Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Malcolm's Classy rumination

Blame it on Our American Cousin. Zach introduced a new dimension by commenting on a recent posting:
As to whether or not you're free. Well you still have a Monarch and an unelected upper house of parliament for what it's worth.
There are too many tomes on the British class "system" and its psycho-pathology. A few are just about readable. Most are ill-digested and barely literate, spewed out of the Ph.D. factories of minor universities. As it used to say, just above the toilet-roll holder in number 4, Trinity College, Dublin:
Sociology Degrees: please take one.
A French encounter

A couple of decades back, in a small town in the Hautes-Alpes, Malcolm was settling his hôtel bill.

Prominent, beside the desk was a framed photograph. Madame and her son (a local sporting hero) were with Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. To lighten the ceremonial swiping of the credit card, Malcolm felt he should acknowledge this image:
"Ah, Monsieur le Président!"
"Non!" was the decisive reply, "Monsieur le Président de la République française!"
Malcolm was suitably chastened.

What struck him was such a comment would be unthinkable in Britain:
"Ah, the Queen!
"No: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."
It simply doesn't work, does it?

The brain-death of monarchy

The Royals (even that term contains a dismissal) are fragments of the universal "celebrity" culture. The Diana Spencer moment, now fortunately past and gone except for an ever-shrinking delta-minus semi-moronic rump, is regarded as a disastrous experiment in populism. The only remaining issue there being whether
  • with a couple more brain-cells she could have been a plant, or
  • was she so dissimulating that she was truly a calculating minx.
The current batch of princelings, noted mainly for night-club frolics, are not likely to upset that pattern.

For many, Helen Mirren is The Queen as much as the original article. Indeed, she seems to have edged aside Betty Boothroyd as a potential republican Head of State. Idle chatter of that kind tells Malcolm that there is a perverse lingering wish for a bossy, even brassy female figure to be National Governess. As was Margaret Hilda Thatcher of spine-shuddering memory.

But what to do with the Lords?

Zach's other thrust is more pertinent.

The Blair reforms, stripping out the lumpen mass of hereditary peers, went a long way; but it remains an incomplete project.

There are arguments for the great and the good to be there. "Statesmen" (i.e. retired parliamentarians) deserve a place: after a due period of silence, their comments may have worth. On the whole they don't insult the captain or spit on the deck. Since Parliament makes the laws, senior Justices should be allowed their voices. Religious leaders, too: better in the Chamber, where they will be heard critically, than in their pulpits, where they have unbridled licence. Appointment, too, should not be totally dismissed: Roberts Winston and Skidelsky are unlikely to gain a place by other routes.

Then comes the issue of election. How? It obviously should not be an adjunct to a General Election: that would merely ensure that the Upper and Lower Chambers are of similar complexion. Should the Upper House be as (party) political as the Commons? The logic of that is fixed-term, proportional-representation, without constituency boundary; in effect, a list system: yet that, in turn, gives factional groups power to "fix" the lists.

Perhaps, though, the British system even as presently constituted is not as bad as possible alternatives.

We do not want a "Senate" on the US model (too powerful) or on the Irish model (too ineffectual). Seanad Éireann is a pale, subservient creature: it is a model of what happens when patronage imposes on its clients. Its "electorate" is a self-mockery. As for the US Senate: Blagojevich in Illinois, the curious doings around Caroline Kennedy in New York, and the Minnesota Franken/Coleman stand-off suggest not all is well. Then there are the senatorial families: the Rockefellers, the Gores, the Bushes, the Kennedys, whose continued eminence suggests inbred, nepotistic dynasties are not just a British phenomenon.

Gunning for the aristos

This all arose from a chance remark about guns and government.

Malcolm grew up, with the Holkham Estate to west and south. The Earl of Leicester would host shooting parties at Holkham, to which royalty would arrive. At one time, perhaps still, the record "bag" for a day's shooting was set at Holkham, in a hecatomb of partridges helped along by Phil the Greek.

It is all too easy to be cynical about such events: the pre-metric assessment of running a shoot was "up goes a guinea, bang goes sixpence, down comes half-a-crown". And if the upper-class were prepared to finance their sport so lavishly, others could benefit.

For every gent with his Purdeys there was a Fred Hooker. Fred could snaffle moonlit birds as easily as anything. Among the up-and-comers, young Barry "Salts" Davie had a deadly silent catapult and an overcoat with poacher pockets. As Malcolm recalls, the view from the lower orders was short in condemnation for the malefactors: excoriation was left to Tommy Cook on the bench of the local magistrates. The class system can be seen from both sides: the exploitation was not all the one way.

