Forty years ago tonight, two bombs exploded inside busy pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring another 182. In the light of atrocities that have happened since, this may not seem such a shocking incident, but at the time it was traumatic – we in mainland Britain had not experienced such an attack upon civilians since the Second World War. There never was any serious doubt that (with or without the knowledge of the Army Council) members of the Provisional IRA were responsible, though to this day Sinn Fein and their now-mainstream representatives have failed to acknowledge it.
An additional six people can be added to the tally of victims: the innocent men who were each deprived of 16 years of their liberty for a crime they didn’t commit.
I was living in Birmingham at the time, a young student member of the International Socialists. The bombings made a major and permanent impression upon me, but I’ll come to that later. First, I’ll deal with what happened within the working class in Birmingham, then with the response on the left.
There was a massive and vicious backlash against all Irish people in Birmingham. Anyone of Irish extraction or with any known Irish connection, was immediately put in fear of their life. A worker who was known to have played the pipes at an IRA funeral was strung up at Rover Solihull (he survived, but only by luck). Johnny Bryant, a member of ‘Workers Fight’ (forerunner of the AWL) was driven out of his job at Lucas, never able to return. In shops, offices and factories throughout Birmingham, people of Irish extraction or with Irish names were terrified and quite a few went into hiding. A massive march took place from the Longbridge car plant to the City Centre. Socialist activists at Longbridge had to make a quick decision as to how to react. The Communist Party who dominated the Longbridge Joint Shop Stewards Committee simply went to ground. The International Socialists, who had a few shop stewards and supporters in the plant, decided to join the march in order to argue against any anti-Irish backlash and to prevent the National Front taking the lead. They were surely right to do so. Immediately after the march, IS students (including myself) joined Frank Henderson and others in leafleting the city centre against any backlash.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one actually died as a result of the backlash in Birmingham, but that was purely a matter of luck. The atmosphere was murderous and Irish people, and those of Irish extraction, were living in real fear for their lives.
The left was in a state of shock, just like everyone else. The Communist Party and their Irish-in-Britain front, the ‘Connolly Association’, simply waited for things to blow over. The IS, which had shop stewards in major factories like Longbridge and Lucas, was in political disarray, though individual IS militants (notably Frank Henderson at Longbridge), often played principled and even heroic roles. As stated above, Frank and the other IS shop stewards and activists at Longbridge joined the protest march and argued against the anti-Irish backlash. IS members with Irish names simply went into hiding – and who can blame them?
But despite the brave and principled role of IS industrial militants like Frank, the organisation as a whole was disorientated and incoherent. No-one knew what the “line” was – whether we continued to give “critical but unconditional” support to the Provos or not. The following week’s Socialist Worker didn’t help: the headline was “STOP THE BOMBINGS – troops out now”, which didn’t really clarify matters. Was “STOP THE BOMBINGS” a demand on the Provos? Were we suggesting that the bombings were, in reality, a just and/or inevitable consequence of the presence of the troops? What the hell were we saying?
About a week after the bombings IS held an emergency meeting for all Birmingham members in the upstairs room of a city centre pub. Duncan Hallas did the lead-off, and quoted extensively from the Official IRA paper, denouncing the bombings. Inevitably, several comrades responded by asking why, therefore, we supported the Provos, instead of the Officials, whose ‘line’ on individual terrorism seemed much closer to ours. My recollection is that Hallas didn’t really have an answer to that, and the meeting ended in a sullen and resentful atmosphere of dissatisfaction. We all knew that Hallas had been talking bollocks, but we didn’t know what the answer was. The reaction of many IS industrial militants was that it was best to steer clear of any involvment with “difficult” issues like Ireland, and to stick to “pure” industrial work.
For myself, the bombing was a sort of political coming of age. It taught me that the IS was incoherent and unprincipled on the question of Ireland, and nationalism more generally. It taught me that international issues cannot be divorced from industrial work. Most importantly, it taught me that politics is not a game or a pass-time: working class people had died and we had to have something to say. Ultimately, it taught me that simplistic “anti-imperialism” that costs working class lives is no way forward. It helped me to grow up politically – but at a terrible price.
PS: an untold story: The role of the firefighters and cabbies.
Fire engine driver Alan Hill was on duty at Birmingham Highgate station that night, and was called to the scene of the first bomb, at the Mulberry Bush pub. He told Birmingham historian Carl Chinn (in the Birmingham Mail five years ago) the following:
“There was now complete gridlock in the city. The only option I had was to do a reverse run down the full length of Corporation Street against the one way traffic pouring out of the city centre. It was totally against brigade policy but I really had no alternative.
“When I reached the bottom of Corporation Street, I turned left into New Street.
“Talk about out of the frying pan into the fire. Seconds before, another bomb had expolded at the Tavern in the Town basement pub in New Street..
“The street was a scene of utter devastation.
“We sent a radio message to Fire Control explaining the position and requesting another four fire engines and forty ambulances to assist us. There was only the four of us. There were around 150 casualties. Many were trapped inside the dark basement.
“The officer in charge of the fire engine, John Frayne, who at the age of 28 was the oldest member of the crew realised it would be ages before assistance arrived.
“John explained our position to the crowd and asked for volunteers. Twelve brave men stepped forward to assist us.
“The other two firemen, Nigel Brown and Martin Checkley, were already down in the basement.
“Although I had requested 40 ambulances I realised we would be lucky to get any. It was a case of first come first served and I knew the firemen at the Mulberry Bush had already requested every available ambulance in the city. My stomach sank to my fire boots.
“With every alarm bell in the street ringing, it was difficult to hear yourself think, but about 12 minutes into the incident someone behind me was clearly shouting ‘Alan.’ I turned around. It was George Kyte.
“George was a taxi owner driver who lived in Corisande Road, Selly Oak. I knew George well I had worked with him in the past as his night driver.
“With typical understatement George said ‘I know you’re busy. I am on a rank in Stephenson Place. A couple have asked me to take them to hospital. Can I do that and will you need their details?’
“I could have kissed him.
“I told George, ‘Get on your radio. Make an emergency call. I need every available cab in the city here at this address now URGENT.’ Within seconds the message was sent via the TOA radio system.
“Access into New Street had been blocked by a cordon set up in St Martins Circus so the street was claer of passing traffic. Within a matter of moments the glow of an orange taxi sign became clearly visible in the darkness at the end of the street. It looked like a stretch limo. It turned out to be 25 black cabs nose to tail moving slowly towards us.
“It was the start of the ‘scoop and run’ method. As many casualties and carers as possible were packed into each cab and taken immediately to the Accident and General hospitals. Almost 100 casualties were removed from the scene outside the Tavern on the first taxi run.
“Other cabs appeared on the scene soon afterwards and were joined by cabs returning from the first run. Even two ‘black and white’ cars that shared the TOA radio scheme turned up.
“Considering that there would have been no more than 50 black cabs working the entire city at that time of a Thursday night, the reponse was overwhelming… without any shadow of a doubt there would have been far more fatalities that night from trauma and blood loss had the taxi drivers not responded in such a magnificent and selfless manner.”
Shiraz Socialist is not in a position to express any opinion on the alleged involvement of Gerry Adams in the 1972 murder by the Provisional IRA of Jean McConville. Adams denies any involvement. Certainly, the timing of his arrest raises the possibility that it was politically motivated. However, this 2002 article by Sean Matgamna casts a useful light on Adams’ relationship with the Provos and the “physical-force” tradition within Irish republicanism:
I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams
“Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique in… the possession of what is known as a ‘physical force party’ – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain…
“[They] exalt into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon… Socialists believe that the question of force is of very minor importance; the really important question is of the principles upon which is based the movement that may or may not need the use of force to realise its object…”
James Connolly, 22 July 1899
Seeing pictures of Gerry Adams grinning his Cheshire-cat-who-has-eaten-six-mice grin in triumph at SF/PIRA’s latest success reminded me that I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams.
His name was John Magennis. Who was he? A British soldier? A member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? A member of an Orange paramilitary group? One of the Northern Ireland workers shot by the Provisional IRA in the early 1990s for doing repair work on RUC stations?
No, John Magennis was a Republican. He belonged to the then mainstream Republican movement from which the Provisionals split away in December 1969. Those who remained were thereafter called the “Officials”. They seemed to be the left wing of the Republican movement. They talked about class and about socialism. But in fact their leaders were Stalinists.
The Provisionals were traditionalist Catholic right wing Republicans. They recoiled from the Officials for a number of reasons – their leftism, their Stalinism, their feebleness in responding to the communal fighting in Northern Ireland in August 1969, but, most of all, their turn to politics in general. The split was triggered by the decision of the IRA leaders that Sinn Fein would henceforth take any Dail seats which they might win in an election.
The split led to conflict between the two Republican groups over control of weapons and to a shooting war in which people on both sides died.
John Magennis, a member of the Official IRA, refused to surrender his gun to the gang of Provisional IRA men. They shot him, leaving him paralysed. He survived in that condition for some years and then died.
I met John Magennis only once or twice, about the time the IRA split was taking place. John Magennis was not yet an IRA member. He had come to Manchester to visit his uncle, John-John, a one-time Belfast Republican and later a prominent trade union militant on the Manchester docks, where he worked closely with a small group of Trotskyists, of whom I was one.
A big debate on Ireland had been going on in the IS group (now SWP), at that stage a democratic organisation in which such issues could be debated and of which we were members, since the deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969, when serious sectarian fighting broke out in Derry and Belfast. Were we for or against British troops in Northern Ireland?
The discussion was very heated. Those of us who rejected the IS majority’s tacit support to the British state in Northern Ireland were denounced as bloodthirsty “fascists” at the September 1969 IS conference.
John Magennis came with one of his uncles to one of the debates in Manchester. He said he couldn’t see any acceptable alternative to “troops in”.
I remember something he said which later took on a special meaning. He expressed it in the jargon of Catholic nationalism, which idealises patriotic self-sacrifice “for Ireland”, the so-called “blood sacrifice”: “I don’t want to die for Ireland”.
Back in Belfast, he joined the “left-wing” Republicans. I heard he had been shot and paralysed, and later that he had died. It was many years before I saw him again – on TV on a home video, filmed in a nursing home, trying to learn to walk again – staggering painfully, spastically, a poor wreck of the vigorous young man he had been.
Not very much attention has been paid to the centenary of the Dublin lock-out, which was reaching its tragic denouement this time in 1913, as near-starvation, together with the TUC’s failure to organise solidarity strike action, began to drive the trade unionists back to work, which often also involved having to sign pledges renouncing union membership.
Thanks to Terry Glavin (via Facebook) for drawing my attention to Des Geraghty’s splendid documentary. Terry writes, “To the blessed memory of Big Jim Larkin and the centenary of the 1913 Frithdhúnadh Mór Baile-Átha-Cliath, the 1913 workers’ uprising in Dublin. An hour well spent, splendid documentary film-making here”:
Below: Sean Matgamna describes events, with particular emphasis on the role of the Catholic church in sabotaging efforts to move the starving children of the locked-out workers to England where they would be fed:
Dublin 1913: Against the priests and the bosses
By Sean Matgamna
In the years before the First World War, the great Jim Larkin organised the savagely oppressed workers of Ireland’s capital city and made them a power in Ireland.
Organisation, labour solidarity, the sympathetic strike by workers not directly in dispute—these were their weapons. These weapons began to mark them out as no longer a driven rabble but a class, women and men increasingly conscious of a common interest, a common identity and common goals.
The bosses organised a ‘union’ too and fought back.
Their leader was WM Murphy, one of Ireland’s biggest capitalists, and a prominent Home Rule nationalist politician. In August1913, they locked out their employees, intent on using starvation to get them to submit and foreswear “Larkinism”. The British state in Ireland backed them, sending hordes of police to attack strikers, some of whom were beaten to death. It turned into a war of attrition.
Here, fighting impoverished workers with no reserves, all the advantages were with the employers. The workers’ chance of victory depended on two things: on an adequate supply of food or money from sympathisers, and on an industrial solidarity that would tie up the whole trade of Dublin. It was to the British labour movement that Dublin’s workers had to look for help.
