By Sean Matgamna (first published in 2012)
In a hugely symbolic moment on 27 June, during a royal visit to Northern Ireland to mark her jubilee, the former commander of the IRA shook hands with the Queen.
The man who commanded the force responsible for, amongst other things, the death of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, exchanged a handshake with the woman whose armed forces murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers in his hometown of Derry. This was, all proportions guarded, a real life instance of David Low’s famous cartoon “Rendezvous” in which Hitler (“the bloody assassin of the workers”) greets Stalin as “the scum of the earth”.
The response of the press, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, was very positive.
The Guardian thought “it underlined how far we have come since the Troubles”. The Mirror contained an unusually calm and rational article from Tony Parsons who described it as “the end of something — the decades of hatred, loathing and bloodshed” as well as “the beginning of something, too — when the raw wounds of the past can perhaps begin to heal”.
The Belfast Telegraph, traditionally a Unionist paper, hailed the handshake as “bridging a gulf that spanned centuries”. The southern Irish press was unreservedly impressed. The New York Times called it “a remarkable sign of reconciliation for both figures”.
The working-class socialist response to this would seem to be fairly straightforward. McGuinness claims still to be a republican in both important senses of the word. As a “capital R” Republican he appeared to make peace with the highest symbol of British rule while her state and government continue to “occupy” the northern part of Ireland and deny his people self-determination.
Even more objectionable is his apparent suspension of “lower case” republicanism — the rejection of rule by hereditary, unelected privilege. Contempt for such an institution should be taken for granted by even the mildest democrat.
Didn’t McGuinness, by shaking the Queen’s hand, acknowledge both her right to rule and her government’s sway in Ireland?
A glance at the fiercest critics of this historic handshake is a reminder that things are more complicated.
Before the meeting the Daily Mail advised the Queen to burn her gloves after carrying out her “distasteful duty”. The Sun’s front page headline declared “We don’t blame you for wearing gloves M’am”. The Times cartoonist provided an image of the Queen putting on four pairs of gloves before shaking the bloodstained hand of McGuinness.
The idea that there might be plenty of blood on the monarch’s hands too didn’t occur to any of them.
The Daily Mail was the one paper that didn’t deem the occasion to be worth a front page story. Inside, though, they brought us arch-militarist Max Hastings under the headline “I’m sorry, even in the name of peace, it was wrong to shake his blood-soaked hand”.
Hunting for evidence that McGuinness, the deputy prime minister and latter-day conciliator, remained “a fanatic”, Hastings alighted on his principled decision not to take his full ministerial salary (£71,000).
For me, that is evidence that Sinn Fein retains some connection with its mainly working-class base. For Hastings, it shows “certitude about his own moral compass” and this, he claims, is “the foremost requirement of a fanatic”.
On what appears to be the opposite side of the spectrum, McGuinness and Sinn Fein have been attacked by harder line Irish Republicans for yet another betrayal. Protests were held by dissident republicans, and senior SF councillor Alison Morris resigned in opposition to the event.
It’s important to register clearly what the critics are opposed to. On the republican side it isn’t seriously claimed that McGuinness or his party have become soft on the monarchy. For certain McGuinness and Sinn Fein have rapidly acclimatised to being part of the establishment and clearly enjoy being normal bourgeois politicians. What took place on 27 June was, however, more than just a further shift down that road.
The justification given by Sinn Fein had nothing to do with either the Queen or British rule. McGuinness described his move as “in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity”. There is no reason not to take that rationale at face value. He went on to claim that this sort of symbolism had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.
That view can be criticised as naive. It can be attacked as a top-down way of managing the communal differences without challenging the fundamental causes. In common with most elements of the “peace process” it seems to reinforce rather than undercut cultural division. It’s a different matter, however, to criticise it for “going too far” towards the unionists. The least bad fault with modern-day SF is that they are insufficiently intransigent nationalists. Yet that is the criticism most commonly levelled at them from the left.
And it’s hard not to take some pleasure from the visible discomfort this event has caused to the British right. The fact that their Queen has felt it necessary to shake the hand of the former IRA commander has opened a very old sore for reactionaries.
The most reliable of these, Peter Hitchens, summed up the problem in the Mail on Sunday. After a few predictable and gratuitous personal swipes at McGuinness he compressed all his familiar anxieties into this short sentence: “If anyone doubted that the Good Friday Agreement was a humiliating surrender by a once-great country to a criminal gang, they can’t doubt it now.”
The sort of Tories whom Hitchens and Hastings write for spent their formative years insisting that those who took up arms to fight British rule anywhere in the world were no more than criminals. They said it too of Mandela and the ANC. Time and again they have seen these claims crumble to dust as the era of direct imperialist rule has given way to triumphant independence movements. And it hurts deeply.
