Sixty years? My dad’s worked for longer than that

My dad graduated in 1948, and, even then a committed pacifist, went off to work in India for two years as a volunteer for the Friends Ambulance Service. He’s worked for sixty-four years: teacher, Peace News seller, anti-nuclear activist, campaigner for peace and justice, parent and grandparent. No one will put my dad on a ten pound note for his exceptional public service and unwavering dedication to duty. (And he would be highly embarrassed if anyone were to suggest it, though I like the idea that I could always bank on my dad to buy me a cup of tea and a scone.)

I liked Patrick Harvie’s motion for debate

The parliament congratulates Elizabeth Windsor on the occasion of her diamond jubilee; expresses its gratitude for her exceptional public service and unwavering dedication to duty over sixty years in a changing world; affirms the respect that is held for all such dedicated public sector workers; and looks forward with anticipation to a broad debate about the best means of choosing a head of state in an independent Scotland.

and I am sorry the Scottish Parliament instead wasted parliamentary time in in a kneejerk yes-ma’am congratulatory fest for one of the richest women in the world. Alan Cochrane’s spite about Patrick Harvie’s affirmation of respect says a great deal about the Torygraph, but nothing we didn’t already know.

As others have noted: in Scotland, we’re mostly just not that keen on Royalty. The Edinburgh Reporter has done a Sixty Things list for the “Diamond Jubilee Weekend”, but if you look closely most of them don’t actually have much to do with the Jubilee, though there may be unnecessary Union Jacks and fake diamonds if you go.

Tiffany Jenkins writes:

There will be a celebration this Saturday on the street where I live; a festive do with bunting, bouncy castle and a band. The organisers are not English monarchists – they are not all that keen on the Queen – and, despite the date, the event is simply billed on the flyer as a “street party” with no mention of Her Maj. It will be Jubilee do that is neither loud nor proud; a quiet event – one of around 30 planned in Edinburgh for the Diamond Jubilee weekend.

The city, with the Palace of Holyrood, will host many of the celebrations in Scotland where, overall, only around 100 were given planning permission, this newspaper has revealed. There will be a concert in the Usher Hall and live streaming of UK events in Festival Square. But, given this is the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne – she will soon be the longest reigning monarch in history – it is a somewhat muted public response, especially compared to the estimated 9,500 parties scheduled in England and Wales.

So far, so lukewarm. We are not that excited about the Royal Family. The celebrations planned appear to be just an excuse for a drink and chat with the neighbours, a far cry from singing God Save the Queen.

Despite the patriarchal Norman laws of oldest-son-is-only-heir, for 150 of the past 409 years the United Kingdom has had reigning Queens – an equality ratio of 36.67%, which is substantially better than Edinburgh council elections manage to deliver. (Though looked at another way, it’s 3.5 out of 17, or 20.58%, which is substantially worse even than the UK Parliament’s equality ratio.) That a substantial proportion of Labour voters think that it would be neat to have the handsome young King William III & V instead of the boring grey-haired King Charles III, just says that for most people Royalty is really a kind of reality TV show where you should be able to vote off the ones you don’t like. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

Elizabeth Whatshername was born in 1926 and if we go by the lifespan of her mother, she’s likely to live til 2028. By which time Prince Charles will be 80, but handsome, young Prince William will be 46 and boring, just like his dad. But as Polly Toynbee said last year:

But let’s not speculate, for we know next to nothing of these best-marketed of global celebrities beyond the homely platitudes sparingly fed to the multitudes. We might agree that they are indeed “grounded”; we might ponder on the chances of a prince surviving so dysfunctional a childhood; or we may just wish them well and use the day off to party, as many did.

Is this what Britain is and who we are? Here was a grand illusion, the old conspiracy to misrepresent us to ourselves. Here arrayed was the most conservative of establishments, rank upon rank, from cabinet ministers to Prince Andrew to the Sultan of Brunei, the apotheosis of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator in excelsis, a David Starkey pageant choreographed by Charles, the prince of conservatives.

Of course Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had no invitation, being the prime ministers who held back the forces of conservatism for 13 years. Displayed in all its assertiveness was a reminder of what Labour is always up against as perennial intruder. Constitutional monarchy is constitutionally Tory, the blue inherited with its wealth, in its fibre, in its bones.

