The first insulting thing that happened when Prince William’s engagement was announced was that Radio 4 called me a commoner.
Perhaps not directly, they didn’t address me by name, James Naughtie didn’t lean out of the radio and flutter a lacy handkerchief in my face – but they said: “Prince William will marry Kate Middleton – a commoner”. As Kate Middleton is posher than me, you and most people we know, this means that the news called us commoners – right to our faces. This gets to the core of why I’m finding the royal wedding so disgusting. It’s insulting – massively, personally insulting.
It is insulting to know that a constitutional position with real influence and genuine power is held and will be inherited by people with no better claim than the vagaries of their originating genitalia.
It’s insulting to live with the knowledge that no matter how splendid our talents, how hard we work and how lucky we are we will never be head of our state. People sneer at the American Dream and its flawed premise that any American can be president but the ambition is, at least, not forbidden by the public protocols of the government. The dream of British democracy is that any of us can be the Queen’s first minister, the head of her majesty’s government and a servant to the sovereign.
Even if it were the case that the sovereign’s role was purely constitutional and that she was unable to exercise any real power (it isn’t, but suppose) to dress the highest achievable role in politics – the platonic ideal presented to our schoolchildren as the outcome of hard work and ambition – in the sickly language of the servile is insulting.
Having spent a lifetime convincing people to vote for you, to campaign for you and to lend you the awesome responsibility of democratic legitimacy by offering their consent for you to govern, it is insulting that you should have to ask the Queen’s permission to form a government. Who cares if she always goes along with the vote? Who cares if the power is symbolic? Symbols matter – it is insulting to see a democratically elected leader bow the knee to a person who has attained her position by birth. It should offend the honour of every free person who has cast a free vote.
It is insulting, too, that – should you die intestate and without heirs – the queen has first refusal on your Astra and your box set of West Wing DVDs. It’s insulting that the monarch is exempt from Tax. It’s insulting that she has the power to order your extra-judicial detainment. Again, who cares if she doesn’t ever order any such detainments? It is still insulting that such a person should have any claim to such a power – stupid too that such a power is given to people for whom we have no institutionalised guarantee or test of their ethics, tendencies and commitments to common morality.
It is deeply insulting that the monarch is immune from prosecution. The rule of law is too often imagined as ‘the rule of police’ by excitable young people, but it isn’t at all: the rule of law is the radical guarantee that the government cannot act arbitrarily while exercising its power. Under the rule of law you are not subject to the whims of despots. Fundamental to this principle is its universality – it is undermined if people are immune to legal sanction. There is perhaps a reasonable case to be made for the immunity of elected leaders – there is no case for immunity being extended to any person not subject to elections, symbolic or otherwise.
It is insulting to our daily experience of life. London’s royal parks, for example, are used with the queen’s permission. New Yorkers don’t need anyone’s permission to use central park – it is owned by the city. Londoners who visit the royal parks’ website are informed smugly that they can visit ‘for free’, which they can, at present, but it is insulting that the public have no right to this grace and favour privilege.
The wedding itself is insulting. It’s insulting that the guest list is riddled with infectious little dictators. It is spectacularly insulting that police have imposed a blanket ban on demonstrations along the procession route unless applicants agree to postpone their protests until ‘later in the day’. It is insulting that the news media have devoted hours and hours to fawning coverage. It is insulting that, even though the BBC felt obliged to balance their reporting on Elton John’s becoming a parent with an interview with a rabidly homophobic Christian fundamentalist – they have only nodded toward the republican position held by millions. It’s insulting that high constitutional office is being conferred on a woman based solely on the direction of an equally unqualified man’s lust.
It’s astonishingly insulting that, having been forced to swallow the over-sized emetic pill of hereditary privilege we are then asked to sign off on male-preference primogeniture – by which the privileging of a male heir over an elder female sibling is enshrined: just as a final kick in the teeth to any sense of dignity and natural justice we might have had left.
The main pro-monarchist argument you hear these days is that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, it’ll cost thirty million quid – but what’s that in the scheme of things? Yes, the hereditary principle is rubbish, but do you really want something as vulgar and American as a president, how ghastly! Yes, it’s stupid, antiquated, annoying, a waste of money, retrograde and tacky but it makes some grannies happy doesn’t it? And street parties are nice aren’t they? It doesn’t really matter, they don’t have any real power, it’s constitutional and they do bring in tourists, don’t they?
Well, I’m rhetorically sorry, but no: it does matter. It matters when people are insulted in this way. The monarchy is an affront to the dignity of the free citizen. It is an offence to the law-abiding and the tax-paying that the universality which justifies their submission to tax and to law is critically undermined by the most famous of their countrymen.
A lot of people believe that we have a capitalism problem in the UK. But we don’t, really – we’ve never had the chance to develop a proper capitalism problem. Our cancer is still class. It’s always class. Class infects us from the bottom to the top. Last month we could watch some comedians who went to public school and Oxford interview some journalists who went to public school and Oxford about some protesters who went to public school and Oxford who occupied a shop which sells to people who mostly went to public school and Oxford in order to annoy some politicians who went to public school and Oxford – this was the public debate that was generated by half a million TUC members marching in the streets. I don’t doubt or mean to impugn the good motives of any of the participants, you can’t help where you went to school or be blamed for embracing opportunities – that’s just Britain: the elite debating the elite while the masses are reduced to a footnote. The media staffed by those who can afford to build CVs working for free and the house of ‘commons’ stuffed with old Etonians in a coalition based on two public schoolboys finding they had more in common than one of them did with a grumpy Scot from a state comprehensive.
Parliament itself is a hugely overbearing institution. It’s cavernous Hogwartsy stone halls, aged leather and absurd golden trimmings are designed to provoke awe and submission in those who enter it: and it works, it wrong-foots you; challenges you to either submit or rebel while forbidding you from entering it as an equal…
Unless, of course, you attended Eton or St Paul’s and Christchurch or King’s – buildings which look, smell and feel like the palace of Westminster and which condition their alumni to feel entirely at home within it. This is how class works in the UK – subtly and insidiously. The life of the commoner is littered with gentle wrong-footings and minor disadvantages. It’s hard to pin down exactly, but the results are all around us all the time – smiling, charming and hard-working and chiding you for your vulgar attempts to bring up people’s backgrounds and indulging in silly old class politics.
Our outwardly powerless monarchy acts as a constant focal point for our wheedling class system. It is the benchmark by which class can be judged. It forces the language of democratic institutions to be obscurantist and ugly. It caps the ambitions of our children. It pretends to girls that a good marriage can trump a good life. It promotes the idea that to be classier is to be better and, consequently, wastes a great proportion of our talent. It divides the people from power. It makes all our political reasoning hypocritical and it reduces us to living in a tourist attraction for the richer citizens of republics.
It insults us, and calls us commoners, and we shouldn’t be putting up with it at all, let alone celebrating the kitschy indulgences of its gauche and queasy future.
There is no future in England’s dreaming. Enjoy your quiche and little flags.
EDIT (JUNE 2012):
Considered writing all this again for the Jubilee but nothing’s changed and I think I covered most of what I wanted to say. This year, I think this: