As a nation, Britain is in turmoil. A month of increasingly ugly campaigning in the lead up to the EU referendum culminated last Thursday with the murder of an innocent MP, whilst indisputably racist propoganda is being foisted like it’s 1968, and football hooligans are commerating a miserable Euros by smashing some of France up.
As per usual though, the one event which passed without contention on June 11th was the Elizabeth Windsor’s 90th birthday. Yet in a month where the phrase “democratic values” has been tossed about like party string, the royal family is the greatest affront of all.
Álvaro Longoria’s excellent 2015 documentary, ‘The Propaganda Game’ went to North Korea to explore their culture’s deification of their dictatorial Kim Jong family, and their population’s worshipful attitude towards them.
The behaviour of its population, and the state’s methods of their propaganda, hold some chilling familiarity with life in England. As with Kim Jong Un, we are raised to believe in Elizabeth’s greatness. Tea cosies and mugs line the British cupboards and the royal family take front and centre in our national anthem.
Just observe the sycophancy with which we celebrate the Queen’s two (!) yearly birthdays or the media circus which descends whenever a new one is born. The whole country grinds to a halt when one of them gets married, or dies. Everyone in this country is carrying an image of the monarch’s face in their pocket most of the time.
This behaviour is not strange to us because it’s our normality, but this is the reality to North Koreans: the kind of behaviour for which we ridicule them, and for which much of the world ridicules us. More disturbing than the British people reiterating the story of their own subservience is the fact that many of the traditions were deliberate inventions of the royal family themselves, to combat 19th century public dissent.
The OBE, CBE and MBE (quaint titbits offered to her subjects some, such as David Bowie, have nobly declined) were introduced just 99 years ago, while the popularity of the national anthem (which hadn’t even been sung at Victoria’s coronation) was the brain child of Prime Minister William Gladstone in an effort to legitimise the British class structure. It was by far his most successful venture.
“Private consultation with the Prime Minister is a right most have to work their whole life for, and it wields a great deal of undemocratic political influence”
The cult of personality surrounding the Queen is even more bizarre considering the fact she appears to have none. Nobody knows what she likes, or is like. She has never given a press interview. All we really know of the closest members of her family are her husband’s racism and Nazi party links, and her eldest son’s bigotry.
Thankfully the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family is incomparable to the North Korean rulers in terms of state control, but the Queen’s power is far greater than many would like to admit. Only relative to her predecessors, who were law makers as well as rulers, is Elizabeth powerless.
Private consultation with the Prime Minister is a right most have to work their whole life for, and it wields a great deal of undemocratic political influence. She can also dismiss Prime Ministers, and abolish parliament. For those who think she never could or would: Australia begs to differ.
Then there’s her wealth. The exuberant claim that the Queen brings in £160 million yearly equates to just 1.2% of her net-worth and 0.01% of UK GDP, while on the other hand she is the largest landowner in the world, with 830 million acres to her name worldwide, 384,000 of which in the UK alone.
It is horrific that in one of the most advanced nations on the planet, a family is granted access to this power and fortune through birth alone: and that everybody, the poorest in society included, is made to give tax money to them. Royalists argue that if we lose the royal family we lose the £160 million, part of which is made up of tourist income, and they have a point. We wouldn’t want to go the way of France after all, which nobody has visited since 1799…
There is of course the argument that much of the family seems quaint, and essentially harmless. Their very existence is contrary to this however, no matter how great their philanthropic PR exercises abroad: if they were decent people, they’d have abdicated years ago.
“The harm of the royal family is in its symbolism”
The fact the EU debate is currently tearing us apart with argument that we are squeezed for space by war-fleeing refugees, while one German family owns £10 billion acres worth of land in this country alone, evidences the success of the elites in their ability to divide, and conquer.
Truly though, the harm of the royal family is in its symbolism. Nobody in Britain is even a citizen of their own country. We are ‘subjects’ instead. Much was made in the United States after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and again in the recent Democratic nomination of Hilary Clinton, that African-American children, and later little girls, could wake up knowing that their dreams were uncapped and that, if they wanted to, they could hold the highest seat their country had to offer.
No system is better than capitalism at broadening the chasm between the richest and the poorest, but in neo-liberal countries such as America or France there’s at least the pretence that everybody is born equal, and that the opportunity of extreme wealth and power is there for anyone who ‘works hard’. In Britain there is no such pretence.
There is one definitive glass ceiling paraded ritually before us, which democracy was meant to shatter, and yet remains because of an infantile infatuation with one unremarkable family. It is made clear to our little girls and boys from birth that there is a world inaccessible to them. Worse still, we teach them to love it.
Image: Mawell Hamilton via Flickr