June 12 2024
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Constitutional Peasants

Constitutional Peasants

Pic: Patrick Maguire
Untitled: Patrick Maguire

Of course public protest laws would be tightened before the Coronation.  The crowning of a hereditary head of state is the antithesis of public protest.  It is a celebration of form over substance, the nation gazing in collective wonder at a spectacle even as it tramples on rights that are – the rest of the time – fundamental to our lives.  And to do this, it must be a spectacle.  The majesty of the event needs to be enough for us to suspend our critical faculties.  We are willing witnesses to the glittering baubles and orchestrated ceremony, complicit in a constitutional system that literally subjugates us.

The moment you think about what is actually happening is the moment that the curtain collapses, revealing the evidence that we have already seen and heard, but refused to consider.  No one needs to have the absurdity of monarchy explained to them.  We no longer live in a time when people whole-heartedly believe that the monarch is divinely appointed, whether through their birth or through their success on the battlefield, or that the monarch’s will is one and the same as God’s.

At the moment of his anointing, a triptych was erected around King Charles III.  Three dark green screens, embroidered with an oak tree in full bloom and angelic trumpeters, concealed the King as he was supposedly touched by God.  This construction of a Holy of Holies – on an appropriately Church of England scale – may have nodded towards a belief in the presence of the divine, but it did not genuflect.  The Christian faith that the monarchy subsists on is a hollow one, eroded away through the Enlightenment’s empiricism.

But while monarchy may rest upon a void, its position atop our constitutional hierarchy remains secure.  British society is now a collective of Doubting Thomases, but sceptics have yet to be transformed into revolutionaries.  Counter-intuitively, this irrational obeisance may be a natural part of our humanity.  Despite the manifest absurdity of hereditary monarchy, it is an absurdity that appeals to our nature.  Humans are not purely rational creatures.  We craft myths, legends, and stories that we want, and perhaps need, to believe true.  One of these myths is the hierarchy of society and the necessity to bend the knee to hereditary elites.  Even post-monarchical democracies have this compulsion, with the French looking back to the Bourbons centuries after they guillotined Louis XVI, and later to descendants of the Emperor; while the Americans have had their Adamses, Roosevelts, and Kennedys, and now have their Clintons, Bushes, and perhaps even Trumps. In Britain, we have the Windsors.

The rise of the nation state has emerged in part through the telling and retelling of the hereditary myth.   Humans may be a species that exists in groups, but there is no anthropological reason for us to form groups in the thousands, let alone in the millions or tens of millions.  As the constitutional peasants in Monty Python’s Holy Grail tell King Arthur, they didn’t know they were ‘Britons’, or that they even had a king. They thought they were part of an ‘autonomous collective’, or perhaps an ‘anarcho-syndicalist commune’. The understanding among people that of being part of a nation-state encompassing millions of people is a relatively novel one, emerging in Europe after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  Shakespeare may have had Henry V celebrate ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, but most infantrymen and foot soldiers fighting in the Battle of Agincourt would have been there to fight for their liege lords rather than in defence of king and country.

It is the persuasive and pervasive influence of this nation-state narrative that not only affects our willingness to acclaim a new monarch on the basis of birth alone, but that also affects national policy, particularly at the borders.  While governments and opponents of migration may seek to justify their antagonism on the basis of socio-economic reasons, ranging from an inability to provide economic support to refugees to an inability to accommodate more economic migrants, the real motivations are socio-political and cultural. As we saw last week with the government’s proto-fascist rhetoric about the values of those crossing the Channel, there is a pervasive fear that allowing too many people in who do not share our values, or who do not share our cultural narrative, will erode it, with a new socio-cultural narrative put in its place.  But from a purely objective basis, there is little to support such a paranoid, nationalistic view.

Despite the fears of some right-wing groups, there is almost no real risk of British society becoming diluted beyond recognition if a more pro-migrant and pro-refugee stance were to be taken by the government.  The diverse character of Britain’s multicultural cities is testament to this, with migrant cultures enhancing, not eroding or replacing, British culture.  Millions of families from across the globe – aided and abetted by the rise and fall of Britain’s Empire – have found their way to the motherland, and still Britain’s identity remains. The Green Man, an ancient motif from British mythology, featured on the formal invitations to the Coronation, while the pomp and circumstance of this weekend’s events showed that the archetypes of British identity are thriving. Travesties like Windrush, Grenfell, and the ‘hostile environment’ show the callous attitude of parts of Britain’s institutional structures towards minority groups.  But members of these groups still strain to become a part of Britain’s cultural fabric.  Not in an attempt to replace what went before, but to celebrate it and to enrich it.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords may be no basis for a system of government according to the Pythons’ rationalist, proto-Marxist peasants.  That does not mean that a national identity cannot be partly forged off the back of a woman holding a sword aloft. We saw that this weekend, with Penny Mordaunt’s prospects of becoming leader of the Conservative Party, and perhaps prime minister, improving on the basis that she held a bejeweled sword for swathes of th coronation.   In much the same way, Charles III’s coronation may have been an absurdist spectacle, but it was simultaneously a celebration of the idiosyncratic irrationality that is a part of being human.  It was the dignified half of our Bagehotian constitution, that plays on our shared history and on our desire for a grand narrative, rising to the occasion, even as the efficient half finds itself trapped in a mire of its own making.

Ultimately, the diversity of those celebrating the crowning of our new monarch exposes the racist narratives of those who would seek to exclude other minorities on the basis of their mother culture.  Nation states are not a rational inevitability, but a relatively novel feature of modern human society.  Much like a hereditary monarchy, they are an irrational, but fundamentally human, concept. These states first emerged on the basis of geographical proximity, language, and national figures, and now hinge on these, but also on cultural in-jokes and political references.  As the diversity of Charles’ coronation showed us, the modern nation state is acquisitive and accommodating, capable of embracing and celebrating difference. Today’s states exist not on the basis of who they exclude, but how they include.

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