Magnificent help came. Ships full of food for the strikers came up the Liffey, and all over Britain the labour movement rallied, collecting money and food. But industrial action did not come, and that was decisive: money and food would keep Dublin’s workers in the fight, but only industrial action in Britain —by the NUR and the Seamen’s Union, for example—would allow them to win.
In Britain, militants argued for industrial action, even for a general strike, in support of Dublin. But the trade union leaders—who held a special conference in December 1913 on Dublin—would not agree to take action.
The strike dragged on 8 months, and then, beaten but not crushed, the union, whose destruction had been the bosses’ prime aim still intact, the last workers went back to work, or accepted that they had been sacked.
What follows is the story of an episode in this struggle, the attempt to move starving Dublin children to homes in Britain where they would be fed. It is told as much as possible in the words of Dora B Montefiore, who—62 years-old and in frail health—organised it.
In mid October 19l3, two months into the strike, Dora Montefiore spoke in the Memorial Hall, London—one of many enormous meetings being held all over Britain to build support for the Transport Workers’ Union. As she sat on the platform listening to Larkin talk of Dublin, Montefiore remembered what had been done to save the children of strikers during bitter battles in Belgium and in the USA.
When Larkin sat down she passed a note along the table suggesting that the starving children of working-class Dublin should be evacuated from the labour-war zone, to be looked after by the British labour movement for the duration of the strike. Would he, she asked, back such a scheme?
Larkin passed a reply back along the table: yes, he would. He thought it was a fine idea.
Montefiore then passed a note to another of the speakers, the Countess of Warwick — an unlikely but genuine socialist — asking if she would be the Treasurer. Warwick replied: Yes. So a committee was set up.
Next day, Dora Montefiore explained her plan in the Daily Herald. Soon they had offers of 350 places for children, and more were coming all the time. Labour movement bodies, trade union branches and trades councils offered to take the responsibility for one or more children. So did sections of the militant suffragettes, the WSPU. It was not as critics said and the Stalinist historian Desmond Greaves repeats in the official history of the ITGWU, an irresponsible stunt by busy-bodies, but a properly organised part of the effort of British labour to help Dublin. Dora Montefiore reported to the readers of the Daily Herald on 14 October:
“From Glasgow, Liverpool, London and a dozen other places, come the welcome offers, and I know that if the Dublin mothers could read some of the letters, it would do their hearts good to know the sort of mothers and fathers who are planning these temporary homes for their little ones.
“Several Roman Catholics have written and one friend offers ‘travelling, lodging and board expenses for two Dublin children while the strike lasts’, and suggests ‘boarding them for a time in a convent in Liverpool or London”‘.
And on 17 October she wrote:
“…Plymouth friends offered to house 40 children and 5 mothers, and they wired later that they were in communication with the Catholic parish priest and Catholic medical officer re the care of the ‘kiddies”‘.
On 17 October, Dora Montefiore, Lucille Rand and Grace Neal, a TU organiser who acted as secretary, went to Dublin to organise the migration of the children.
They were given a room at Liberty Hall, the Transport Union HQ and a meeting of wives of strikers was called. These mothers of hungry children eagerly grasped at this offer of help.
“Meetings of wives of the locked-out workers were then called, and we three delegates from the English and Scottish workers gave our message and laid the scheme before them. As a result Grace Neal was kept busy Tuesday and Wednesday registering the names of mothers who were anxious to take advantage of our offer. The passage leading to our room was blocked ’til evening with women and children. We tried to let them in only one at a time, but each time the door opened the crush was so great that often two or three mothers forced their way in….
“When the work of registration was over, 50 children were selected to meet Lucille Rand at the Baths, where a trained woman had been engaged to clean their heads and bodies [of lice, which were endemic]… Grace Neal presided over a batch of volunteer workers at our room in Liberty Hall, who were sewing on to the children’s new clothing labels bearing their names and addresses, and small rosettes of green and red ribbon.”
