The Judge RANTS!
(Author's Note: I'm aware that the following piece meanders a bit. It was written over a period of two days in a desperate need to meet an obvious deadline).
I can't say that the Socialist Workers Party has ever impinged very much on my life. I've always regarded them as merely another one of those tiresome little sectettes on the far left who seem to be far more concerned with internal power struggles and ideological purity (hence the near-amoeboid schismaticism) than with actually getting off their arses and campaigning for what they claim they want to achieve.
However, there was one great favour that they did do for me. They made me a republican.
It must have been 1978. It couldn't have been earlier than that, for that was the year I turned sixteen and so was finally permitted by my somewhat overprotective parents to travel the four miles into the sin and debauchery that was Wrexham on my own.
(I never found any. I've never really got over the disappointment).
Now let me set a little of the scene for you. The country was having certain economic difficulties and was in hock to international finance. Low-paid workers, especially in the public sector, were being told that it was their destiny to remain low-paid in order not to jeopardise the recovery. There was conflict in the streets, usually provoked by the activities of the far right, and young people were agitating, even if they weren't altogether clear what it was they were agitating for. And it seemed that the State, the media and the corporations were all trying to push the same message; that those at the bottom must tighten their belts and accept the 'discipline' of the markets because to do anything else was to seek to want to live in the Soviet Union.
It could never happen like that now, of course. There isn't a Soviet Union anymore.
One recurrent theme in the shouty rhetoric of that time was the branding of all claimants of welfare benefits as 'scroungers'. The scum press was particularly vigilant at bringing us stories of people who were allegedly getting hundreds of pounds a week for claiming they were disabled when all they had was a broken toe; or someone who had claimed the dole when he was working as a freelance plumber; or of a man who was claiming for the seventeen children he had fathered with three or four different women. All taking for granted (with some expectation of being correct) that the 'decent, hard-working, law-abiding, cliché-ridden taxpayers' who read their scandal sheets would conveniently overlook the fact that if such cases were as prevalent as they were portrayed as being, they would no longer be news (on the 'dog-bites-man' principle).
Day after day, week after week, the tabloid rags would bring us the latest in their morally-elevated campaigns against 'scroungers', self-righteousness piled upon disingenuity. We shall not see those days again, shall we?
But back to me and the SWP. I had walked into town this one day (it being a dry day and money being far too tight to afford to pay the bus fare both ways), and had just crossed the little bridge over the River Gwenfro by the old Maelor Hospital. There stood a dilapidated concrete bus shelter, its glass windows long since removed by privately-enterprising individuals by means of various bricks. On the inner wall, facing the unwary pedestrian, was a poster with 'Socialist Worker' on the bottom of it in large, red letters. At the top of it was a headline: "Spot The Scrounger!". In between was a black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged woman of short build bending over to examine the contents of a greengrocer's display. The shot was from behind her, so her face couldn't be seen, but the shape of her was, shall we say, reminiscent of someone very well known.
Any doubt as to who exactly was being portrayed was dispelled by the text, which began, "Elizabeth Queen" followed by a short list of what it was claimed she was getting from the system. It ended with the cry, "To hell with the Social Contract!".
I thrilled somewhat at the subversiveness of the poster. Please bear in mind that this was the year after The Jubilee (as Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee was called, in the same way that World War I was simply called 'The War' until the syndicated re-run started in 1939), when a society which was being dragged apart by financial, political and social upheaval had - we were assured - all been brought together in a pageantry of rejoicing at having had someone of her quality long reigning over us. Wall-to-wall media fluffiness had been imposed, and the occasional squeak of dissent had either been sat on or, if truly persistent, countered by displays of synchronised tutting and shushing from those who controlled the channels of public communication, allied with an outbreak of mind-warping conformity and deference which would brook no disagreement, even to the extent of physical violence should someone be heard to offer an opinion which was disrespectful towards 'our' Queen. The bunting had been allowed to grow over public discourse like so much Japanese knotweed, throttling growth and permitting no light to enter.
