On Monarchy and Mobility

Harold Wilson at 10 Downing StreetWe’ve come so far, only to go backwards. In 1964, the British people elected Labour into power, and more specifically, elevated Harold Wilson to be Prime Minister; his origins were modest, he was born in Huddersfield. His father was a works chemist and his mother was a schoolteacher. He rose through hard work, guile and merit. He was followed in 1970 by Edward Heath, the son of a carpenter. Heath was then followed by Wilson in his second stint as Prime Minister and then by Jim Callaghan, the son of a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. Callaghan was succeeded by Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire. She handed over the role to John Major, a Brixton lad; his father was a music hall performer. Major was defeated by Tony Blair, whose father was born out of wedlock to two English actors and was subsequently adopted. When Blair retired, Gordon Brown, a son of a Presbyterian clergyman, took over. Given this succession, it was quite possible to believe Major’s rhetoric about “the classless society”: it didn’t matter where you came from, the determination and effort you put into getting to your destination was what counted. The son of a music hall performer could be Prime Minister; the dreams of a Yorkshire lad were not confined to the environs of the West Riding. With grit and a bit of luck, one could ascend to high office, accept a peerage in one’s dotage, and be laid to rest in ermine.

Or so it seemed. Both London and the nation are presently run by Eton educated elitists; as per Nadine Dorries’ apropos quip, we’re being led by “two arrogant posh boys” with “no passion to want to understand the lives of others”. They are denizens of a different world; for example, despite his being the son of a Baronet, because George Gideon Oliver Osborne attended St. Paul’s rather than Eton or Harrow, he was nicknamed “Oik” by his peers; the only brush with manual labour that he has ever had was when he briefly folded towels at Selfridges. This seems like errant nonsense at first glance: Osborne’s qualifications to manage the nation’s finances look paltry compared to those of Dr. John Vincent Cable, who earned a PhD in Economics.

We should be going forward: the barriers to information and enlightenment have come crashing down with the arrival of the internet. Universal education has been around for some time; despite the rise of tuition fees, a far greater proportion of people are going to university than they did when John Major or Harold Wilson were small lads. So what happened? Why is it that Nick Clegg, no stranger to privilege himself, felt obliged to say to the Sutton Trust at their conference this week that “Class still counts. We are a long distance from being a classless society”? Indeed, the figures bear out the Deputy Prime Minister’s interpretation: according to the Trust, the UK’s poorest youngsters are less likely to advance than their peers in Australia and Canada.

Some may believe that this situation has improved over time, regardless; after all, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the nation was run by Etonians like Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillian. At first glance, they seem much more stuffy than the “young professionals” Osborne and Cameron. However, I dare say that both Eden and Macmillian were less out of touch than Cameron, Osborne and even Johnson are. Eden and Macmillian both fought in the trenches in World War I: Macmillan was wounded three times. No doubt this experience in the crucible of blood and torment gave them a sensitivity to the common fighting man that Cameron lacks. Macmillian as Prime Minister, for example, did his level best to deal with the unions and improve pay and conditions for the average worker. Cameron feels no such empathy and unlike Macmillan, lacks composure when faced with a genuine challenge. When faced with the Profumo scandal, Macmillan at his worst seemed befuddled; Cameron at his worst turns beet red with rage and lets fly with unflattering epithets.

So why do we have such elitists in any position of power nearly 50 years after Wilson was elected? No doubt part of the explanation is that inherited wealth is still being passed on from generation to generation; this provides an ample cushion for the blue blooded. For example, the UK’s richest native born individual is the Duke of Westminster: his wealth is estimated at £7 billion. But perhaps we ought to think also about structures and symbols, and how they cascade meaning throughout society. As inapposite as it may seem given the forthcoming Diamond Jubilee, perhaps we ought to cast our gaze at Buckingham Palace.

Some may blanch at this: what, blame the Queen? Accuse our professional, well mannered Queen, who seems more like the nation’s grandmother than anything else? Let’s be clear, it’s not her fault: she has done her duty to the best of her ability. Rather, the institution she represents is out of date and worse, it sends a terrible message to the rest of society.

Think about monarchy: what is it its basic principle? Its proposition is that individuals are born into a particular station in life: yes, the Royal Family rely to a certain extent on popular consent, and they are also expected to do good works or in the case of Prince Andrew, serve in times of war. We also expect sufficient displays of human emotion from them, whether it is in expressions of regret from the Queen regarding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, or in Prince Charles engaging the nation’s sense of humour by providing the weather forecast. Nevertheless, expectation is not the same as obligation: Prince Charles may conduct his private life with all the care of a drunken mule amidst a collection of Ming vases, but he remains the Prince. It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances to dislodge a king, as the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Edward VIII proved. Monarchy is a fixity: one is born to it, one lives it, one dies in it. Their place in society is set, and everyone else’s place in the life of the nation is rooted in relation to this. David William Donald Cameron’s position is nearly as immovable as the Queen’s: he is the grandson of a Baronet, a descendant of King William IV, he went to Eton, he studied at Oxford. Given this background, it is highly unlikely that anything truly bad will ever happen to him; rather, because of his privileged station in life, he sits apart from the boy who grows up in Huddersfield or the daughter of Grantham grocer. This separation creates elitsm and worse, snobbery; Mr. Clegg felt obliged to remind the Sutton Trust of a Frank Harris quote, “Snobbery is the religion of England”.

Sir Jonathan IveMr. Clegg is right; he is also correct in saying that the class system is holding the nation back. An idea needs to be judged on its individual merits, not necessarily on the socio-economic background of who proposes it. It is telling that Jonathan Ive, the Chingford-born lad who studied at Northumbria University, could only achieve his dream as the famed designer of the iMac, iPod and iPad in America, not Britain. He’s honoured now: he recently received a knighthood. But he could only be the man worthy of a knighthood by going to a place where his talent mattered more than his class.

Despite all this, enthusiasm for the monarchy has never been greater: according to a poll in the Daily Telegraph, 80% of Britons want it to continue. In contrast, just 13% want a republic. This no doubt will have a chilling effect on Mr. Clegg’s programmes: I am sure that he will advocate measures to reform education and reduce taxes on the poorest and perhaps reach out to the most economically blighted parts of the country. He may even succeed to an extent, albeit against strident Tory opposition. However, he will find it difficult, if not impossible to say what needs to be said: if we want to move on as a nation, if we want to be a country that respects talent over birth, then we must ensure that the principle of meritocracy, not aristocracy, is enshrined in every portion of government. It’s time to say good-bye to the past and its bittersweet mixture of blessings and curses. The sunset of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second will come; the Diamond Jubilee may be a brief flaring of the light prior to this. Once night does fall, it will also be an appropriate time for the institution she has carefully and masterfully served to also disappear into the darkness.

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