Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!

May Queen Cartoon
Cartoon by Peter Brooks for the Times Newspaper

Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day.  But things are not all they seem.  In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about here and here.  Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind!  An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:

Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.

This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past.  This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry.  There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.

A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive

But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading.  At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling  statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high.  I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot.  So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!

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The Queen; 50 Years of Trying to Subvert the Commonwealth!

Royalists were unable to contain themselves during the summer of 2013. Apart from the birth of George Windsor there was also this report in the Daily Mail.  According to the article the Queen was ‘discreetly’ campaigning to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position. Apparently this included getting David Cameron to speak to the other Commonwealth leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM13).  Now, it must be said that the Daily Mail has been known to get things wrong! There was certainly nothing in the final communique, but maybe that was because it was very discreet. But lets make the entirely reasonable assumption the story is correct. Such an assumption is supported by the royals own website which deliberately confuses matters by having a Role of the Monarchy on its Commonwealth page. The Queen may currently be Head of the Commonwealth as a person but that is not true of monarchy as an institution. The idea that anyone could be promoting the extension of hereditary privilege in the 21st Century is simply disgusting. Furthermore, the fact that a change in the constitution of an international organisation would be attempted ‘discreetly’ shows the complete lack of respect that the Windsor family has for Commonwealth citizens.

The Mail was indeed correct in stating that the words ‘does not pass automatically to her heir’ had been removed from the Governance section of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The site, however, still emphasises the fact that the Head is chosen collectively by the member states.  What gives the story credence is that the Queen had already attempted to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position.  When the Letters Patent were issued in 1958 to make Charles the Prince of Wales it was intended that he, along with his heirs and successors, shall be future Heads of the Commonwealth!

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More About Monarchy and Swearing!!

Oath

Last week I posted about the Royal Oath of Allegiance and why it needs replacing.  The post proved popular and I thought another look at some other issues surrounding royal oaths was useful. Firstly, it is worth reminding ourselves of what an oath entails, especially for young people who are encountering such things for the first time. Essentially an oath requires the individual to possess the ability to make and keep a promise and to understand what it means in terms of personal integrity to break that promise.  Psychologists actually regard it as one of the highest moral achievements in a young adult. It means that the individual understands that the promise made in an oath is offered seriously, to be taken at face value and to clearly understand the distinction from other sorts of promises which may be only a polite gesture (we’ll keep in touch when the holiday is over!!), not necessarily to be taken earnestly.

The Alternatives to a Royal Oath

In my previous post I highlighted the issue of MPs being forced to take the oath of allegiance.  It has often been noted that in the Parliamentary oath there is no swearing to the democratic principle or upholding the traditions of the institution. But down the years there have been suggestions for a more suitable replacement.  I particularly like this one by Tony Benn in 1988:

I, Firstname Lastname, Do swear by Almighty God (or Solemnly declare and affirm) That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the peoples of the United Kingdom, according to their respective laws and customs; preserving inviolably their civil liberties and democratic rights of self government, through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and will faithfully and truly declare my mind and opinion on all matters that come before me without fear or favour.

What About The Queen?

So what about the monarch, what do they swear?  The actual oath is in the form of answers to a questions put by the Archbishop of Canterbury, itself a problematic issue for people of other faiths and denominations or no faith. Here is the interaction from the 1952 Coronation of Elizabeth Windsor:

Archbishop: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?

Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.

Archbishop: Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?

Queen: I will.

Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

Queen: All this I promise to do.

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Prince Andrew’s Activites Blows the Myth of a Monarchy ‘Above Politics’

The scandal involving Prince Andrew trying to broker a ‘deal’ with an unsavoury Kazakh oligarch highlights just why we should be worried about the way the monarchy interacts with our Government. The myth that the royals are somehow ‘above politics’ is the illusion most zealously maintained by Buckingham Palace and only rarely do the real facts emerge and then frequently in a distorted form such as when the queen accidentally advised the Scots to exercise care when voting in the Independence Referendum. But we must remember the constitutional settlement where the monarchy gets to retain a privileged and wealthy existence (I have argued that they are actually addicted to it) in return for politicians using the archaic power of monarchy and to do their bidding when requested. The archaic power is operated through the Royal Prerogative and allows the Government to exercise autocratic control where the legal protections to citizens are at best unclear. This is a whole issue in itself, but let’s return to the Prince Andrew scandal.

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That Children Are Not Born Equal is a Stain on The Character of 21st Century Britain

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.

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‘Oh Dearism’; Start to Tackle it by Abolishing the Monarchy

As a Republican trying to persuade my fellow Britons of the need to remove the monarchy I sometimes encounter a kind of fatalism which says that even if we get rid of the queen we will still be controlled by rich and powerful elites essentially beyond our control. This is partly a problem of powerlessness, a kind of despairing acceptance of fate which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’. Now while I fully agree that the removal of monarchy must only be the beginning to the reform of our system, I nevertheless believe that it makes an excellent starting point. This is for a number of reasons, some constitutional and some psychological. I want to look at just two in this blog.

Firstly, the existence of a monarchy entrenches the position of a powerful political elite via the Privy Council. In fact, the system actually views the British Cabinet (supposedly our Government) as a sub-committee of the Council  (I’ve written more about these arechaic powers in this post) and we can see the importance of this to the financial elite in one example. The Crown Dependencies are managed under the auspices of the Privy Council and thus the tax havens of the British Virgin Island and the Caymen Islands to name but two are allowed to thrive. More widely the relationship between politicians and royals facilitates a taxpayer funded Prince Andrew (then supposedly a Trade Envoy) the opportunity to try and broker the selling of state assets to foreign oligarchs, thus cementing his position amongst a wider, global elite.