If we vote for independence in 2012, Scotland will become a member of the Commonwealth. Of course we can continue to regard the Queen as the head of state, and I certainly don’t regard this as a point worth fighting over beforehand, but I was disappointed that MSPs actually voted for it.

An English fantasy writer Kit Whitfield put forward the only logical argument for keeping the monarch as head of state:

To enter this world of Dantean customer service, we all had to pass under an archway. At the top of this archway were two framed pictures – tatty ones, looking like they’d been cut from some cheap magazine – of George Bush and Dick Cheney. America mooning the world, was my second thought, but my first, instinctive reaction was the sense, as I said, that this felt like entering a dictatorship. Not just because it was Bush, though obviously that didn’t help, but because putting the president up on the wall like an icon you pass under to enter the country is not the usual decorating choice in a democratic country. I’d been to quite a few democratic nations by now, and this was new, and threatening. Elected officials are not usually raised so high.

But, I wondered to myself, would Britain do something like that? I didn’t think we’d put any face out so prominently … but we might put a picture up somewhere in the airport.

The thing is, it wouldn’t have been of the Prime Minister. It would have been of the Queen.

And in that moment, I realised I was a royalist.

Here’s the problem. Some people have itchy knees; they need to genuflect to something, and if nothing suitable is around, they’ll genuflect to something unsuitable. And that can be extremely dangerous.

Authoritarians like symbols; they like people to set above themselves and treat as an incarnation of the country and its values. If nobody else will do, they’ll do it with someone who’s supposed by their very nature to be first among equals and nothing more. But there is an alternative: have in place a traditional, unquestionably legitimate symbol – who can’t do very much damage.

But is she right? Do we need a Royal Family as a kind of harmless prayer mat, a padded surface to fall on which won’t break our knees? In the UK we have harmless Royals: the worst thing they’ve done any time in the past hundred years was probably endorsing the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1938 – an act of appeasement for which Neville Chamberlain, rather unfairly, ended up with the tontine of blame. But you only have to look at the Royal Families of other countries to see the tripwire underneath the comfortable padding.

The Royal lunch: a platform for blood-stained despots and tyrants.

In a more general question about the origin of human government, Jack of Kent notes that in the beginning, before any form of human government, when we lived as other primates do in a troop of adults and infants – if like gorillas and chimps, with young females migrating from their mothers’ troop, then all the males would tend to be related to each other – then within the troop

power would be exercised entirely on a face-to-face basis. From time to time, a dominant figure would emerge, and that figure’s dominance would be on the basis of personal qualities or relationships.
Let’s call this figure ‘Silverback’.
If Silverback lost his (or her) life, or face, then their power would be lost, and a new dominant figure would then emerge. And that new figure’s power would in turn rest upon their personal qualities and relationships.
If this was the case, then there would be no wider concept of “leader” or “king”. It would just be that Silverback or whomsoever was dominant, and so they got their way.
But at some point – in an event which could be regarded as the political-linguistic equivalent of making a stone axe or controlling fire – there seems to have developed the abstract concept of political power, in the form (it would seem) of kingship.
As such, a figure – let’s call him Arthur – would have power not just because of personal qualities or relationships but also by reason of both he and his subjects sharing a concept of political power.
Arthur would be supported because he was king (or chief or general) as well as – or perhaps despite of – the force of personality in a web of face-to-face relationships.

In fifty thousand years of humanity have we learned no more than to accept an Arthur over a Silverback?

It’s not just the monarchy. There are countries – such as Sweden and the Netherlands – which have high social mobility and a Royal family.

But not in the UK. A report this week found that

“In the 1950s, the academics say there was the creation of more room at the top. The economy was becoming more professional, more white-collar jobs created, demands [increased] for higher quality, higher skill level and the sucking up of labour into the white-collar, better-paid jobs.

“The primary reason that social mobility has stagnated in the last 30 years is that there has been another big change in the labour market: the advent of a more knowledge-based economy where there is a high premium on qualification and skill and if you have those you get into the inner circle, if not there is constant insecurity, low pay and endemic poverty.”

Milburn added: “It seems that what is happening, as part of this growth of the middle class in our country, is that the jobs that are going to be created are overwhelmingly in professional careers. The question is: who gets the jobs? There is a real opportunity.