Hitchens’ adult life has been blighted by one episode after another of “humiliating surrender” by his “once-great country” to movements fighting to free their countries from colonial or racist rule (or “criminal gangs” as he prefers to put it).
But the Irish people have not yet won a united independent state. The British have not surrendered and nor would it matter much if they did. The key to Irish territorial unity is, and has for decades been, democratic unity between its people. What Martin McGuinness did on 27 June offended the sensibilities of democrats and socialists because of our contempt for the institution of monarchy. However, his motive at least was progressive.
It was also republican in the sense defined by the founder of modern Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone — “to replace the name Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman”. We should be bold enough to point that out.
“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
Above: Suzanne Moore
Below: the start of Woman’s Hour’s list of the 100 most powerful women in the UK today.
The Woman’s Hour list proves there is nothing soft about real power
Smug self-congratulation is not a male prerogative. This week we had the Baftas, the Fry/Ross/whoever love-in where successful people applaud themselves stupid. Such ceremonies are now where women’s frocks are then judged right or wrong by a woman who freely admits hating her own body, never mind anyone else: Liz Jones. Still, it’s only showbusiness.
I did not expect such abject smugness from Woman’s Hour, even though I had refused to go to their awards do as I thought their power list of the top 100 women was entirely pointless. Anything that celebrates women but does not include prosecco is usually as dull as dishwater. Listening to the programme, though, was worse than dull. It was dire.
Still, a power list of women, not people. Radical? Well Emma Goldman must be turning in her grave. The most powerful woman in Britain is the Queen. Number two is Theresa May and number three is a rich banker. Busting the stereotypes of power was clearly not the raison d’être of this list. But this really takes the biscuit – homemade, of course, by some Mumsnet guru with 18 children who runs a hedge fund in between trips to CERN.
I jest, but not much. Of course there were some noble names but they don’t need more bigging up. There are two types of women: those who make it and help other women and those who pull the ladder back up. But then power is a slippery concept. We have all read 50 Shades of Grey, after all. Hence the waffle about “soft power”, a term used by sociologist Joseph Nye. Soft power is coercive, collaborative, communicative – we girls are good at this sort of thing. Hard power – politics, war, finance – that’s tougher.
The list confirms that the best way to get power is to inherit it, like the Queen or Elisabeth Murdoch. Also try to be white, rich and go to private school. Or you can be like Theresa May – happy to sit in a cabinet with few women and sign off policies that penalise other less fortunate women.
None of this would be made better, some of the panellists said, by quotas; they were against them. Alexandra Shulman boasted of having a black girl working in her office. Amazing! The judges also considered Victoria Beckham more worthy than PJ Harvey. Caitlin Moran, who made 15-year-old girls think feminism could be cool and a bit of a laugh, did not feature either.
Powerful women, I guess, are exceptional. And behind every powerful woman are other women – cleaners, nannies. But they don’t count. Care is not power, apparently, and this list showed us again going backwards. No amount of sweet talk about networking from guest Julia Hobsbawm changes that. These are hard times for women: the proportion of women at the top of public life (media, politics, business) is stuck at 22%, and for younger women it is worse. Does networking turn into real power? Not from this evidence. With such an innately conservative and corporate list, “soft power” comes to resemble being someone’s lovely assistant.
Not represented at all were the brave women who spoke out about Jimmy Savile; those who campaign against domestic violence. No Doreen Lawrence. No Margaret Thatcher, whose ideology remains powerful. And few young women.
I don’t want to get too Foucauldian about this – well, I do – but power is a web, a culture, a discourse that always has to be challenged. To embody it in a dumb list is to reinforce the status quo absolutely. And women continue to do the media’s dirty work for them: self-compiling lists of experts so that women may appear on serious shows from time to time, as researchers seem unable to find women scientists or economists.
This power list is a sign of the times. Don’t be young, gifted and black. Try not to be working class, either. Networking cannot replace quotas. Or sexual politics. Too many of the women involved in this enterprise seem happy designing their own ceiling, brick by glass brick. They would like women to be magically more powerful, but have no way of explaining how this might happen Still, it’s Woman’s Hour: I wasn’t expecting the SCUM Manifesto read out by Mary Berry, though that would have been good. But I did expect a conversation on how power might be distributed.
Power is taken, not earned, as they kept insisting. This fiasco was a painful reminder of the weak position so many women are in. I am not polite, and I am not thankful for the small mercies of big businesswomen. Power is not given. We wrench it away. For where there is power, there is resistance. A list of resistance. Now that would be powerful.
Tonight’s opening episode (9pm, BBC 2) of Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge promises to usher in a great series, with a cast including John Goodman, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jacqueline Bissett. Apparently, it’s about the tribulations of a black jazz band feted by the upper class in 1933 London and very loosely “inspired” by what happened to the Duke Ellington band when they visited Britain that year.