So the sight of that poster was refreshing to someone who had - with a limited degree of interest - lived through all that. If nothing else, it reassured me that I was not alone in having severe doubts about the validity of what I had been seemingly required to endorse (if only by mute acquiescence) the year before.
The general principles by which I steered on this matter remained somewhat inchoate, however. But over the next two to three years I became a fervent Nationalist, and the thought of being reigned over not only by a monarch but a foreign monarch - and being lorded over by her ridiculous son, to whom also we were expected to bow and scrape - started to crystallise my sentiments. This was especially true when I started to take notice of the terrible sychophancy and cloying sentimentality which surrounded the whole edifice. In much the same way as it is difficult now to understand why some of the poorest, most downtrodden people in the United States are nonetheless staunch voters for a Republican Party which has long ago abandoned even the pretence of being remotely concerned about their well-being, so I began to question by what twists of thought otherwise dignified people could be brought to multiple orgasms by the thought that 'Her Majesty' or 'His Highness' would be in roughly the same spatial co-ordinates as they were for about ten minutes, when those figures considered the plebs as nothing much more either than background or gravel. The lack of self-esteem involved in being able to perform such an obeisance stuck in my craw.
So it was that the first real demonstration I went on was against the monarchy. It was October 1981, it was Swansea, and it was against Noddy and Big-Ears' visit in the aftermath of That Wedding (an event which I had avoided by conspicuously taking a six-mile walk up Hope Mountain with my radio firmly tuned to the Hungarian service of Radio Free Europe, which had quite a good rock show on it at that time). It was in Swansea that evening that I saw a number of things which might be termed 'consciousness raising': I saw that my views were - at least in terms of their public expression - that of a hopelessly outnumbered minority; that there were nevertheless those from outside my student milieu who shared those views, however few in number; that the mass of the population appeared to be under some sort of enchantment, and one moreover which they thought was a wonderful thing to impose upon their children; and that the various arms of the State would go to just about any lengths to prevent any meaningful expression of dissent (it was on this occasion that I saw a young man destined to become a celebrated poet arrested for the crime of assaulting a policeman's fist with his shoulder, an act which also opened my eyes to the political nature of the rôle of the police in our society, as was confirmed in later years during the Miners' Strike, the time of the New-Age Travellers and right up to the kettles and infiltrations of today).
My views on the question of monarchy in general, and the 'British' one in particular, hardened at that time and have remained constant since, the only changes being those which further observation, consideration and reading have instigated and informed.
The essential 'given' of monarchy - like that of theistic religion - is that of serfdom. There is an unassailable power at the top, that power is given mystical or even quasi-deific status, and the rest are told to 'know their place'. And so we are expected - required, even - to submit ourselves to the Power and the Glory of people who have no particular talents other than to be either photogenic or to be able to wave and say or do nothing of any significance over a long period of time; merely that they happen to be the descendants of a similarly tiny number of people a long time ago who were simply better at the old looting, rapine and pillage biz than anyone else who was around at the time is deemed sufficient for the Chosen One of their time to reign over us.
That this process leads to some quite spectacularly unsuitable people attaining that position is inevitable. The last hundred years or so have landed us with, in succession; a philanderer; an ignoramus; a Nazi sympathiser; and a stammering, pussy-whipped weed. That the current encumbent is, as a personage, deemed to be mostly harmless can be seen as nothing much more than an atypical pause in the long freaks' roll-call of inherited weakness. Even the selective introduction of the odd commoner to - as it were - re-oxygenate the gene pool has been of limited benefit seeing as most of the stud horses and brood mares thus co-opted have been at least on the perimeter of the same social milieu. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone knows which of them might have fourteen toes.
Even if this tiny fraction were in any way competent, however, I would still be an avowed republican. The reason for this is that I find it deeply offensive that in what we are taught and propagandised throughout our lives is a democracy, the position at the very apex of what passes for our constitutional arrangements is totally inaccesible by anyone other than the one who happens to be squirted out of the 'right' uterus at the appropriate time. Either that position must be open - even if only in theory - to all citizens (if I don't mean 'subjects') - or we must abandon our democratic pretensions.