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The Royal Oath; An Invidious and Deceptive Anachronism

An oath is a formal declaration or promise to carry out an action or maintain a pledge. Many oaths call on God or a sacred object to act as a witness and most involve allegiance to a person or cause.  Oaths are made all over the place, many in a legal context. Such is the nature of the oaths which our MPs, military personnel (except the Royal Navy!), police officers and other public officials must make to the Queen. As the Republic group points out it is a complete affront to the spirit of democracy that our elected representatives have to swear allegiance to an unelected monarch. Here is the oath which our MPs must take.

I (MP name) swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

There are some variations which can be taken, such as a non-religious equivalent, but the substance is the same in all cases. Note that until they take the oath they cannot represent you or I and do the job for which they were elected. As I have pointed out earlier, this has been, and still is, a problem for some Irish political parties.

There are two things to note about the oath.  Firstly is the assumption that the monarch embodies the state in person and thus represents us all in a kind of social contract.  The fact is that this is a constitutional figment which has been abused for centuries is beyond dispute (see here,paragraph 3).  The difference is that whereas in previous centuries this abuse has taken the form of political or military oppression, in modern times this privilege takes the form of protections for private interests, such as mineral rights.

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A Major Task of UK Republicanism is Dealing with The Monarchy Corporate Brand

A few weeks ago shortly after the Queen’s birthday I posted a blog on how the presentation of the Monarchy has mutated in response to changing social conditions. I concluded by pointing out that the Monarchy is now essentially a corporate brand in the same way as, for example, Ford cars or Cadbury chocolate as numerous academic and business studies will attest (for example see this study by John Balmer). Furthermore, marketing experts have known for a long time that people select brands and brand culture in order to construct an identity of the self (many goods such as phones or clothes are almost solely presented as a ‘lifestyle choice’). 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 portion 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. Most examinations of the monarchy have missed this aspect and studied the institution from the point of view of social mobility, constitutional law or political science. All the while Buckingham Palace courtiers have busied themselves with the corporate marketing exercise (that the Queen herself clearly understands this important fact is underlined when she calls the royal family ‘the firm’). Once this is appreciated, a major aim of UK republicanism is clear. We must deal with the issue of identity and ensure that we replace monarchy as an integral part of the identity of ever greater numbers of British people. To do this we need to effectively recover or build afresh symbols, myths, images and events which offer superior value to the royal ones.

The Corporate Brand nature of the monarchy goes a long way to explaining why royalists frequently love the superficiality of a birthday party which leaves republicans cold, for whom the issues are deeper, running to equality and the rational accountability of power. An irony of the situation, as Balmer in the above article noted, is that if they are not the subject of debate then organizations can decline and die. The problem for royalists is to guide that debate in a controlled manner to exclude ways in which we can reorganise our Head of State and upper echelon of Government into a more democratic and accountable system. It is a typical royal tactic for example to encourage debate on such aspects as whether precedence should be changed to allow the oldest child, if female, to be heir to the throne or the fact that William should be allowed to marry his live-in housemate Kate rather than a sourced ex-blueblood. It is the responsibility of all republicans to frame the debate on our terms and give the royalists more debate than they can handle!

The Queen’s Birthday Celebrations; a Cynical Exercise in Corporate Branding

A few weeks ago during April (2016) I was invited to celebrate the 90th birthday of a very wealthy and privileged Londoner I knew little about, had never met and was never likely to meet.  For me Elizabeth Windsor is a media entity with no more reality than, say, Sherlock Holmes or Daffy Duck.  I cannot truly say I never wish to meet the Queen since I have some questions I would like to put to our Head of State! A casual observer of the British media, however, may have concluded that I was almost unique in finding the whole situation bewildering, not to say nauseating. That I am not a casual observer is evidenced by the fact that I made a brief appearance in Stephen Smith’s biassed BBC Newsnight package on Republicanism. By the way, my balding pate can just be seen in the background at a Republic Birmingham meeting as CEO Graham Smith was interviewed. I mention it in case my fame suddenly accelerates and I am the subject of a future Have I Got News For You round!

Back to reality and the whole experience led me to reflect on how this preposterous situation came about and, more importantly for todays republicans, how it is maintained.  The conclusion was that we are the victims of a single event which allowed a psychotic chancer and a bunch of bandits to seize power, initially in England, almost a thousand years ago in 1066. Now, we cannot be sure how history would be different if Harold’s troops had not been duped into breaking ranks, handing victory to William the Conqueror (or more correctly William the Bastard). It may be that I would be encouraged to celebrate the birthday of an entirely different Londoner equally remote and unaccountable.

So how did we get from that moment to 2016? Initially, the shock of conquest combined with the application of the feudal system subdued the population with William allocating tracts of land to his invading Earls, who ruled absolutely and in the case of the North of England, genocidally.  Coincidentally with feudal overlordship a concept was promulgated which still finds some traction hundreds of years later, the idea that the King is the ultimate protector and guarantor of the security and liberty of the people. If your Lord is oppressive then you can petition the King who will either summon the miscreant for punishment or arrive in person with a body of troops to sort things out.  It was on this acceptance of the nature of the King which the leaders of the Peasants Revolt (incidentally triggered by the imposition of a punitive Poll Tax) met with King Richard II in 1381, during which the leader Wat Tyler was slaughtered. This should have been a warning, but there was another crucial factor at work.  The concept of a society without a King was literally unthinkable to the vast majority of the population in medieval times. The King was appointed by god and was the earthly kingdom’s link with the eternal state of heaven.  An appointed Head of State was therefore impossible and only a very few were aware of the ancient Roman Republic or he existence of the Serene Republic of Venice with its Head (the Doge) elected by a closed college system.

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