Here’s what the Duke himself (always rather impressed by royalty and the the British upper classes) wrote about that visit in his book Music is My Mistress (published in the UK in 1974):
We were absolutely amazed at how well informed people were in Britain about us and our records. They had magazines and reviews far ahead of what we had here and everywhere we went we were confronted with facts we had forgotten and questions we couldn’t always answer. Nevertheless, the esteem our music was held in was very gratifying. A broadcast we did for the BBC provoked a lot of comment, most of it favourable. Constant Lambert, the most distinguished British composer of that period, had written an appeciation of our early records years before.
Lord Beaverbrook, who owned one of the most important London newspapers, threw a big party to which the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Kent were invited. We were invited too and Jack Hylton’s Empress Club band played until we got through at the Palladium. It was all very colourful and splendid. Members of the nobility, Members of Parliament and delegates to the imperial conferences, all in informal dress, mingled happily. There was a generous buffet and the champagne flowed freely.
Prince George, the Duke of Kent, requested ‘Swampy River’, a piano solo I had a hard time remembering, but I was flattered, especially to have him leaning over the piano as I played it.
Later, the Prince of Wales had some kind words to say to us. When he suggested we had a drink together I was surprised to find he was drinking gin. I had always thought gin as rather a low kind of drink, but from that time on I decided it was rather grand. He liked to play drums, so he paid Sonny Greer a lot of attention, too. This is how Sonny remembers the evening:
‘As soon as we got the band set up, the Prince of Wales came over and sat down beside me Indian fashion. He said he knew how to play drums, so I said “Go ahead!” he played a simple Charleston beat, and he stayed right by me and the drums throughout most of the evening. People kept coming up and calling him “Your Highness” but he wouldn’t move. We both began to get high on whatever it was we were drinking. He was calling me “Sonny” and I was calling him “The Wale”.’
I think the Prince of Wales really did like us, because he came to hear us again at Liverpool, when he was up in that area for the races at Aintree. He was loved by the day people and the night people, rich and poor, the celebrities and the nonentities. He was truly the Billy Strayhorn of the Crown princes.
Here’s the band slightly earlier (1930, to be precise), playing ‘Old Man Blues’:
Incidentally, does anyone recognise the chord sequence?
They say he wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare and others made out. But still, a Leicester car park seems a good place for royal remains…
Someone from the Reduced Shakespeare Company was on the Today programme this morning, with a rather jolly poem about it all, including the lines “Richard spent his winter of discontent / Buried beneath three feet of cement.” You can hear it here.
The death of Jacintha Saldanha is desperately, unspeakably, sad: a dedicated, caring nurse caught up in events she wasn’t trained to deal with and who seems to have then taken her own life in remorse for her innocent part in what most of us would regard as a trivial incident.
There are no simplistic political points to be made about this tragedy, and I certainly don’t intend to try.
First and foremost, the thoughts and sympathies of all decent people must be with Jacintha’s family and colleagues.
But the howls of outrage (not to mention threats) against the two Australian DJs who perpetrated the hoax that seems to have led to Jacintha’s suicide, are surely hypocrisy. How many of those who now bay for the blood of the hoaxers, were laughing along with them not so long ago?
The hoaxers are now, apparently, in hiding and receiving counselling.
I find it impossible to accept the radio station’s claim that the hoax was not illegal (under Australian law recorded conversations cannot be broadcast without the permission of the individuals involved), but I can accept the station’s claim that the suicide of Ms Saidanha was something that “could not have reasonably [been] foreseen.”
These hoaxes can be very funny and even, occasionally, serve a useful purpose (eg Brass Eye’s “Cake” hoax). The hoax call to the King Edward VII hospital that seems to have resulted in this tragedy was not a piece of classic comedy, and did not serve any socially useful purpose: nor did much done along the same lines by by Chris Morris, Armando Iannuci, Victor Lewis-Smith or Dom Jolly. But I freely admit to having frequently enjoyed their hoax calls and “pranks” simply for their own sakes. It never even occured to me that such innocent mischief-making might ever lead to tragedy.
Dom Jolly, in today’s Independent on Sunday has the honesty to amit to feeling “there but for the grace of God go I.” He closes his thoughtful piece with this:
“I actually feel sorry for the Australian DJs. To be honest, they were not very funny and sounded like a pair of arses. But all they were doing was making a stupid phone call that they didn’t think would even work, it was so ludicrous. Jacintha Saldanha was a nurse, not a receptionist: it was five in the morning and she simply answered the call and put through what she believed to be a call from the Queen to another nurse, who was the one to reveal the paltry details of Kate’s condition. Both the hospital and the Royal Family say that they did not take punitive steps. Prince Charles even joked about it. So I say, leave these DJs alone. They must already be suffering levels of guilt that I don’t think will ever leave them, and that is punishment enough.”
More sense and humanity on this subject from Yvonne Roberts in today’s Observer.
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
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.