Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Another Baby on Benefits

Simon Jenkins, the living embodiment of Whiggery, came up with a couple of corkers today in his reception of the news of the royal sprog-to-be. None of your blather about morning sickness or how Kate has found her role. Instead, Jenkins' gives his Olympian approval to the hereditary principle: "Inheritance is a security against monarchical power, since its indefensibility ensures the powerlessness of the head of state. By being random in age, merit or inclination, it detaches the head of state from all claim to influence." You have to admire his chutzpah: the defence of monarchy is its indefensibility. "Despite the paranoia of the left, the monarch has no constitutional potency. The power-grasping Stuarts brought Britain to rebellion, civil war and chaos. The power-averse Hanoverians buried themselves in their cards and their mistresses. Parliamentary freedom flourished as a result." Of course, that there left are not in the least bit paranoid about the monarchy. What they are suspicious of is the way that politicians abuse crown prerogative in return for the Royals extracting a huge rent from the public exchequer.

The left really don't think Philip is secretly pulling the strings of government, or that Charles moonlights as a Telegraph leader writer. That sort of fantasy is found on the right, usually keeping company with paranoia about Freemasons and Jews. I personally credit the two old gits with no more "potency" (in Jenkins' revealing term) or intelligence than any other pub bore. As the recent revelations over Charles's letter-writing shows, their influence appears to be largely imaginary. Indeed, you get the sense they are cut from the same cloth as those fantasists that attribute real power to the Royal Family, not least because of their interest in UFOs and homoeopathy.

Jenkins' take on history is hilariously wrong, though it was still just about clinging on as popular orthodoxy when he was in school. Fortunately, the small matter of scholarship has subsequently revealed it to be a romantic fiction. As any fule now kno', the story of the 17th century is of the inexorable wresting of power away from the monarchy by Parliament, and away from aristocratic landowners by the new gentry. The Glorious Revolution did not restore the monarchy to its Tudor position. The Stuart plot to turn free-born Englishmen into papist, frenchified slaves was an ideological invention, despite the dim-witted willingness of the Crown to play its part in the revels. Similarly, Parliamentary freedom did not flourish as a result of those nice Hanoverians deciding to be hands-off. The Germans were hired by Parliament precisely because they were willing to accept a limited role, just as Good King Billy did before them.

One of the peculiarities of the British monarchy is that from such modest beginnings, in the 18th century, it failed to evolve into a bicycling monarchy in the style of the Dutch and Scandinavians. The explanation is that the monarchy was professionalised during the 19th century as the embodiment of British prestige and the ideological icon of empire. The family's use of the term "the firm" to refer to itself is not ironic. Jenkins bemoans the expansion of the ceremonial role beyond the monarch to the wider family: "But one error, made under PR advice back in the 1960s, was to elevate the "royal family" to significance, its members adorning ceremonial and public occasions, however trivial, and drawing on a civil list in consequence. This confused the empty concept of "being in line to the throne" with actual headship of state. It set apart a collection of individuals, who could not do proper jobs and often irritated the public by their behaviour, in a cocoon of costly protection." Seduced by his Whig history, Jenkins fails to understand that the bloating of the Civil List is what the game is all about. The sprog-to-be is just another mouth to feed.

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