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Essays on power and change in western democracies: Harry and Meghan, shaping the British constitution

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2022 at 10:18 pm

HARRY and Meghan’s docuseries is the first fully-formed independent critique from within this normally well-managed monarchy. Its impact is inevitable. Largely as the British constitution is discourse-based, and any new narrative will be felt keenly. That is, the constitution is referent to the long-text of British history. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s rostrum, Netflix, found a mass audience. Diana, Princess of Wales’s 1995 first-person-account was with the BBC’s Panorama TV programme. A late-evening gotcha format for the serious-minded.

Meghan, especially, embodies the rights of freeborn ‘Englishwomen’ everywhere. America continued a tradition of English expressiveness that we have steadily lost. The US spirit instinctively grasps that discourse is like cheese, where complex processes get to work, and tastes different over time. It is worth noting the backdrop to English, then British, democracy has been the inexorable transference of power. That steady movement from church and aristocracy to, as we see in the early 20th century, a fuller democratic nation-state. So there is a political pressure towards ongoing constitutional evolution that is distinct from the forces within American polity. Where Britain is shaped by priests and princes, then politicians, America has to keep asserting moral reasoning today via its painters, prose writers and politicians. Because, as Saul Bellow, America’s most revealing 20th century writer would say, if its writers did not address moral reasoning, American business would (see Donald J. Trump for further reference).

Historically, English expression had been narrowed by the stiffened shirts of the English academy. Men like F. R. Leavis (The Great Tradition, 1948), who added to England’s post-war privileging of hi-art and hi-science. This emphasis on a hierarchy of the arts received a challenge in the 1960s. But the 20th century racked English sensibilities with self-doubt about correct form. The old-hierarchy of the arts has now been wobbled. Hello! magazine offers human struggle as does Homer’s Iliad, if not more. The gods in both are just as fickle. But we still suffer the anxiety of formulaic speech forms.

Meghan’s target audience is not me though. As a millennial she is concerned with the generation below. Those who intuitively prefer a speech-act referent to the self. When I travel anywhere in the car with my Gen Z daughter, a Michelle Obama podcast hijacks the sound system. The life-narrative, honed through American self-help literature is easy to imbibe. It is free from hard concepts, grand theory, and is fully domesticated. It does not need, as the English often do, the heavy filter of irony (allusion to the fact).

Baby boomers like me underestimate the podcast. We are catching up though. Lefty Alistair Campbell (former UK Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press guru) and righty Rory Stewart’s (ex-true-blue UK Conservative Party Secretary of State) The Rest is Politics is the UK’s No. 1 podcast. It is not Tonight at the London Palladium, but sufficiently popular to perform live at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Weird, as the Brits do not do serious politics.

The banality of Liz Truss and venality of Boris Johnson, both short-lived UK Conservative Party prime ministers, have joined with the vacuity of former US president Donald Trump, and stirred a healthy interest in politics as knockabout light entertainment. But more importantly, appalled as well. In the sense that can such crass incompetency get near, let alone into, high-office. Captains of corner shops smell rampant cronyism. And are now newly engaged.

Netflix has challenged the BBC’s journalistic stance. The BBC has persistently avoided criticising the British monarchy. Veteran BBC journalist, John Simpson, who started his career there in 1966, writes: “Throughout its history I’ve been careful to note how timid [the BBC] always was. One of the things I’m most proud of during my time there is how it’s thrown away the timidity. It hasn’t thrown away the caution, and there are many times when I think the management is too cautious, but it doesn’t genuflect before authority in the way that it used to.” With the exception of the monarchy, which it still covers with a measure of reverence. Fellow veteran BBC broadcaster from the 60s, David Dimbleby, adds: “And I think it’s a taboo subject in this country to talk about [monarchy]. It’s certainly a taboo subject for the BBC to talk about. I think it’s a very strange institution to have in the 21st century.” It is not strange of course. It is part of a consistently preferred constitutional polity. What is strange is that it has taken Netflix and the Duchess of Sussex to raise debate. Credit: The Guardian and Metro

Meghan’s narrative, along with my critical feminist daughter’s, are both shaped by bi-directional debate flowing across podcast-world. They do not plug into MSM (mainstream media) like baby boomers. As a young child I nibbled the edge of my bedtime digestive biscuit at snail’s pace to catch the 9 o’clock news on the BBC (Vietnam, moon landings, Northern Ireland, Soviet Union night after night). And Britain had only just added a third TV channel.

Or put more simply Meghan is a voice formed within her generation. Conservative parties and movements everywhere have miscalculated. They have relied on young liberals turning into crusty conservatives. For the first time this established trend is slowing. My daughter’s cohort will punish the UK Tories (Conservative Party) in 2024, they promise. Tory MPs are resigning now in confident knowledge careers are over.

Worth adding that genuine conservatives, of which there are a few left on both sides of the political divide, are quite comfy with ideas of human difference, and the complex forces that make economies function. It is neoliberals who crashed conservative parties, imposing market dogma upon valuable institutions. In a volte face the welfare state, long target of neoliberalism, has now become part of the national architecture, with the Tories forced to defend it from Liz Truss’s market fundamentalism.

