It does matter that we can’t speak freely about the Royals.

The Royal Wedding, watched by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, was a viewing sensation rivaled in popularity and majesty only by YouTube triumph ‘Charlie bit my Finger’

And of course, despite sustained grumping on the subject, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole shindig. The ludicrous hats and morally questionable Heads of State.  The cute choirboys (fetchingly offset by a heavily-perspiring Ken Clarke) and Tara Palmer Tomkinson’s smurf costume.    Nestling somewhere between loopiness and solemnity, there is little on earth so gloriously fanciful as the British monarchy let loose on a wedding.

Like most of the rest of the country, I welled up as Michael Middleton walked Kate down the aisle, and got goose bumps as she and William trooped out of the Abbey as husband and wife.  But there was one thing about the whole spectacle that I found distinctly sinister.

The week before the big day, I heard Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens interviewed on Radio 4.  She said (and I paraphrase) that the police would be dealing very robustly with protesters at the Royal Wedding and that arrests would be made.  The Met had already denied permission to a couple of groups to stage protests outside the Abbey.  And Owens wasn’t just citing security concerns, but also etiquette ones.  She went on to say that even peaceful protest was not ‘appropriate’ on the day of the wedding.  The people had the other 364 days of the year to exercise their freedom of speech and that potential dissenters should steer clear of Kate and Will’s special day or risk being dealt with harshly.

So why is that a problem?  Surely anyone who is enough of a meanie to want to disrupt our glorious moment of national celebration should be arrested forthwith and forced to live out the rest of their days with Brian Haw in his shanty town in Parliament Square?  Well- maybe.  No one likes a spoilsport.  But here’s why it matters.

In this country, culturally it feels as though we live in a democracy, and can take for granted all the rights and freedoms that go along with that, in this case the right to freedom of speech.   But in actual fact we don’t and we can’t.

With no written constitution we have no democratic rights at all. Furthermore, our monarch still technically has some pretty sweeping powers.   In fact she has the right to do any of the following:  appoint anyone she chooses as the prime minister; dissolve parliament at any time; dismiss the government of the day for any reason or none; and veto any piece of legislation passed by parliament.  So that potentially covers most areas of public policy.

So in theory, the only thing preventing the Royal Family turning British law into its own personal plaything, is a gentlemen’s agreement that goes something like this:  The royals can enjoy their toothpaste-squeezers and casual racism in peace, as long as they accept that their role is purely symbolic, that the Queen doesn’t ever use any of her supposed powers and that they stay out of anything that actually matters.  And for the most part, the system works well.  In fact, it’s hard to believe that what looks on paper like a constitutional car crash has given rise to such a fair, liberal and moderate society.  But that only works if everyone plays by the rules.

We have no idea to what extent the monarchy was behind the decision to ban protest on the day of the wedding.  Whether the Queen sat on her throne issuing proclamations to stop the filthy commoners spoiling her grandson’s day, or whether it happened in a tedious series of meetings between Palace PR flunkeys and the Met.  Or whether it was simply a case of the police pre-empting what they thought the Royal Family would want.  In a way it doesn’t matter.  The point is that the wishes of the monarchy were allowed to take precedence over the democratic freedoms of the people.  And that is a slippery slope.

Because unlike in America or France, the freedoms of democracy are not guaranteed to us, we need to guard them extra closely.  Which means ensuring that we can protest when we want to and not when the police or the Crown tell us we can. Not just when it won’t spoil the view, but when it is most politically apt.

It’s a minor point, but it’s the little things that can be the most insidious, because nobody notices they are happening. Freedoms get eroded gradually, without our realising they have gone.

Because ultimately it’s not democracy that will be the loser here.  Given a genuine choice between democracy and the monarchy, even pretty ardent Royalists would probably choose the former.   If the Royals stray too far from the basic social contract and truly start to trample on our democratic rights, it could be their undoing. Which would mean no more golden carriages.  No more bugles.  No more bunting.   And I for one, think that would be a shame.

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7 comments

  1. The limits of this ‘hands off’ approach and the cultural and political Conservatism of the Queen is apparent in which former Prime Ministers weren’t invited.

  2. This is not a question of political rights, but a question of aesthetics.

    The wedding was a choreographed global media event. It is natural – not sinister – the images would be constructed with great care.

    Someone could have taken the view that a load of scraggly protestors in central London would have sent the world a glorious demonstration to the world of British democracy in all its rawness. Personally, I would have been fine with that version. And perhaps it is your own preference too.

    But I’m also relaxed about constructing a celebratory aesthetic, as they did, of bunting, love and cheering. It is just the same process by which any other wedding photographs are planned and taken. The motives are human, not totalitarian. Everyone wants the images of their ‘special day’ to be flawless depictions of joy.

    We are all keen to preserve our freedoms. But a sense of proportion is also important. The damage done to democracy from ceasing to protest the royal family in central London for a single day every thirty years or so, is comparable to the damage I myself suffered this morning on my way into work, when a leaf blew off a tree and landed on my foot.

    All that said, the royal wedding did alas contribute to a far more calamitous assault on democratic renewal.

    Whoever thought it was a bright idea to schedule the AV referendum for the week after the wedding, thereby guaranteeing even more scant press coverage and national disinterest and apathy that might otherwise have been the case, should be taken out back and shot.

    [I am referring to Nick Clegg.]

  3. Witty and thought-provoking as old boots. I look forward to reading you in print on an asap basis.

  4. The danger seemed not in banning bearded loons from throwing their hate-filled bodies beneath the royal chariots, but the overreaction to any protest anywhere. Thus Prof Knight’s street theatre intercepted in Brockley, ‘Love Police’ pre-emptively nicked in Cambridge. These guys wanted to go Red Lion Square, SoHo. In a city so big, 1/2 a mile is masses, and frankly who’d have noticed?

  5. I probably shouldn’t say anything, as I’m fanatically opposed to both the monarchy and marriages (as my friend Jack once said about one or other of them: “if neither aadvarks nor zebras need them, then why the hell should homo sapiens?”) But on the broader point about the state encroaching on our freedom to protest, I think this is a lot more significant than a leaf falling on Alf’s toe. It should be seen in the context of the use of kettling as a tactic to humiliate and demoralise demonstrators and is part of a growing tendency from elements in the establishment to intimidate people from demonstrating and de-legitimise protest in general.

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