03 June 2012

Bread and circuses

Much is being made, even as I write, of the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth Windsor having acceded to the role of Head of State. The BBC appears to find this anniversary so fascinating that it seems incapable of not mentioning the so-called Diamond Jubilee every five minutes, and reports stories of celebratory street parties being held beneath umbrellas in the pouring June rain. My neighbours next door, and those across the street, have nationalistic bunting and union flags festooning publicly visible parts of their houses and gardens. Cars are being driven with union flags secured like football team pennants to their passenger door windows. The newspapers have developed a royalist enthusiasm and fervour indistinguishable from an obsessional fixation.

In stark contrast, I am devoid of any desire to celebrate birth into privilege, and I have no more interest in the celebrity of royalty than I have in the celebrity of modern pop or television soap stars. Ordinarily I take no intentional interest in people accorded celebrity status - this is for at least two reasons: their lives rarely materially affect mine; and their celebrity status concerns aspects of the world that I consider to be 'part of the problem not part of the solution'. However, I do have an interest in national and international politics, including constitutional matters, and cannot ignore the circumstances of the head of state.
Why intelligent adults should wallow in adulation for a monarch and all that monarchy has meant, especially for the United Kingdom, is beyond my comprehension. Whilst not of a psychodynamic orientation, I cannot help but imagine that there must be some deep-seated desire amongst a vast swathe of the UK population, for the security of a powerful but benign parental figure. Would that the history of monarchical power in the UK anything like that image.
It is not that I am especially unhappy about the person who is Elizabeth Windsor. According to most, albeit sycophantic, accounts, she is an intelligent, pleasant, well-mannered person who takes an interest in affairs of state. However, on their own, these attributes do not qualify the person for the role, they simply suggest how comfortable the person may feel in performing the role. I do admit to bemusement that a person of intelligence should devote any attention to racing horses. My unhappiness lies in three directions. First, the manner in which the head of state is chosen; second, the fact of inherited privilege; third, that considerable power is given to one person for as long as they choose.
I was brought up in a recently-post-war Britain that for a while accepted the principle of meritocracy, or at least peddled a myth of meritocratic privilege. I suspect that this principle also has in fact a long political pedigree stretching back through the Liberal Party to the Whigs in attempts to curb aristocratic power. Even before that, the controversial figure of Oliver Cromwell (formerly a mere yeoman farmer) showed that once inherited privilege is swept away, those who can demonstrate relevant competence are able to handle the reins of state - Cromwell refused not only the crown and title of monarch, but specifically the right for his heirs to inherit the role. The people of many other countries, including Ireland and France, Russia and the United States, choose their head of state. I should prefer it were the people of the UK able to do likewise.
I do not have the space here to develop the three themes of meritocracy, inherited privilege and autocracy, so I shall give each a weblog posting of its own.
According to figures on the Channel 4 News website the 'celebrations' will cost the UK economy well in excess of a billion pounds in bunting and flags, policing and security, and lost productivity. Whilst some might applaud the opportunity for 'a couple of days off work', I find it hard to accept this national expenditure against the pressing needs of tackling unemployment and poverty afflicting northern England as a result of the economic recession. The public (private) school educated prime minister Cameron said that we "needed cheering up", and accordingly many thousands of people, watched by countless thousands more, paraded in a cavalcade of little boats on the River Thames in London, simultaneously re-enacting past Hanoverian processions and evoking folk memories of the rescue of British military personnel from Dunkirk, France, in 1940.
Maybe the Roman political principle of 'bread and circuses' remains alive even after two thousand years, countless social, political, industrial and technological revolutions, and more private opportunities for entertainment than it would be possible to shake a bundle of sticks at. Not that I agree with John Lydon: if Britain really were a fascist state then there are no circumstances under which I would be permitted to publish this weblog posting.

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