But if the strikers saw Montefiore’s plan as the rescue it was, so too did the bosses and their friends. They resented this attempt to deprive them of one of their traditional weapons—the power to weaken and break the spirit of strikers and their wives by forcing them to watch while their children starved and wasted. More: they saw the chance to whip up a political and sectarian scandal as a weapon to undermine “Larkin” by lining up Catholic lreland against him. Read the rest of this entry »
“It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty”
“It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him! Why, dear me, ANY kind of royalty, howsoever modified, ANY kind of aristocracy, howsoever pruned, is rightly an insult; but if you are born and brought up under that sort of arrangement you probably never find it out for yourself, and don’t believe it when somebody else tells you. It is enough to make a body ashamed of his race to think of the sort of froth that has always occupied its thrones without shadow of right or reason, and the seventh-rate people that have always figured as its aristocracies — a company of monarchs and nobles who, as a rule, would have achieved only poverty and obscurity if left, like their betters, to their own exertions…
The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of this world. And for all this, the thanks they got were cuffs and contempt; and so poor-spirited were they that they took even this sort of attention as an honor” - Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Now is the time to remember that all true socialists must be republicans.
In this brief sketch of James Connolly I avoided the present-day  developments in Ireland. If I must refer to them at all it will be in this foreword. In the early days of the war Arthur Griffith was for passive neutrality while Connolly was actively opposed to any participation in the war. MacNeill was opposed to the 1916 rebellion as were Griffith and others now prominent in the Irish Free State but Connolly said “We must fight or be disgraced for all time. ” When the final decision to revolt was made it was Connollys influence and vote that forced it. He was severely wounded and taken prisoner on the fourth or fifth day of the fight- ing and* contrary to the solemn promise made in the House of Commons by the then Prime Minister* Herbert Asquith* that Connolly would not be shot on May 12 1916 he was propped up on a stretcher and murdered by a British firing squad in violation of the civilized rules of warfare and the humanitarian codes that have done much to soften the harshness and savagery of the world. Of all the men who played, a prominent part in the Socialist movement and who contributed something vital to its literature and something permanent to its structure, few are as little known as James Connolly. It is true because of his dramatic and tragic end the name of Connolly became universally known, and to a certain extent almost equally universally misunderstood.
Misled by the press and their own lack of industry, many people think Connolly was a man of narrow views, with no cosmopolitan grasp of life, and a leader of a forlorn hope in a fight to establish an old brand of petty parochialism with a new and strange name. It was the contrary. His vision was large and. bounded by no parochial horizons. If he saw the world and its all-embracing class strug- gle, he did not shut his eyes to the elemental facts that are the warp and woof of the universe. There are people who view the forest, but cannot distinguish the trees. But James Connolly was not of that race. His vision embraced and perceived the little as well as the great things. He was a nationalist in the best and highest sense of that much- abused and very much misunderstood word. As he once happily wrote it in The Worker and in The Harp: “We can love ourselves without hating our neighbors.’ His sympathy for the Irish nationalist movement, while the sum of many noble mens ambitions and ideals was to Connolly the manes, if not the beginning of a great end, the turning point of the road that leads through oppressed nations to the liberation of all peoples — the human race. Read the rest of this entry »
Oh no! Another mouth (for us all) to feed…
“It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty towards their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him! Why, dear me, ANY kind of royalty. howsoever modified, ANY kind of aristocracy, howsoever pruned, is rightly an insult; but if you are born and brought up under that sort of arrangement you probably never find it out for yourself, and don’t believe it when somebody else tells you. It is enough to make a body ashamed of his race to think of the sort of froth that has always occupied its thones without shadow of right or reason, and the seventh-rate people that have always figured as its artistocracies — a company of monarchs and nobles who, as a rule, would have achieved only poverty and obscurity if left, like their betters, to their own exertions…
“The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble: to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might waer silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves gods of this world. And for all this, the thanks they got were cuffs and contempt; and so poor-spirited were they that they took even this sort of attention as an honor.”
-Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
From a political source not often quoted with approval by Shiraz Socialist (and for “DUP” you can also read “Labour”):
Commenting on calls from Westminster for a cut to the EU budget Martina Anderson MEP said:
“Those calling for a reduction in the EU budget should concentrate on the effects of their cut and slash attitude to fiscal matters closer to home. They should realise that bureaucrats target the most vulnerable first in any budget cutbacks.
