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The Monarchy: Give Them an Inch and They’ll… Become an Inappropriately Influencial Lobby?

The Queen sits between David Cameron and William Hague at a Downing Street cabinet meeting on the 18th December 2012.

The Queen sits between David Cameron and William Hague at a Downing Street cabinet meeting on the 18th December 2012.

At the moment, the national debate on whether we want to continue to have an inherited monarch as our Head of State is quiet. There is still plenty of grumbling from the liberal left, but it’s recognised that this is an issue which has little currency with the majority, and it’s hardly a priority for all but the most fervent. However, it is impossible for us to know whether this is okay or not, because we don’t know whether the terms of said consensus are valid. Accordingly, it is crucial that the relationship between the political elite and the social elite is made more transparent.

What I term, in the title of this post, the “standard conservative” defence of the monarchy is, I will confess, anecdotal. It is what I almost always encounter when I, as a tentative republican, suggest that we perhaps don’t require the monarchy, and it goes something like this;

  1. The Royal Family more than outweigh the financial burden they impose because they generate so much revenue via tourism.
  2. Although it would be unacceptable and undemocratic to have a monarchic ruler, this is not the role that the Queen plays. Her political role is purely ceremonial.
  3. The monarchy are popular with the public, perform a public service (the aforementioned ceremonial role) and represent part of our culture and history.
  4. Ergo, so long as (1) and (2) remain true, the validity of (3) means that the British monarchy is a good thing.

Patently, however, the value of this justification is dependent on points (1) and (2) remaining true. Point 1 is always contentious, but I don’t want to enter that debate right now. It is the second part of the argument which concerns me – do the Royals have an undemocratic influence on our politicians?

Today we found out that Prince Charlie has been liberally chatting up cabinet ministers* for the last 12 months;

Prince Charles has held private meetings with eight government ministers in the last 12 months, including Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury.

Palace records show he also met with ministers with responsibility for defence, culture and further education, as well as top civil servants involved in British defence interests in the Middle East and the UK economy.

Details of the meetings with senior political figures in the Westminster and Cardiff governments, including why they were held and what was discussed, have not been not made public, in line with a convention of secrecy around communication between both the Queen and the heir to the throne and government ministers.

[via Guardian Online – Robert Booth]

This is significant. We should be clear – although I don’t personally like it – that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Prince Charles meeting government ministers and discussing state business. Ministers meet all kinds of people, all the time. It was well highlighted when the Queen attended Cabinet that she was only doing the same as many others have done (it was pointed out by a former cabinet secretary that Lord Coe attended cabinet whilst the London 2012 bid was being prepared). If they wanted to, the likes of Gove and Alexander would be well within their rights to hold meetings with the Merseyside Spelunking Society.** The important question is: does Prince Charles wield undue influence because he is the Prince of Wales?

The complexity of “undue influence” is incredibly difficult to unravel, and I’m not going to attempt it here. What I think we can say is that if ministers go out of their way – change their plans, feel pressure – because of conversations they have with members of the Royal Family in their capacity as Royals, then this is a problem. At the very least, it would mean we need a new national debate about the Royals. My intuition is that the sweeping popularity of the Royal Family, highlighted by the Royal Wedding, doesn’t extend to the Royals wielding significant undemocratic political influence. Whether or not it does, I certainly don’t think that this – “do you want the Queen and her offspring to hold a notable role in determining national policy?” – is the question most people have in mind when they say that they endorse the monarchy.

But to really form opinions on this, and know whether we do need a reappraisal, first we need to know what actually goes on in these meetings, and crucially why it’s deemed appropriate to hold them. It may be that there is no problem at all, but we can’t know this. We must have more transparency.

* Not literally.
** I have no idea whether this society actually exists. If it does, I mean no offence.


Bullying Tories

A couple of days ago, if you’d told me that Tories at Oxford in the 80s were being bullied for supporting Margaret Thatcher, I’d have raised an eyebrow to say the least. That was until I read this;

“Miss Wyatt,” said the don, Harry Pitt (now deceased), “please translate the first paragraph.” I stumbled over it. A small man with a face like cake batter, Pitt was big on bile.

“Do Thatcherites refuse to learn French or are they just stupid?” he demanded. The other undergraduates giggled. Tears pricked the back of my eyes. “I suggest you take some basic French lessons in your spare time – that is, if you’re not too busy socialising,” Pitt snarled.

[Petronella Wyatt in the Telegraph, 2012]

I am intuitively sceptical about the OUCA’s claim that they are in need of equal opportunities protection. I’ve seen first hand the tendency of right-wing students to say awful, bigoted things reminiscent of some dreadful Mail article, and then express horror when the response is intensely negative, and it’s important to be sure that this isn’t what’s going on at Oxford. (Incidentally, I’ve also watched, first hand, drunken Conservative students chant “we pay your benefits” at passers-by – being nice is a two-way thing.)