When Elizabeth II’s great-grandfather was King, my great-grandfather was a porter on the railways: his son was a railways clerk who married a teacher and kept a pub after he retired. My grandmother was determined to get her son into university, and when she was turned away from the first private school she applied to for him because his father kept a pub, she used a different address for the second application and my father, a day boy at a Cambridge private school in the 1930s, was under instructions not to let anyone at school know what his father did for living: school friends who came home for tea were taken to a friend’s house a few doors down.

My dad went to Oxford, and in 1950 when he got back from two years in India, got a professional, graduate-level job – though quarter of a century earlier, his father had been one of the workers in the General Strike. That’s social mobility.

In Oh Happy Days: A Personal Recollection Of Working For Jeremy Hunt Luke Turner, editor of Quietus, remembers “There was certainly a different attitude toward employees who’d been to private school, or Oxbridge, than to the rest of us” and notes on the effect of patronage and privilege:

It was quite a shock when, at one of the interminable Monday Morning Meetings, we were informed that Jeremy Hunt would be standing as a Conservative MP. We were surprised, not only because we were amazed that anyone would vote for this affable lummox, but also that he’d never really displayed much in the way of political enthusiasm in the past. As a former colleague relates, “He once said to me during the fledgling stages of his political career, ‘Well, both my parents are conservative so it’s a pretty much a foregone conclusion I would be too’.” The holy hand of patronage had plucked him out to replace Virginia Bottomley in the kind of safe Surrey seat that the Tories wouldn’t even able to lose if their candidate was caught, pants down, discussing Uganda with the gardener.

We of course followed Hunt’s progress with interest. To his credit, he seemed to be doing some decent work on disability issues in various debates in the House. But his appointment as Shadow Culture Secretary could not help but raise eyebrows. This was a man who, whenever he tried to engage with you and discuss your interests in music, art, literature or film, would glaze over and stare at a point somewhere in the middle of your forehead. Hunt’s interests seemed more to lie in Latin dancing, and especially Salsa, or in his fascination with China and Japan. In interviews, Hunt seemed like a lightweight, unsure of himself in front of the camera.

A country where Jeremy Hunt can become an MP, let alone a Minister, is one without any social mobility worth speaking of.

As a member of the Commonwealth, Scotland could still continue to regard the Queen as a formal head, and pay her expenses for visits (we could hardly stop her from visiting Balmoral, I suppose, though it’s a valid question as to who would pay for the Royal Family’s traditional summer holiday there). But we don’t need to maintain the hierarchy in government. We don’t have a House of Lords: we don’t have bishops sitting in government: the head of the Church of Scotland is not the reigning monarch: we don’t need this, except perhaps to have a picture to put up in airports.

I understand why Alex Salmond is handwaving fishily that “oh, nothing will change much – we’ll still have the Queen” because it’s part of his general pattern of campaigning for independence by assuring voters that it won’t make any real difference: from the opinion polls, the best chance of a Yes win in 2014 is still a low turnout because no one is really bothered about showing up to vote No.

But it would be interesting if, instead of the low-key don’t-worry-about it approach, the Yes Scotland campaign were actively trying to present positive, enthusiastic reasons for voting Yes.

Such as a nation without a crowned head of state.

Also, no nukes. After a lifetime of campaigning against nuclear weapons, my dad would finally be living in a country without them, and that would be better than a picture on a ten pound note any day.

4 Comments

Filed under Personal, Poverty, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

4 responses to “Sixty years? My dad’s worked for longer than that

  1. Hi and thanks for including a mention of our Sixty things you can do in Edinburgh this Diamond Jubilee weekend article. There is a disclaimer at the beginning – not all of the things are actually related to the Jubilee just a few fun things our readers might do over the holiday weekend…. Tango? Don’t think our Liz would be up for that do you?🙂

  2. If it wasn’t for the green agenda, which is his modus operandi, I would certainly vote for Patrick’s party.

    He certainly seems to be one of the most grounded and realistic politicians of the debate so far.

    His appearance on the BBC with Sturgeon et al was a real coup for the Greens, He was head and shoulders above anyone else on the panel or in the audience.

  3. Pingback: This week’s Diamonds of the Scottish blogosphere – Scottish Roundup

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