“Of course there are areas of waste in the EU Budget and they need to be tackled and eradicated. I have previously highlighted the scandalous waste of money spent moving the European Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg every month.
“Rather than reducing the budget we should be looking at ways to redirect the funds available into infrastructural and job creation programmes. We could start by cutting the outrageous salaries paid to higher-level bureaucrats.
“And let’s look at why, for the 16th time, the EUs own auditing body, the European Court of Auditors, has been unable to accept the EUs annual accounts. So let’s make sure that the fight against cheating and fraud is a key priority in the coming years and put that money to better use in relieving the austerity measures being imposed across Europe.
“But let’s not listen to those in Westminster calling for reductions to the EU budget that would result in cuts to farm payments, investment in much needed infrastructure, training funds for the unemployed, investment in innovation and the other positive things that are done with a large part of the EU budget. And we all know that these are the things that the bureaucrats will cut first.
“The headline seeking games being played out in Westminster diverts attention from the real issues of what public authorities can and should do to invest EU funding in jobs and growth. The knee-jerk reaction of the DUP in supporting cuts in the EU budget although not unexpected could further hamstring the Executive on top of the Tory cuts being imposed from London government.”
-Martina Anderson MEP (Sinn Fein)
The government has blocked the publication of 27 letters from Charles Windsor to Labour ministers over a seven month period between September 2004 and April 2005. In doing this, the Attorney-General Dominic Grieve has overturned the decision of three tribunal judges who last month ruled in favour of a freedom of information request from the Guardian. The judges had ruled that the public had a right to know how Charles had sought to change government policy.
In an extraordianry admission, Grieve argued that releasing the letters “would potentially have undermined [Charles's] position of political neutrality.” The letters, says Grieve, contain the “most deeply held personal views and beliefs” of the heir to the throne and are part of his “preparation for becoming king.”
So much for the myth of a passive, apolitical constitutional monarchy.
We may never know what the “views and beliefs” expressed by Charles in those letters are, but we do know that he holds some profoundly reactionay and downright cranky views on a range of topics from architecture to homeopathy.
The decision to veto the publication of these letters is an affront to democracy; the prospect of an opinionated, political monarch seeking to exert an influence over government policy is an even greater affront.
The would-be Marxist left in Brtitain has, in recent years, tended to down-play the call for the abolition of the Monarchy. At one time that demand, like our insistence upon secularism, was one of the crucial issues that distinguished us from various varieties of reformists and soft-lefties. Now is the time to once again proudly raise the republican banner in Britain.
As for Charles Windsor: he has a perfect right to express his personal opinions if he renounces the throne and becomes a private citizen.
NB: the pressure group Republic has launched a “Royal Secrets Campaign.”
Philip Collins (in The Times, Friday June 1 2012). Brought to you exclusively, from behind Murdoch’s paywall, by Shiraz Socialist*:
It was the Prime Minister who made me crack. “My weekly hour with the Queen is vital because I get to draw on all those qualities; her knowledge; her commitment; her time-tested wisdom,” he crawled, Uriah Heeping on the praise. “Above all she has an abundance of what I’d call great British common sense…” Oh come on, man, pull yourself together. You’re the Prime Minister, for goodness’ sake. There’s no need to abase yourself.
Mr Cameron has form in fawning. I still marvel that, in 1981, at the ripe old age of 14, he slept on the Mall waiting for Charles and Diana. At the age of 10 you might be there with your parents. At the age of 21 you might think it was a laugh with your mates. But to be, at 14, a voluntary parade attender? A man who shares the views of his parents at 14 is a man without so much as a thought in his head.
This is a thin week for a republican. It’s going to be all jelly and ice cream and pretending to like the neighbours. Where are the bureaucratic killjoys when you need them, banning fun on the grounds of health and safety? The newspapers will join in the festivities rather than report them. If you want a look at what papers might look like if they are neutered by Leveson, read the advertising sheets for monarchy that will publish over the Diamond Jubilee weekend. The BBC will become a state propaganda machine. I thought the BBC was meant to be a nest of lefties. Where are they all?
