Something old, something new - Mahir Ali - Wednesday 27th April 2011

I MAY as well come clean. I was appalled a few weeks ago to come across an editorial in my favourite British newspaper declaring a drastic change of policy.
“A decade ago,” it solemnly said, “the Guardian prominently announced its commitment to republicanism. But Prince William has shown that he can be a new kind of king. That is why, in a significant change of course, we today pledge our full-throated support for the British monarchy.”
The paper went on to announce “a raft of changes designed to ensure that our royal coverage is unrivalled by any other media organisation”, declaring that it would be “recalling correspondents from some less newsworthy parts of the globe, such as North Africa and Southeast Asia, so they can focus on palace matters instead.”
In retrospect, I find my gullibility profoundly embarrassing. The comment, after all, was liberally strewn with evidence that it was a lampoon. “As The King’s Speech reminded us,” it noted, “there are times when only the calming leadership of a hereditary monarch will do.” How could anyone be dumb enough to swallow a sentence such as that without smelling a rat?
It took more than 24 hours for the realisation to dawn that the absurdly fawning content of the editorial in question had to be viewed in the light of its date of publication: the first of April. The deception may, however, have also been facilitated by the evidence that even relatively sane folks are perfectly capable of going gaga over a royal wedding.Not surprisingly, Friday’s nuptials are in many ways reminiscent of the event that united William’s parents in holy matrimony 30 years ago.
That particular union turned out to be a farce that ended in tragedy. It would be unfair, however, not to acknowledge the differences that reflect society’s changing mores.
Diana Spencer, substantially younger than the Prince of Wales, was projected as a virginal bride in what was effectively an arranged marriage. Kate Middleton and William have been an item since they were contemporaries at university; that fact alone brightens their prospects as a married couple.
A striking parallel, however, can be found in the fact that the supposed romance between Charles and Diana provided a popular distraction from the increasingly unpopular policies of Margaret Thatcher’s recently elected Conservative government.
These days, spending cuts deeper than anything Thatcher proposed are on the cards under the aegis of David Cameron’s administration, but attention has at least temporarily been deflected from the general angst they have inspired by the confected flag-waving enthusiasm over the conjugal rites of an heir to the throne.
The wedding has also overshadowed Britain’s first constitutional referendum in 35 years, on the question of whether its first-past-the-post electoral system should make way for alternative voting (AV). If the media is anything to go by, curiosity over what Middleton will wear to the wedding ceremony is considerably more widespread than any inclination to understand what the proposed change in voting procedures would actually mean.
Turnout for the referendum is expected to be frightfully low, and there’s every chance that the status quo will be preserved — more out of ignorance than conviction. Were AV, by some miracle, to be adopted, it would hardly amount to a dramatic change: by allowing voters not only to pick a particular candidate but also to record their preferences vis-à-vis the other candidates, it would simply ensure that the person representing any particular constituency would enjoy more than 50 per cent support in the electorate, even though some of it might be half-hearted.
It would be a step forward from first-past-the-post, albeit hardly a huge one. The referendum was among the compromises that facilitated a coalition between the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic parties — and the campaign has driven a deeper wedge between them. But the opposition Labour Party is also divided on the issue, and chances are that the vote will be relegated to a footnote in British constitutional history.
Were a referendum to be held on the prospect of a British republic, chances are the turnout would be larger but no change would be predicated. The evidence suggests the British nation is yet to acquire the political maturity that would enable it to put the Windsors where they belong: in some sort of a grandiose museum, possibly with the added bonus of a ‘reality’ television show (in which the weakest links could periodically be cast out of the royal firm).
It would be churlish not to acknowledge, however, that while the Windsors court far more publicity (and potentially wield more political power) than their counterparts in most of the remaining royal houses of Europe, they are far more open to mockery and ridicule than monarchical households in other parts of the world, from Japan and Thailand to Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps that’s partly because the debate over the British monarchy has, intermittently, raged for centuries. As the eminent lawyer Geoffrey Robertson reminded us at the weekend (again in The Guardian), during the brief triumph of English republicanism in the 17th century, John Cooke, the prosecutor of Charles I, described “the office of a king in this country” to be “unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people”. As Cromwell’s solicitor-general, he also abolished the House of Lords for being “useless and dangerous”.
He will one day be vindicated (and chances are his latter-day counterparts won’t suffer his fate of eventually being hanged, drawn and quartered). Unfortunately, that day is not yet nigh.

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