The arguments made by monarchists on this point are thin, and that is putting the most kindly construction on it. They consist largely of the supposed 'impartiality' of the monarch (to which I will return shortly), or of the supposed counter-punch that having someone hold that power who is not responsible to the electorate has to be better than a putative President Blair/Thatcher/Clarkson, etc. This is to miss the point, and to do so disingenuously. It is true that I would look with distaste on someone holding the Presidency with whom I had, as they say, 'issues'. The point is that any such person would at least hold the position with some semblance of democratic legitimacy, and I stand with H L Mencken when he said that democracy entails giving The People what they want, and giving it them good and hard. If they (we) make a bad choice, then they (we) should at least learn to be more thoughtful next time. And, under a democratic system, at least there would be a 'next time', unlike with monarchy where you have to wait for that odd cove with the scythe to come along and induce a change. Besides which, if you have a non-executive presidency - which many democracies do (Germany, Finland, Iceland to name but three of the closest) - then any chance of an unsuitable figure doing any real damage is limited (though not totally excluded; a recent President of the entity known as Israel is currently serving a seven-year sentence for rape). On top of which, it is not beyond the wit of State lawyers to devise a set of rules for candidates which would exclude anyone with a recent political position.
To deny the people the right to choose their Head of State is not merely to insult their integrity; it is to infantalise them, to deem them insufficiently 'grown up' to know their own minds and to decide accordingly. In short, it is a combination of patronising paternalism and arrogant feudalism.
As to the monarch being 'impartial', here we must turn to another myth; namely that the monarch actually has no power at all. Whilst this is true in the theoretical sense, it is an outright fabrication in the practical one. Whilst few monarchs of recent times have publicly expressed an opinion on a matter of current political import (the Hitler-worshipping David was the last and, inbred though it is, that well-known department store of mediocrity called The House of Windsor has at least learned not to do that again in a hurry), that does not mean either that they have never expressed such opinions in private or that those opinions have not been conveyed to those who held political high office at the time. We have no knowledge of to what extent Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-von Battenburg has influenced government policies either directly or by the roundabout route of 'making her Views known', and it will be at least a hundred years if not longer before it becomes any matter of public knowledge. What is most certainly known is that her son (who, let it be borne in mind, will get the Top Job himself before very long) is a serial meddler, constantly in correspondence with ministers in order to try to skew legislation to his pecuniary or ideological advantage (this may be one reason why that condign quackery called homeopathy is, incredibly, available in the public healthcare system), and there is no reason to believe that the wretch would have the degree of awareness or decency to refrain from doing so once he gets the Throne.
Even if Charles (or 'George VII', as he has let it be known he wishes to be called) does become more circumspect once he gets Mummy's Hice, there are other aspects of the monarchy's involvement with the political arrangements which already give immense cause for concern. When the monarchy lost its formal political powers, these were transferred to government under a convenient legal fiction called 'the Crown in Parliament'. This is why holders of high political office are referred to as 'Ministers of the Crown' rather than 'Ministers of the People'. What this actually means in practice is that ministers - particularly but not exclusively the Prime Minister of the day - hold what amount to quasi-regal powers. The most frequent exercise of this power occurs by means of what are termed 'Orders in Council', which in effect means that any PM or minister can completely by-pass any or all Parliamentary scrutiny in order to make, amend or rescind laws, and thus avoid all that terribly messy business of having to actually win any debate on the issue. These Orders and other, similar instruments have been used with ever-greater frequency in recent years, and fundamental rights beyond that of our right to have our elected representatives debate prospective measures have been permanently eroded as a result of many of them.
Some may claim that all this is no fault of the monarch or of monarchy itself. But those provisions exist only because there is a monarchy; under a non-executive presidential system (accompanied, one would hope, by a proper Constitution), ministers would have no such figleaf. It is the very existence of the monarchy which provides cover for unscrupulous or cowardly ministers and officials to circumvent the very basics of democracy in this way.
(None of the above stops monarchists trying to eat their cake and have it too. If you say that it is unacceptable for such a position to be held without democratic mandate, they will claim that it doesn't matter because the monarch actually has no power. If you then say that, if he/she has no power, then we don't need a monarch, particularly at such ludicrous expense for all the hangers-on, they will claim that without a monarch, the sky will fall and darkness shall be on the face of the Serpentine. You can't bleedin' win, can yer?)
