Last month, during our trip to the UK , I visited Chinatown in London and took the opportunity to loudly proclaim a series of uncomfortable truths about China . Now I’m back in Beijing I feel like doing the same for England. This is quite possibly the actions of a coward, though I would hope I would feel free to talk about my homeland wherever I was. Even after a handful of years away, I am after all still a British citizen and I still have my rights. Sorry, that’s not quite right, let’s try again. I’m a British subject and I probably have the protection of 800 years of case law.
So, yes, I’ve chosen the day of the jubilee to complain about the Queen to nobody in particular. If this upsets anyone then they can just stop reading now. Could anyone really be upset? Judging by the last couple of days on the internet the answer seems, bizarrely, to be yes.
Ok, non-offended Britons, let me ask you this – why on Earth do we still have a monarch and established church in the year 2012? Is it our natural conservatism and fear of change? An undeserved sense of national superiority based on the achievements of our ancestors? A mistaken impression that outsiders admire the way we do things? Whatever it is, it would be nice to take this chance to look in the mirror and reconsider who we are and what we want from the 21st century.
There are two big arguments for keeping the Queen – the hard one (“it works”) and the soft one (“it’s ok for now”). The first of these, generally espoused by the majority of the political establishment, is that Britain’s “constitutional fudge” is a happy accident. If you were designing a new system it would seem ridiculous, but now that we’ve got it, it seems to work quite well. But does it work? Is this really the best it can be? The Queen, as head of state, has the royal prerogative – the final say over every law. Of course she doesn’t use it, but this doesn’t make the problem go away. Instead this power is passed to the Prime Minister, who is no more than the leader of the largest party in the commons. David Cameron, whose party 36.1% of voters (or 17.2% of the entire population) chose in 2010 , has the power to declare war with China, Russia or France tomorrow without so much as a commons vote. This isn’t just a glib example – these powers* are used all the time to pass legislation – have a look at this list of decisions from 2009. None of these received proper democratic scrutiny. The only justification for this absurd situation is that of “strong leadership”, the oldest excuse in the book.
The soft argument goes a bit like this; “yes, it’s a silly system, and yes we should do something about it at some point. But right now we’ve got a lot on, and isn’t the Queen doing a great job at it?” But is she? Really? Is there really nobody else out there who could be doing a better job at shaking hands and waving from a carriage? The only reason she’s “doing well” is that the only point of comparison is elected politicians, and nobody likes them. Politicians are constantly in the media spotlight. Any little thing they say, any minor indiscretion will be picked up and used by their enemies as a weapon against them. The Queen has none of this kind of exposure. We don’t know her politics, we know little about her personal character and beliefs. From what we can tell, she seems remarkably unremarkable – in 60 years she’s said and done almost nothing interesting or memorable – and why should she? She’s just one person out of 61 million, picked by nothing more than an accident of birth. Even if she’s in the top 5% there are still millions out there more deserving of the role than her, but they’ll never get the chance. None of us ever will – whatever we achieve in life we’ll always still be subjects.
Bearing that in mind, enjoy your jubilee parties everyone!
*”Statutory instruments” rather than actual “royal prerogative” – though it’s effectively the same thing.