The March 2021 Democracy Café kicked off with a discussion of ‘does the monarchy represent the best or worst of British values?’ This question came following the week in which Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were interviewed in California causing a huge furore and considerable debate in the UK.
What are British values was the question immediately asked and someone googled the question with the answer that they were part of Home Office guidance for immigrants which explained they were about the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
Some believed that British values were somehow unique to us whereas it was the case that many countries have similar ideas. There was also a hint of superiority with a belief that our Royal Family is the best. Did in fact, the Royal Family represent nothing other than themselves? It was clear following various scandals and the Princess Diana episode, that they felt vulnerable and had tried hard to rebrand themselves. We saw more of the younger royals to try to enhance their appeal. On the question of superiority, it was pointed out that the flip side were feelings of inferiority or low self-esteem.
A recent series of stories in the Guardian had revealed the extent to which the Queen and some other royals sought to protect their wealth and financial interests by vetting legislation before it got debated by MPs. This was quite different from the formal royal assent. This led to a discussion which suggested separating the Queen from the monarchy. In reality, we knew next to nothing about what the Queen thought about anything as she was entirely discrete. Prince Charles however was quite the opposite and the question was, how will the monarchy fare once he becomes king and (if) he continues to voice his opinions?
Elizabeth the Last
It was suggested that the continued presence of a monarchy reinforces our inferiority – ‘we know our place.’ It was the difference between being ‘citizens’ (which we are not) and ‘subjects’. Those in the group who were republicans objected for example with the whole principle of someone inheriting a royal position. A king or queen was not selected or voted into position, they became one by reason solely of birth. We were reminded that several powers the prime minister has are royal powers devolved to him or her, patronage for example. This was clearly undemocratic and should be ended most thought.
If we did do away with the monarchy (pursuing the republican theme) what next? Mention of a presidential system inevitably brought up the riposte ‘do you want Tony Blair as president?’ although today it might be ‘do you want Boris Johnson …?’ Once you have recovered from that chilling thought, the answer is ‘only if people voted him in’ and then he can be voted out in future, a pleasure we cannot look forward to with the Royal family.
The point was made that the monarchy are effectively trapped. We were reminded of this in the famous interview when Prince Harry was asked ‘were you silent or silenced?’
There was discussion about the social contract between the government and the people. We the people show you loyalty and you, the government, protect us. This seems to have broken down in recent years with many people left poor, hungry or homeless with a government seemingly not to care.
Sometime had passed in the discussion before someone mentioned the question of class and its link to the Royals, race and our system of government generally. Class underpinned the whole system with links to privilege, entitlement and the unequal education system. The nation was ‘paralysed’ it was claimed and there was an urgent need for reform. The country had moved on from notions of duty to ones of service. That tension arose during the interview when the Sussex’s noted that ‘service is universal’ following the Palace’s decision to remove them from carrying out royal duties.
The discussion moved on to considering life after lockdown and the idea of ‘resetting’ things. ‘Normal isn’t working’ it was claimed and there was a definite need for change on several fronts. We were quickly reminded however, of the events of 2008 and the hope that that would usher in profound change – in that case the banking system. It didn’t happen (there were small changes but not systemic ones). Nobody ‘took the rap’ for the financial failure. The government had a vested interest in not doing anything.
The discussion divided into two camps: the pessimists and the optimists. The pessimists felt that the government will not be held to account for its mismanagement of the Covid crisis, people will quickly forget, or want to forget. The nation is paralysed and change is unlikely. You’ve got the vaccine – move on. There was also the tide of mis- and disinformation which we have discussed on several occasions in these meetings. Underfunding of key services will continue they thought. The recovery was likely to be K shaped, that is, the division between the wealthy ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ would widen further.
The optimists felt differently. They thought climate crisis will force its way up the agenda and change will have to come. Joe Biden’s pumping of huge sums into the public arena was a positive sign. People were desperate for change and that would influence the mood of the country. The Black Lives Matter campaign and the emergence of protest this week about violence against women following the Sarah Everard murder, both in the home and in the street, were signs of public desire for this change. Some felt optimistic about young people and how they were keen to see change. We were reminded of the Gramsci quote: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ which seemed to sum up the situation nicely.
A new website called Tortoise Media run by Alastair Campbell was another reason to be positive they thought. The big media corporations were being challenged: their lack of democratic oversight and unfettered power to publish disinformation was an increasing topic for debate.
An excellent discussion which ended with the observation: ‘things never change – until they do.’
- Out of the Ordinary, Mark Stears, 2021, Belknap Press
- Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, Kate Fox, 2004, Hodder and Stoughton
- Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, 2020, Allen Lane