Sunday, May 20, 2012

Charles and the future of the monarchy

Nick Cohen argues that when Queen Elizabeth dies, Charles III will be a strong argument for republicanism. On Charles' unsuitability for the job it's difficult to disagree. Nick cites his enthusiasm for quack medicine and his interventions into public health debates and his political meddling generally.

It should indeed be of serious concern to advocates of monarchy in Britain that the heir to the throne does not appear to know what his job is going to be, despite this being a role he has supposedly been preparing for all of his life. Examples of this are legion but one that stood out to me was hearing him tell one of the Dimbleby brothers that his divorce and remarriage wasn't anyone's business but his own. But he will become titular head of the Church of England so I'm afraid that while many would agree matters like this should be a private matter, they just aren't.

However, those who favour the republican form of government - and I include myself in a half-hearted way - would perhaps do better to recognise the problems that it has had historically and the potential difficulties Britain would have making the transition from constitutional monarchy to this system of government.

We would do better to acknowledge that the record of republics just simply isn't that good. You only have to factor in China and the USSR to see this and there's also the important historical example specific to England that Nick himself cites:
"As so often, hyperbole will hide fear. In this case, the all-too rational fear of monarchists that Charles III will be the best advert the republican cause has had since Charles I."
But it is the very case of Charles I that creates problems for British republicans because the previous experiment with it didn't go very well and arguably it is this, along with republicanism's association in people's minds with Irish terrorism, that has made a majority of the British electorate adverse to the British republic.

Perhaps Nick is right to think that Charles will be sufficiently disastrous as a monarch to puncture this previously steady support but another thing I was wondering is - and I'm opening this as a sort of notes and queries exercise - how many countries have made the transition from monarchies to republics without a regime-change? By this we mean governmental collapse after defeat in war, revolution, coup d'etat or independence from an empire or merely a larger political unit. There may be one or two countries that have simply decided to ditch a monarchy but there's not many examples that immediately spring to mind - and it clearly isn't the usual historical path from monarchy to republic.

A number of political scientists - including Juan Linz linked above - have argued that imitation of the American example has been a curse in areas of the world like Latin America because whereas the first priority of the framers of the American constitution was how to limit government, in these places the problem has often been a history of having no properly functioning government to limit in the first place. I suspect many British republicans are also dependent on the American example. It's difficult to know which others, even in the European context, they would be using. Germany and France as they are now perhaps - but we wouldn't have wanted the path to modernity these two took, surely?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Roundheads and Cavaliers

This post from Martin on the above subject is that most fabulous of combinations; quite lovely and makes you think - which is why if it were a woman, I'd overcome my natural shyness, dash out and buy her a bunch of flowers and importune her with my affections.

Cavaliers or Roundheads: who are you for? Martin's answer is one I've come across frequently. "I know I'm supposed to say, Roundhead - but..." His answer is a subtle, interesting and personal version of a more common response that so many people, including myself, tend to give to this question - and one that arrives at what I think are valid historical conclusions.

At its core there is the pertinent observation that there is a tendency to view past conflicts and disputes through a modern prism that makes taking sides more congenial:
"In recent years, there has been a tendency to confer retrospective secular sainthood on groups like the Levellers and to throw an ahistorical social-democratic patina over the Roundheads generally."
Absolutely right. We tend to think that the modern questions of monarchy versus republicanism are prefigured in this age, forgetting that the Respublica advocated by Puritans was the very antithesis of the tolerant secularism imagined by the modern reader.

And by extension, this raises a couple of interesting and difficult historical questions, particularly for people of a leftwing disposition. One is that however difficult it may be to accept, it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that at various points in history, monarchy has been - particularly in relation to the power of the clerisy - a force for tolerance, liberty and the insistence that there should be a distinction between what is considered a sin and a crime.

Martin mentions Mary Stuart in this context but I am more interested in the reign of her son James VI with regards to this question. That James was a convinced Protestant is testimony to how little input his mother had in his upbringing. This is understandable given the amount of her life that she spent in prison.

James was, by modern standards, intolerably intolerant. The spike in the witch-hunting hysteria in late 16th century Scotland, for example, was due in no small part to the fact that he took a personal interest in the subject to the extent of personally participating in a witchcraft trial.

Yet it is testimony to the spirit of that age that he was in relation to the Kirk a force for relative religious toleration. There were a number of struggles between Church and State in this period and at base many of the grievances held by the Presbyterian faction had to do with the King's reluctance to take stronger action against those Catholics left in the Kingdom of Scotland.

One interesting footnote in this period of Scottish history is that while it is entirely cogent for Scottish Nationalists to argue for independence with the continuation of the British monarch as Scotland's Head of State, one could argue that it was the Union of the Crowns in 1603, rather than the Act of Union in 1707, that left Scotland in a position where the hard-faced Calvinists of the Church of Scotland were free to exercise an influence over the social and cultural life of this country so profound and lasting that its effects are still felt to this very day. I think it was Callum Brown who said that, "One could be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of the Reformation in Scotland was to eliminate purgatory by getting it over while people were still alive."