Maybe they leave the country. For lots of people, the second and third words of Jubilee Bank Holiday matter more than the first. Two and a half million people will flee Britain. A word needs to be said, too, for those who will pay no attention. It is amazing that 26 million people watched William and Kate get married, but that means half the country didn’t bother. More people watched the wedding in 1973 of Anne and Mark, as we didn’t call them, and 85 per cent of the nation watched the coronation in 1953.
And yet the happy throngs at the street parties will brook no republican argument. Neither does the Queen’s approval rating, +78 last time it was measured. And I don’t want to rain on the parade too much. It will be good for the country to take a day’s holiday from cynicism and the serious republican has a lot to learn from why people will be enjoying themselves.
Most of what people say about why they like the monarchy is misleadingly stupid. Otherwise sentient people will cheerfully inform you that the monarchy is good for tourism. They seriously think that people would stop coming to London and that we should devise our constitutional arrangements to suit Mr and Mrs Kawashima on a short trip from Japan. Please spare me, too, the rubbish about “don’t the British do pageantry well?” Lots of countries do their pageantry well, too. North Korea is brilliant at it, unfortunately. But when did good choreography become a political prinple?
At this point in the argument the defender of monarchy always accuses the republican of being too earnest. It’s all perfectly harmless, no need to get so aerated. This paradox is the first clue as to what this weekend will be about. It is a cause for celebration that the Queen, unlike the ministers at her command, has never let the people down. Our low expectations of the Queen are an important source of the high satisfaction we repose in her. She makes no decisions that affect our lives and therefore does nothing to irritate us. The reason it is so common to say that the Queen does a great job is that she hasn’t really got a job, unless you count watching Maori dancers with a fixed grin on your face. We might not be so forgiving if she was setting the top rate of income tax.
We are celebrating the silence of a Queen who has never given an interview. The Queen is a blank slate on to which we project a view of her as , underneath the royal veneer, somehow one of us. How else could the Prime Minister get away with the ludicrous statement that the Queen has an abundance of common sense?
This allows the Queen to float free of monarchy and this is vital. Two conclusions leap out of the academic literature on trust and both are relevant to the appeal of the Queen. The first is that people trust those whose motives they cannot impugn. It would be churlish not to recognise that the Queen embodies an idea of service with no need for financial reward (the churlish rider would be that she has quite enough money already, even before the tax cut she just got). The second point is that people find it easier to trust individuals than institutions.
The personal aspect of the monarchy may leave the door ajar for republicans. Not all monarchs have been popular. When in 1946 Gallup asked voters whom they most admired, only 3 per cent mentioned George VI who came equal with Stalin and behind George Bernard Shaw. Now, 90 per cent of Britons want to keep the hereditary principle but only 39 per cent want the Prince of Wales to be King. Almost half the country wants the crown to pass to Prince William, as if the hereditary principle allows a referendum. The only hope for the people to get what they want is if the Duke of Cambridge mounts a leadership bid.
But the likelihood is that the monarchy will survive an unpopular king in the future as it has in the past. That is because we will also be celebrating an ancestral connection that binds a country. Even more than we are celebrating the Queen, we are celebrating ourselves. The death of Diana was an occasion for buttoned-up people to find the words for unspoken grief. The Diamond Jubilee will be a statement thatn this is a good country and we like living here.
There is nothing trivial about this sentiment. Monarchy has managed to negotiate the transition from divine to secular by sublimating a longing to belong. This is about something more ancestral than the fickle flashbulbs of fame. These are deeply held intuitions that have become embodied in the dignified form of the Queen.
If republicanism is ever to stand against the tide that will engulf us this weekend it needs to satisfy these impulses too. Colourless, abstract republicanism needs its own patriotic street parties. It needs to tell its own national story, about why, in the end, this is a great country because of the liberties protected by parliamentary democracy, which rather than hereditory aristocracy, is the real bequest of the British to the world.
* I trust it goes without saying that we at Shiraz do not necessarily agree with everything in the article.
NB: another rare outbreak of republicanism in the bourgeois media from the excellent Catherine Bennett in the Observer.