A couple more points. Any government which saw - at least by its own light - sound cause for doing so could order the Army onto our streets (again under those reserve powers and without recourse to Parliament) where they could, if the order were given, shoot unarmed civilians. For the entire military machine of the Untied Condom is loyal by oath not to the people, nor to a Constitution, but to the monarch of the day and his/her 'heirs and successors'.
And one final ludicrous anomaly to be going on with: did you know that Members of Parliament - our elected representatives, no less - are actually forbidden from debating any issue relating to the monarchy unless the sentiments expressed are of the most footling, cloying sycophancy? Yes, an entire chunk of what passes for our constitutional arrangements is permanently off-limits to Parliamentary discussion. More than that, it doesn't matter how big a majority an MP may get at his election, he will be forbidden outright to take his seat and actually do the job the people elected him to do unless he swears an oath of loyalty not to a Constitution, not even to his constituents, but to a monarch whose affairs (in all senses of that word) he will never be allowed to debate, let alone to scrutinise. So, if you're a republican, you are presented with an invidious choice: either you can stand by your principles and be denied your democratic right to sit in Parliament; or you can make your very first act in that Parliament an outright lie.
In such ways is the existence of the type of monarchy we have endured in this country for so long not merely undemocratic but anti-democratic.
Such a system, imposed over such a long period of time and with everyone (or, at least, everyone who matters) deemed to be of like mind, cannot help but have profound and wide effects not just on the machinery of the State but also on the minds of those subjected to it.
As I have already said, monarchy and theistic religion have certain parallels (I don't think it a coincidence that my republicanism and my atheism have marched more or less in lock-step these past thirty-odd years), in that their ways are deemed to be unchanging and inviolate, and that to suggest other than that the god-emperor is clothed in golden raiment is akin to blasphemy and heresy. Being a republican in Britain is a little like being an atheist in the US; we are here, and our numbers may well be increasing, but to 'come out' carries certain risks in terms of one's social and career position. It is true that the level of abuse found here is more in the nature of snide dismissal or an outbreak of drive-by tutting rather than the somewhat more vicious prejudice my fellow free-thinkers encounter in the Land of the Twee, but the antipathy is there and it is real enough, especially at times like these where the propaganda machine is cranked up to '11' and we are all bombarded with wall-to-wall fluff and bubbles by corporate media outlets whose self-avowed 'fearlessness' and 'independence' melts away like the froth on a cheap capuccino (revealing a similarly noisome brown liquid beneath).
Those of us who do stick our heads determinedly above the parapet may not get them actually shot at, but we are faced not only with the "I don't want a President Blair!" rhetoric, but also with that deadly accusation of being 'sour' and being 'killjoys' (in much the same way that as atheists we are accused of being 'miserable' and 'nihilistic', and with the same degree of accuracy). I do not object to people enjoying themselves in any way which does not bring harm to others; what I would say is that it's pretty pathetic to require an officially-sanctioned excuse for doing so; it shows a lack of imagination coupled with a cowed subservience.
Like religion too, monarchism promotes not merely unreason but proud unreason. Proponents of it are either lacking in any awareness that what they are pushing is cods in so many ways, or they are dimly aware of it, and don't care because they are convinced that what they believe - or what they believe they believe - is not only The Way That It Is, but The Only Way It Can Possibly Be.
As with goddery, this results in the exudation of sentiments that vary between the almost beguilingly daft right across to the dangerously deranged. And so it can be claimed - apparently with a straight face and no sense of irony - that technological progress, the eradication of smallpox and even the occasional spell of good weather is down to the fact that Elizabeth S-C-G-von-B has been sitting in any one of her six homes for six decades. People one would have hoped would have had a sense of proportion (or at least a reasonably well-tuned sense of the ridiculous) such as the Chief Rabbi can claim that dear old Lillibet "...makes us a little better than we otherwise might have been", as if she - and what she stands at the apex of - were a health food, or at least a Senokot tablet. Enough with the idolatry already, Yonni! Your ancestors got into a spot of trouble with old YHVH by doing things like that! If I were Lizzie, I'd feel insulted.