That said, it would be a sad day if simply being an 18 year old Tory merits “personal attacks”, and Wyatt’s case in particular includes clear examples of unacceptable levels of victimisation and bullying.

It’s worth consideration.

Hello again.

This is the first post on this blog for a very long time.

The reason for my unannounced break is that, in September, I started at a new University, reading Medicine in a Graduate Entry Programme (in other words, “thrown in at the deep end”), and have since been extremely busy trying to get my head around my new world.

I always intended to come back to this blog, because I reason that regularly maintaining it would give me a guarantee that my newfound, scientific path won’t completely stifle my ability to think about society, politics and philosophy. I’m finally getting round to it!

As a point of interest, it pleased me a lot to note upon signing in to WordPress that the views haven’t completely dried up. This may well be the product of clumsy Google searches, but it’s still nice to imagine that, after the initial rush of views no doubt largely attributable to my Facebook and Twitter friends, these posts might continue to be read.

Hopefully, in the coming days, more posts will follow this one.

Ed Miliband meeting Mitt Romney is like Luke Skywalker having coffee with Emperor Palpatine

News hit today that during Republican POTUS hopeful and erstwhile dog abuser Mitt Romney’s visit to the UK this week, he will be meeting not only our Prime Minister, but Ed Miliband in his capacity as leader of the opposition.


For me this begs the obvious question of what on earth they’re going to talk about. Ideologically, the two men have virtually nothing in common – Ed the socialist, progressive Europhile versus Mitt the ultra-conservative, marketist Eurosceptic (or maybe ‘xenosceptic’ would be more apt). At the very least, let’s hope the awkward topic of Ed’s parentage doesn’t come up. It’s much clearer what Romney and George Osborne, also set to meet, will discuss – they share a commitment to free markets, state minimalism and a gleeful passion for welfare cuts.

More seriously, though, I do wonder why Miliband is agreeing to this meeting at all. Next week, Ed will meet Francois Hollande for a cosy chat about youth unemployment – a symbolic meeting of the two strongest critics of what Miliband terms ‘Camerkozy’ economics. This is the kind of international meeting which will embellish Miliband’s position, and beyond party politics, the kind of international meeting which from a left-wing perspective it’s very important he has. Mitt Romney may well be the greatest enemy right now in what could be a global left-wing resurgence. His election over Obama – leading proponent of quasi-Keynesian economics and charismatic champion of progressive politics – in a country which still (bizarrely) seems to often act as a benchmark for UK policy would be a huge obstacle for Miliband to overcome.

The Independent believes that Cameron’s agreement to meet Romney is a diplomatic barrier to relations with Obama. Obviously, the same pressures and significance aren’t present with Miliband; the single biggest gripe Obama will have with Cameron and Romney meeting is the potential for a photo worth a thousand words – the two men shaking hands outside the black door of Number 10. No such worries with such small fry as the Labour party leader. Nonetheless, I’m sure this won’t endear him.

The only valid reason I can see for the meeting is that a snub could seem churlish, and that this is an opportunity for Miliband to look statesmanlike and to appear to engage in serious debate about future global affairs. Politically (by which I mean psephologically) that’s probably the right call – only a very small sect of lefty hacks to which I belong will have any objections to the meeting, whilst conversely a ‘snub’ might receive a lot of negative press. In terms of politics qua doing the right thing, however, Ed Miliband should be keeping far away from Mitt Romney.

Beyond Tribalism

David Edmonds blogs about the Murray/Federer match in the Wimbledon 2012 final, and his decision to support Murray;

Why would one back ordinariness against genius?  Why would one root for efficiency over grace? Because Murray’s a Brit.

Murray and Federer

Murray and Federer; Wimbledon 2012 final

Edmonds’ is skeptical about the value of nationalism but goes on to justify it as a harmless tool for generating thrills;

That we both pay taxes to the same exchequer? That we’re both subject to the same laws and have the same citizenship duties and rights? That seems a weird basis on which to base any emotional attachment. That we share the same values? I doubt it.

But for most sports fans, backing one individual or side against another is integral to the enjoyment (and the pain). One can be impressed by the skills on display and from an aloof standpoint still appreciate the aesthetics, but partiality is what gives watching sport its passionate heft.

It’s energizing and enlivening to be swept along in a nation’s irrational exuberance. If nationalism is not the most logical criterion on which to select an athlete or team, well, that hardly matters – at least so long as democratic institutions are robust enough to prevent such feelings spewing out into more deadly arenas of contest.

