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!"Malcolm was suitably chastened.
"Non!" was the decisive reply, "Monsieur le Président de la République française!"
What struck him was such a comment would be unthinkable in Britain:
"Ah, the Queen!It simply doesn't work, does it?
"No: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."
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.
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.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.
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.
Little removed from that, the neatest definition of "Anglo-Irish" is "a Prod on a horse". Sphere: Related Content