Again, as with the political aspects of this and in comparison with religion, there is a darker side. Those in power surely know by now that the one sure-fire way of distracting enough of the population to make a difference from whatever ails their society is to stage a Royal Occasion. It was a wedding last year, this year it's the Jubilee. Next year we may go all the way and have a Funeral to keep people's minds off their immediate problems. Whatever the event, the State and its corporate owners know that the official media can be depended upon to do their duty, as Andrew Marr or any passing Dimbleby will reliably Spread the Word of the Lords to the benighted masses huddling in their caves. Britannia shall rule the waves and Britons never, never, never, never, never shall be slaves, despite the fact that the whole of the Royal Navy could probably fit in the Round Pond, Kensington and that that proportion of Britons still in possession of a job live in a state of constant cringe for fear of Murdoch, Branson and the World Bank. Say it loud enough, often enough and from enough apparently disparate sources, and enough will believe to enable you to marginalise the horrid little boys who are sufficiently honest and forthright to point out that you can see the Emperor's ring-piece.
It is also troubling to consider how easy it is for this Festival of Flummery to succeed. Again a valid comparison can be made with religion. I know some highly intelligent people of well-refined social awareness and deep empathy, who nonetheless believe in a god of some description. Similarly, I know - as I'm sure you do - of otherwise worldly, realistic, hard-headed folk who despite that believe not only that monarchy is no worse than harmless, but that it is infinitely preferable to allowing the people of these lands to actually take responsibility for deciding who rules them. That the ruling class - however one cares to define it - know this is clear enough. That they exploit it shamelessly is also obvious to anyone with one eye on current events.
It could do without the connivance of the population at large, however. At a time like this, so many people seem lovingly to caress the chains which bind them (while denying that those chains actually exist, of course).
Hearteningly, though, they may not be succeeding to quite the extent they had envisaged. I think back once more to 1977. There was no noticeable outward sign of dissent then; or at least none that we were made aware of in that pre-internet age when all we knew was what we were told by our supposed betters. Indeed, the bunting was all around, the mugs were handed out to every kiddiewinky, and the (count them) three television channels we had were pumping out the lather for the few hours a day they were allowed to broadcast.
Now it seems that the passion - however appliquéd - doesn't seem to be there to anything like the same degree. Just as the Golden Jubilee a decade ago was something of an embarrassment, so this time people are not by any means as engaged by it as the BBC, Sky News and the Sun would have us believe. I have seen very little by way of bunting or flags on people's houses; I would guess about one in fifty have any sign of marking the event at all, and about one in two or three hundred have gone 'full fig'; I would further estimate that some of them are doing no more than going through the motions, in the same way that those who have had/are having/will have parties in their gardens (or, if the forecasts are anywhere near the mark, in their kitchens) are probably doing it because a ready-made excuse has been provided.
I have seen sadder sights; a children's nursery near my place of work festooned with Union Jacks and other patriotic made-in-China frippery, for instance. And of course, businesses have been getting in on the act as if there were no tomorrow (which, given the economy's current condition, may well turn out to be true for many of them). But on the whole, the general feeling I get - at least away from those areas which have been holding the major events - is that of irrelevance. People do not, at long last, seem to be being taken in in the way they once were. So there is some encouragement for those of us who wish our fellow citizens (sorry, I mean 'subjects', of course) to 'man-up' and take greater control of their lives, for better or for worse. Remember, those of you with work to do will be back at it on Wednesday morning and, guess what? Nothing will have changed for the better; you might as well have got stoned and had a nice dream for all the difference it will have made.
Nonetheless, it seems that a residual adherence to monarchism is here to stay, like a similarly habitual attachment to religion. Both encourage not merely a self-esteem-undermining deference to Authority, but also a deliberately-fostered passivity towards one's condition which is intended to promote the idea that there is little if anything you can do to change things for the better, so why bother. It would be better if we were shot of both; as the slogan says, "No Gods, No Lords, No Masters!"; let's be grown-up about this.