[Sections removed from quote but no content altered.]

I agree that it can be energizing, fun and captivating to allow yourself to get swept away in the nationalist throes of a crowd. Watching the England vs Italy game during Euro 2012 in a Birmingham pub, I found myself sat in front of a group of roaring, fervent nationalists, chanting the praises of their great nation. Allowing oneself to join in instantly immerses the self into a lively collective, which is a great feeling. I got quite carried away, until the descent of the jingoists into the xenophobic and the indecent brought me crashing back to earth.

I’m not convinced by Edmonds’ justification of his nation-based choice to plump for Murray in the Wimbledon final. The bulk of it isn’t even a justification for nationalism at all – it’s a justification for taking a side. I can think of a host of other (some of them better?) reasons to pick one of those players over the other, if you feel the need to do so. Federer is a true master of tennis, and a joy to watch – support him on that basis. Murray is the underdog – support him on that basis. Murray has a sexy Scottish accent – support him on that basis. If Federer won, he’d go back to number 1 and match the all-time record for the most time spent in that position, and it’d be a privilege to see that happen – support him for that reason. Of course, one could also do as I did, and choose neither player to “support”, and just enjoy the spectacle and the skill.

The only part of Edmonds’ article which is a justification for taking a side based on nationality specifiter is that it’s fun to join in with what the crowd are doing. The problem is that this doesn’t really balance out the negative elements of nationalism. It’s not hard to imagine the kind of jingoist fervour I described earlier spilling over into something much more serious – see the worst elements of Euro 2012. Justifying nationalism on the grounds that it’s fun to be a part of the crowd is worrying because nationalism – seemingly harmless when you’re sat at home alone – rears its darker head precisely when it’s found in crowds.

(More on whether it’s actually harmless or not in isolation at a later point…)

Oakeshott’s daft ranting masks sheer untruths

I’m always amused, when picking up Oakeshott, by the unapologetic bitch about rationalist thinkers which he indulges in for the first few (i.e. about 20!) pages of Rationalism in Politics. It truly strikes as a frustrated man letting off some steam. The problem with it is that some of it is patently untrue, and the fast pace of Oakeshott’s articulate rant masks this at first glance. I want to take one example;

If the rational solution for one of the problems of a society has been determined, to permit any relevant part of the society to escape from the solution is, ex hypothesi, to countenance irrationality. There can be no place for preferences that is [sic] not rational preference…

This is simply not true. If all a thinker holds is that rational thought is useful – valid – such that an omniscient thinker could rationalise a perfect answer, and does not assume their own infallibility in the arrogant manner which Oakeshott casually insists (with no substantiation) characterises all rationalists, then they could state that they have rationalised a position, that this position is open to criticism from other rational positions, but still hold without contradiction that this method has more validity than irrational ones.

Given that I’m spending the next few days reading Oakeshott, and he fills me with anger, this post could well be the first of a few…

Rhetorical trickery doesn’t stop Alexander Boot being a homophobe

Frequent propagator of well articulated piles of intolerant bile Alexander Boot has come up with a stunner even by his standards: “Homosexuality IS a departure from the norm: We must beware of our civilisation being battered by the PC brigade.

The moral problems with posting an article arguing that it’s legitimate to ask people to stop being gay are astounding. In short, his article argues that it’s ok to ask people to stop being gay if you find them being gay a bit weird. Great.

One thing I really wanted to pick up on, though, is this;

Any reasonably educated person will be aware that homosexuality isn’t a disease. It is, however, an aberration.

Now before I’m tarred and feathered as yet another manifestation of the prevailing tolerance, I hasten to add that I use the word ‘aberration’ strictly in its dictionary definition: ‘a departure from what is normal or desirable’.

Since only about one percent of us are that way inclined, homosexuality is obviously a departure from the norm.

This is a prime example of something which really irritates me – the “now, I’m not asserting anything ideological here, I’m just compelled by some inexplicable desire to share dictionary definitions which might be semi-relevant to this discussion with you” approach to getting across bigoted messages without being honest about your bigotry. The core of the deception practised here is that the act of sharing information is, unless you’re an encyclopaedia, itself political. Actors choose what information they want to share and privilege, and manifestations of these choices communicate a great deal about the personal agenda of the actor. As such, it is impossible to innocently write an article claiming that homosexuality is an aberration; when you choose to write that, your choice and resulting action are homophobic.

Anyway, Boot conveniently chooses to ignore a set of other definitions of aberration which a responsible writer would probably consider. Take one from the Collins’ dictionary: “departure from truth, morality, etc”.

Even by the Mail’s standards, this is shocking stuff.

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