Or more briefly, prior to the eighteenth century a republican was not the secular creature we imagine today but rather someone more likely to advocate something we would now describe as 'theocracy'.

The other interesting question is, what attitude do we take to events that we can see as prefiguring historical developments that we would identify with now but if we'd have to endure them at the time would have found intolerable? I can't even begin to answer this question on the grounds that it's just too damn hard. There is also the fact that those who attempt this, whether it be Niall Ferguson on the right or Eric Hobsbawm on the left, tend to suffer the fate of being put noisily beyond the pale by posturing hacks and bloggers of various kinds. I dare say this is justified but it would be nice if their critics would come up with alternative answers of their own.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Things you just can't economise on

What with the economy being as it is, probably most of us try and save dosh by avoiding common consumer pitfall like using price as an indicator of quality or being a slave to brands, especially with stuff you buy all the time. So, for example, I reckon Sainsbury's own brand vodka is not as good as Russian Standard or Absolut but is both cheaper and vastly superior to that best-selling brand of paint-stripper known as Smirnoff. And I take the view that Calvin Klein underwear is both literally and metaphorically pants. You might not agree with these examples but you know the sort of thing I mean.

But I was wondering if there's anything people have found that it is impossible to economise on? I don't mean things that you can find cheaper or discounted if you root around enough - this could apply to any product. And I don't just mean things that may be a false economy in the long run but function properly. Cheaper washing up liquid might not last as long as Fairy but it cleans your dishes perfectly well. Rather, was thinking of things that just don't do the goddamn job? I reckon you get what you pay for with the following:

Razors. Cheap razors give you a shave that's a little too close, don'tcha find? You want to avoid turning up with bits of bogroll stuck to your face? You need to pay for it. Speaking of which...

Bogroll. Half the price but you need to use four times as much with nasty cheap abrasive bogroll. It's just not worth the suffering.

Guitar strings. More expensive ones last longer but sound better than cheapo ones even when they're freshly on. Knew this guy who had fabulous guitars. He had fabulous guitars because he had plenty of money - but said he would never pay more than a fiver for strings? Lost his damn mind if you ask me. I'm a strong believer in the power of strings. Want your guitar to sound good? Put some decent goddamn strings on it then.

Ciggies. Mayfair? Blech! You might as well give up. Although I guess we all should...

Jewellery. My girlfriend's suggestion. I wouldn't know but won't be challenging her view by trying to smuggle some Gerald Ratner shit past her.

Anyone disagree or have suggestions of their own? Would welcome contributions if this stupid comments system allows.

On public schools

I'm thinking I really should stop commenting on the English school system. It has a number of features that are strange and unfamiliar. One of these is the use of the term 'public school' to describe private institutions that by their very nature exclude the vast majority of the public. (It's like the Anglo-American use of conservative and liberal; depending on the context, the words seem capable of bearing exactly the same meaning.) Michael Gove with his repeated references to English private schools demonstrates that whatever else he might be, he is irreducibly Scottish.

Beyond the semantics, what was interesting about his remarks was the response they evoked. He thinks the dominance of the English private school system in public life in unjustified - and his preferred solution, as far as one can tell, is for the public sector to emulate the private - hence his enthusiasm for blazers, streaming, kids sitting in rows, rote learning, Latin, the King James Bible - the 1950s in other words.

Among his targets is the profession of journalism, which as he rightly points out is dominated by public school girls and boys - one or two of whom have responded to his comments. While they have different points to make both Laurie Penny and George Monbiot both seem to agree that the solution to this manifestation of entrenched advantage and privilege is the abolition of the private sector in education.

The question is, who's right? I'd suggest none of the above. One finds rather more to agree with in what Laurie Penny says than Michael Gove when she talks, for example, about the sense of entitlement that is part of the curriculum for the privately-educated. She could have added that there's the more tangible business of gaining access to a social network of people who have money and power. They have money because they have power.

Less so when she goes on about class sizes and the ability of the private sector to attract the 'best teachers'. Class size is largely irrelevant in my view, for reasons I won't bore you with. The question of the 'best teachers' is worth exploring though. Laurie Penny thinks the private sector attracts the best because they can pay for them. I'd have to disagree for a number of reasons. Firstly, the private sector doesn't pay that much more - and even if we accept that the 'good teacher' is motivated by money - which we shouldn't - in the long run there's more opportunity for this in the public sector because there are more opportunities for promotion. Teachers are like anyone else; we adapt to circumstances. I have a special set of skills I have developed on the Eastern Front in Glasgow. It's difficult to say how useful these would be in a private school but I'm thinking; not very. Same goes for my colleague in the private school. But if we swapped jobs, I'm sure we'd get the hang of it after a year or two.

Laurie Penny accuses Gove of thinking people are primarily motivated by money, yet she appears to believe the same when it comes to teachers - and this is not their only point of contact: what Gove, Monbiot and Penny all seem to share is the notion that education is the primary engine of social mobility. This is surely wrong and is a species of what Sarah Ditum has described as the 'Education fetish' - politicians and pundits wanting education to obviate through 'opportunity' something that only greater economic equality can actually achieve.

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