended. I will admit that some posts deal with particularly obscure and arcane bits of our constitution I find irksome or dangerous. But in the week where we commemorate 50 years of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales I want to relate a few personal reflections and impressions, however fleeting and vague.
When the disaster occurred on 21st October 1966 I was a 5 year old living in Tredegar at the head of the Sirhowy Valley about 10 or 11 miles away from Aberfan. The mines had been worked out in my area but with the South Wales Area NCB maintenance operations still going strong in the town and Pochin service colliery still operating a few miles down the valley, mining was still the main focus. The human memory is a peculiar thing and it is easy to fall into the trap of false consciousness, of memories which are invented but have all the appearance of reality. So trying my best to eliminate those I am left with precious few recollections. As you may expect for a 5 year old the memories are impressionistic rather than of specific situations or events. Whenever I think back to that day the overwhelming feeling is of darkess and anxiety. I can remember nothing of the morning in my little primary school a few hundred yards up a hill from where I lived, but I do recall the afternoon being disrupted with myself and my schoolmates being brought together in the hall. I was allowed to stay up later than normal that evening by my mother, probably until about 8 or 9 o’clock. Two memories are very clear. Firstly listening the news updates on the radio with my mother doing her best to explain what happened. The second seems peculiar. But I remember my mother fishing my father’s wellington boots out of the cupboard to warm them by the fire!
I shall explain the last memory first. Soon after the news started spreading men started arriving to start digging. Because of the nature of the disaster much of the relief relied on sheer musclepower rather than machinery. From the mines and steelworks in the area men were literally finishing their shifts, throwing clothes and tools into cars and setting off for Aberfan. My father was an electrician at Ebbw Vale steelworks on an afternoon shift which finished at 10pm. He never went. Long before he got home there were so many people at Aberfan that they were getting in the way of the professional disaster relief teams and mine rescue crews who had arrived from Merthyr Vale colliery.
Looking back the impressions of darkness and anxiety are understandable. Anxiety I picked up directly from the emotional state of my mother who identified immediately with the loss of children about the same age as myself. The darkness was of two kinds, physical and psychological. As a young child I had no real sense of death. My maternal grandmother, my last remaining grandparent, had died of cancer in 1966 and my idea of death was that people simply left and you never saw them again. The physical sense of darkness came out of the conditions of valley life. The rain which had caused the tip at Aberfan to become unstable would have cast a late autumn gloom over the South Wales valleys for days prior to the event. Living in a valley with the hillsides creating a very high horizon, the lowering clouds would mean that evening drew in early and I can recall days when it hardly brightened at all. Secondly, being allowed to stay up late in mid autumn, a bright kitchen with windows shrouded in darkness is understandable, I do not remember my dad coming home at 10 o’clock in his little Austin A35 car. I guess I simply fell asleep.
I make no claim for these fleeting and faded recollections, apart from a desire to contribute something personal to the commemoration of this week. Maybe that is just egotism, so please excuse my indulgence. I simply offer them as my humble tribute to the 116 children and 28 adults who went to school that day just as I did but never came home. I also dedicate them to another group, those children of Aberfan who did survive that day and remain haunted by awful memories and feelings of guilt. Maybe some historian in the future will find these words of use but I doubt it, insubstantial as they are.
Much later I acquired sense of profound injustice at what happened that day and subsequent events. That will wait for another blog post.
In previous posts and articles I have described some of the ways in which the works of the great philosopher and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley have stood the test of time. My central point is that beneath the establishment whitewash, Shelley’s work is as relevant to radical politics now as it was two centuries ago; his concerns are our concerns. So it has been an idea of mine to take Shelley back to where he belongs – the streets of Britain, via a megaphone!
Protest and Poetry
This year the Conservative Party held its annual conference in central Birmingham between the 2nd and 5th October. As a means of protesting the Government’s austerity measures which has seen the poorer and more vulnerable members of society paying for the excess and incompetence of a broken financial system, the People’s Assembly organized a weekend of protest in the city. With our presence at the start of the Sunday protest march, the Birmingham branch of Republic Campaign drew attention to the fact that monarchy is one of the few institutions completely shielded from the cuts inflicted on the rest of society. This presented the perfect opportunity to debut my ‘Street Shelley’ plan especially as between 10,000 and 20,000 people would be queuing up to march past.
In an earlier postI pointed to the fact that in popular consciousness at least modern British Republicanism has a habit of defining itself in terms of not being Monarchism. It was not always so, as in past centuries republicans tended to argue their anti-monarchy stance as a natural outcome of their positive beliefs in causes such as the Sovereignty of Parliament in the Seventeenth Century and Chartism or Socialism in the Nineteenth, to mention but two. A brief look at the Home Page of Republic campaign highlights the problem, with one of the main images actually displaying the Windsor clan in Parliament in all its finery (as of 3rd October) – as if they needed publicity from Republicans! Whilst fully supporting the drive to highlight the iniquities of our current archaic system there needs to be a positive message for success.
One thing I point out to non-Republicans is that I am an anti-monarchist because I am a Republican and not the other way around. So what are the fundamental tenets of Republicanism which I advocate? Here is the briefest of outlines for the main points:
Popular Sovereignty. This means that we all have a stake in the laws and policies which our Government makes. I touched on this issue in a blog post dealing with the ‘taking back control’ rhetoric during the Brexit campaign. Likewise the boundary changessupported by the Government serve to take even more power away from the ordinary voter.
The Common Good, A society is healthy when the institutions and economic system is arranged to promote the good of everyone in society. At present this is clearly not the case with a dysfunctional system being kept afloat with vast sums of created money which serves to only inflate asset prices for the wealthy. There are alternative ways of rebalancing the economy away from elites such as democratising the control of capital.
Liberty. This is closely bound up with the first two points. We can only be free when there is no possibility of being subject to the arbitrary will of another person or an organisation. Without the means of controlling our lawmakers we cannot be said to be truly free. Likewise an economic system which increasingly serves to trap people in zero-hours contracts and poverty wages with little means of escape, giving employers disproportionate powers. This also results in millions of people being dependant on the state (thus sacrificing more freedom) to supplement their income. I consider it is the state’s responsibility to enhance the freedom of its citizens, not collude in its suppression!
Civic Participation. It is the duty of the state to encourage as many of its participants as possible to take part in decision making. But the way our system has evolved actively serves to prevent participation. There is a widespread feeling of being powerless in the face of major political power blocks and large corporations which is damaging our society.
This is clearly a broad brush assertion of principles and in some cases politically contentious in a party sense. But for me each of these four points stand in opposition to hereditary privilege. To take an example from each. Popular Sovereignty. The residual power of monarchy such as Queens and Prince’s Consent (to prevent debate in the House of Commons) is simply unacceptable. The Common Good. The Windsors possess or otherwise control large assets with the power to seize the mineral wealth under people’s homes or come to advantageous tax arrangements with HMRC! Liberty. Though not used since 1707, Royal Assent to bills must go, as must immunity for the Head of State from legal action. Civic Participation. Monarchy actively promotes an outsider, voyeuristic attitude to public life rather than promoting and welcoming input from people.
It is true that many of these issues afflict other parts of our system and consequentially I am in favour of wholesale changes such as reform of the House of Lords, to name but one. But ultimately it is my belief that mere anti-monarchism will not get the job done. Republicans need to sell a vision of a society to our fellow citizens which makes abolition not merely desirable but natural and unavoidable!