This symbiosis goes back beyond dynasties, beyond history. There is, underlying that class-system and petty-snobbery to which Americans like to point, a parallel sub-culture. The urban worker detests and ridicules his bosses: the rural one has evolved long-standing pre-industrial ways around the landlord. As so often, Kipling, recently risen to land-owner on the back of his personal talents (and later brother-in-law of the Prime Minister-to-be), caught the mood:
I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires.
I can fish--but Hobden tickles. I can shoot--but Hobden wires.
I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege,
Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge.

Shall I dog his morning progress o'er the track-betraying dew?
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew?
Confiscate his evening faggot into which the conies ran,
And summons him to judgment? I would sooner summons Pan.

His dead are in the churchyard--thirty generations laid.
Their names went down in Domesday Book when Domesday Book was made.
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.
Kipling, of course, refused all titles, most honours, knighthood and ennoblement. Queen Victoria profoundly disapproved of him. To Malcolm, the biggest strike against this otherwise admirable and egalitarian man is not his alleged racism, nor his ambiguous imperialism: both are marks of the times, with which Pandit Nehru had no problem. No: it is his militant anti-Home Rule Unionism, sprung from a long friendship with Carson.

Little removed from that, the neatest definition of "Anglo-Irish" is "a Prod on a horse". Sphere: Related Content


yourcousin said...

To be fair you did start it, but we'll leave it well enough alone until I can find some proper time to respond.

It took me almost an hour just to read the post due to a crying baby in my arms.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

yourcousin @ 1.59 AM:

Teething already?

An old operator writes:
You spend their first few years awake, trying to get them to sleep. A decade or so on, you're trying to stay awake, waiting for them to come in.

It doesn't seem fair.

But, I fear I am repeating myself here.

yourcousin said...

Not teething yet, it's just that between five and seven he's extremely fussy. Some call it the witching hour. I think its sensory overload. As doctors point out we take what we see around us for granted, the texture on the couch, the sun coming in through the window and hitting the hutch, we simply tune them out. A baby can't do that, it's like he's on an acid trip and at about 5pm (right when I get home from work) he has a bad "trip". So unless we can coax him to sleep then it's a screaming baby.

yourcousin said...

Finally a free moment in which to respond.

There is, underlying that class-system and petty-snobbery to which Americans like to point, a parallel sub-culture

I should note that it isn't so much that we like to point it out so much as you were begging for it by being smug and committing the same sin as the libretarian commentors by boiling the guns/liberty debate down to some simplistic formula, which it isn't. I also bring it up because you noted once that the judiciary was the last line of defence against government tyranny, which was our first 2nd amendment debate. Within this context the idea of an unelected upper house is relevant as is the ever present symbol of hereditary government, the monarchy.

I won't pretend to have any great insight into the English class system, or even English society at large so hopefully my comment will be semi-literate.

You are right to point out the flaws in the American system and the dynastic tendencies make me sick (one more reason I opposed Hillary), but even this is different from the peer system as the American dynasties have to seek their own mandate. I here no such outcry over the likes of the Blaney machine which is essentially the same thing. And you do some fancy footwork about how to amend/reform the Lords, but it remains that it is not fitting for a democratic society to have unelected representatives, period. I know that's a simplistic view, but it's one which is sound. Yes there are worse forms of governments out there, but there are better forms waiting to be found or created. We should not be complacent about one because because we lack the means to do the other.

And I say this as an extreme critic of the parliamentary system as a whole. It's why I'm not a "liberal" or "progressive" and why I never have been nor will ever be a Democrat. The system in and of itself, is corrupt, nepotistic, and utterly opposed to meaningful progress.

As for the parallel sub-culture. I can understand what you are saying about it but at the same time the fact that it has to remain secret, if even an open one is an endightment of that system. You note sly men catching moonlit birds. A nefarious nocturnal activity and I compare that to my own experiences with bird hunting and I think of how far apart those two things are. When my father taught us how to hunt birds there was nothing secretive about it. It was a positive bonding experience that took place well within the law and societal norms. I also think it explains our different views of guns.

Kipling was an exception to many things and his views on land ownership are one of them. One need only look at the land wars in Ireland to see that the wink and nod written about could be the exception rather than the rule.

yourcousin said...

d'oh, should "hear no such outcry..."

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