Wednesday, 1 February 2017

A Prince Among Men

The transparent lobbying of Prince Charles to replace Gary Lineker as leader of the resistance (UK branch) is evidence that the liberal opposition to Donald Trump is going to be no more effective internationally than Michelle Obama's "When they go low, we go high" was domestically. The move also suggests that the heir to the throne has internalised the attitude to monarchy promoted by the media he effects to despise, which confuses legitimacy with personality. In absolute monarchy, the person (i.e. body) of the monarch was sacred and personality incidental, hence a bad or a mad king was still a king. A constitutional monarch is similarly just an embodiment, but now of the nation rather than divinity, and thus little more than a ceremonial civil servant, hence the famous inscrutability of the Queen. Charles suffers from the delusion that an accident of birth should privilege the opinions of one over the many and that a state visit would be the opportunity for a meeting of fine minds. The prince's views are not representative of anybody but himself and it is vanity to imagine that he above all can talk sense into Trump on climate change or "inter-faith understanding".

What was particularly amusing about Charles's intervention was the claim that "The prince has gone into the Middle East over recent years at the government’s request and has been the honest and neutral broker". This suggests both a semi-detachment of the Prince from government and a supranational realm in which he can mediate between different states. In other words, Charles has inflated the political neutrality of the monarchy in its domestic setting into the role of an international Solomon. This pretension goes some way to explain the royals' choice of global concerns to channel their activism, from the obsession with preserving the wildlife they previously shot to presenting environmentalism as noblesse oblige. These issues are chosen not because they avoid conflict with national concerns or alignment with partisan politics, but because they allow monarchy as a style of governance to be projected beyond the confines of the nation. This should remind us that monarchy - or at least the "top division" sort represented by the Windsors - is instinctively supranational and imperial.

As a representative of the state and therefore government policy, Charles cannot be neutral in his dealings with other states. To suggest that he can is to revive the old idea of loyalty as flowing to the person of the monarch, rather than the nation, and displays a woeful ignorance of British history, not least in the reigns of previous kings called Charles. Of course, what's actually behind this is the suggestion that Charles is a better interlocutor with Middle Eastern monarchs than career politicians because of the affinities of princes (there is an argument to be made that the oil shocks of the 1970s not only reverted the social relations of the Middle East to an essentially feudal form, thereby boosting Islamic fundamentalism, but that the preservation of regional monarchies helped extend the useful life of the British version by making it look less eccentric). The application of this princely reasoning to Trump is a tacit recognition of The Donald's own monarchical ambitions. What was originally seen by Republicans in the US primary as a bug is here recast as a feature.

The petition to deny Trump a state visit to the UK is bizarre. It distinguishes between Trump's day job as "head of the US Government" and his role as head of state (and therefore qualified to receive the honour of a state visit), though such a distinction is meaningless in the US where the head of the government is the head of state. It also misses the point that his objectionable behaviour - the banning of Muslims - was conducted as head of the government (which is why it was an executive order) rather than as head of state, so it is illogical to penalise the latter rather than the former. The petition's justification for denying Trump a state visit - to avoid "embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen" - is equally illogical as it implies that the division of the two roles in the UK, between the head of government and the head of state, makes the monarch an innocent bystander whose feelings must be protected. The monarch is a well-paid extra and part of the deal is to eschew all feeling.

Rather than denying him a state visit, a better approach might be to embarrass Trump by augmenting the mass protests with more symbolic arrangements. Perhaps a spot of extreme vetting at Heathrow by a British Muslim in a headscarf or a Syrian-themed menu for the state banquet. Maybe William and Harry could pointedly ask why he ever thought he'd have stood a chance of going on a date with their mum. We'd probably struggle to find grounds to put him under house arrest in the manner of Pinochet, but we could make his time here uncomfortable, and I still believe that anything that threatens his personal financial interests will be more effective than public demonstrations that he will only see through the filter of Fox News, so investigative journalism of his UK affairs should take priority over outraged editorials. Considering that Trump has refused to properly step back from control of his business empire, and knowing that his historic dealings have been anything but ethical, you'd imagine there would be plenty of scope.

I don't hold out much hope of any of this happening and the reason is that realpolitik currently has the upper hand over ethics. The domestic political cost to the UK government of being pally with Trump is not high. Not only does the man have an extensive British media claque, but his anti-Muslim bias chimes with the many conservatives who backed the government's grudging support for Syrian refugees under David Cameron. As Prime Minister, Theresa May hopes a state visit will help secure a beneficial trade deal with the US, but the reliance on ceremony suggests that the UK will have a relatively weak hand in future negotiations. State visits to the UK rarely herald economic outcomes beyond arms deals or the foreign purchase of British assets. Their purpose is often to dignify the squalid. In this light, Trump's apparent "concession" not to abandon NATO forthwith should be seen as the over-inflation of policy compensations in advance of an asymmetric deal (I doubt the US has any real intention of leaving the organisation - they just want Germany to pay more). But if the realpolitik is strong (or desperate, in other words), the ethics are weak, and the involvement of the monarchy is the reason why.

The petition's emphasis on the Queen's feelings shows how propriety and decorum have compromised morality in the liberal opposition to Trump, which continues the strategic error of the Republicans during the primary and the Democrats during the election. In drawing a distinction between the man and the office it implicitly questions Trump's fitness for the Presidency and thereby his democratic legitimacy. There is nothing wrong with that - he did lose the popular vote, after all - but to do so by invoking the sensitivity of an unelected monarch is daft, particularly as we weren't overly-fussed by the Queen's potential discomfort in hosting various dictators in the past. Trump may be a moral monster and his behaviour reprehensible, but he is nowhere near the worst US President in recent memory (though obviously that's because he hasn't been in the job long enough yet - give him time) and his potential to do terrible things is a feature of the office and the wider constitution rather than just the man.

The opposition to Trump will remain weak until it focuses on his behaviour in the material rather than the symbolic world. In other words, the social damage of his own business practices and the economic policies that he and a Republican-controlled congress will now enact. His opening executive orders will have real world consequences, but these will be relatively slight compared to the effect of large domestic tax cuts and the gutting of subsidised healthcare and public education. Internationally, our concern should be the instrumental weakening of the EU and NATO in order to advance American interests against those of Europe in the emerging multipolar order. Ironically, our "independence day" on the 23rd of June last year means we are closer to becoming the 51st state in all but name. In the circumstances, you'd think Prince Charles would be a little more circumspect, but perhaps he is deluded enough to believe that the Americans are coming around to the merits of monarchy once more.

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