It was a different use of neoliberal ideology that restored market forces under Margaret Thatcher (Britain’s Prime Minister in the 1980s). Hers was a re-engineering of a collectivist hi-tax, hi-spend interventionist state; open-heart surgery, stemming a jugular that was pumping blood onto the ceiling. Albeit crude surgery, which left the patient scarred. What followed was a steady 30 years of improvement however.

Where Truss lost the plot on day one of her premiership, Thatcher erred towards the end. Mrs T proposed a community charge, or poll tax (so-called as every voter had to pay), a per capita, flat rate tax, where every member in a household contributed to local government funding, rather than a rate based on a house’s potential rental values, paid for by the householder. Suddenly the poor were paying the same as the wealthy. 14 million householders paying domestic rates based on property value, switched overnight to 38 million adults paying the same as each other. Liz Truss miscalculated similarly. Borrowing money to reduce the tax burden on the wealthiest in the vague hope the rich would use the bonanza to kick-start a zombie economy stuck in low growth.

I bother you with this minutia because it shows what odd logics grip minds. Truss and Thatcher found their logical plans elegant and pleasing to the eye. Coherent and irrefutably sound. In the same way populist far right figures do throughout history. But such modes ignore the vast irrationality surrounding such discrete logics. When you stop putting your logic into a structural relationship with other logics infantile functionalism emerges.

In truth Conservative Party governments have been an odd admixture of free market and state interventionist policies. Bailing out banks, and spending £70 billion on furloughed workers one moment and wishing to cut workers’ rights the next. There is no evidence that protecting employment hurts performance. Profits yes, but not performance. But in some quarters sounding tough feels like leadership. Waving a discrete logic in a foggy world garners adherents to your unities. In constitutional terms we see the frailty of governments. The rise of fierce logics, and lowering of rationality.

Back to Meg. And her rationality. It takes an American spirit to speak into a moribund UK landscape. T. S. Eliot did the same 100 years ago. Today’s American is more English than the English. We forget this. Eliot and Meg are not as far apart as you think. Poetry remains the confessional. The Waste Land (1922) was a stream of consciousness confessional if ever there was one. That is to say Eliot’s disturbing, gushing, clunky, prescient, dystopian, hopeful groan at the funeral of la belle époque (Europe’s beautiful era). His images have not just travelled well, they have become increasingly affirmed as prophetic.

Meg’s narrative will similarly rise and fall, and rise again over time. A sensitive man like King Charles III, who has championed sustainable economies before their time, will inevitably be drawn to respond in some form. His book, Harmony, is critically developed. He is a major correspondent, so engagement will arrive. He exercises freedoms then that his subjects do not. The king waxes, whilst the kingdom wanes as a place of dialogue.

And it is worth reminding here that the American Constitution is a topping and tailing of the English constitution. Meg’s freedoms are built on political freedoms in place long before the American Revolution. The Revolution did not pull ideas of self-government and representative assemblies out of the ether. The Revolution captured the English model in order to conserve it, not rip it up. Not so much a revolution, as an evolution. So, you may say, Meg is more in touch with history that most.

Americans are schooled in their constitutional history, and told a grand story.  Few Brits know what a constitution is in the first place. They are told the UK is a constitutional monarchy. Which means very little to anyone. It is meant to mean a nation-state with an unwritten political contract. No ten commandments to learn by rote. No political code chipped in granite. But rather a long amorphous history of events that soak into national character and intent. A kingdom of values, preserved in an anointed family. A sceptred (imperial) history.

This is, bear with me, based on a rational set of ideas, explicable; and importantly, needing constant telling as each generation forgets exactly why bejewelled monarchs are there amidst the technological and urban. Importantly, rational structures like this are frequently illogical. And critically, it is possible to be without logic, but still be highly rational.

Central to Britain’s illogic is maintaining monarchy as a long-running pantomime. Magical, mysterious, with villains and heroes. Panto is a unique British music hall and Vaudevillian children’s opera. For adults. Double entendre and sexual innuendo, defeat metropolitan sensibilities: “Laugh at dotty Widow Twankey, boo and hiss the evil Abanazar and cheer on our hero Aladdin”. But when looked at as part of nation-state continuity it becomes highly rational to maintain a system that is trusted and wins allegiance. That is there is a state architecture which knits the parts into a structural whole to the extent it accretes legacy values such as generational solidarity.

The European Union did not evoke moral force as it is a hodge-podge of member state constitutions that have yet to coalesce rationally. It means too little to its member state citizens. It was logical to form a union of European former warring states. But not rational, as the parts cannot form a whole.

Critically, a coded constitution is logical. Clear. And this is its problem. The more you write down in short-form, or boiled bullet points, the more you are held to ransom by these principles. America is screaming at itself, because it is debating the logical meaning of its code. A hiding to nothing. God, guns and gays, the foetus and the flag, are intractable circular arguments. Never approach these debates directly and logically. Replace them with other conversations. The US’s earnestness about bedroom morality is a product of trying to define the ‘right behaviour’ of its citizens. And this is what revolutionary Republics get stuck with for some time.

Revolutionaries understandably make sense of their violence by finding common ground in a hurriedly written statement of intent. We the people etc. But to be logical is to seek a boxed truth that makes immediate sense to the protagonists at the time. But over time becomes horribly irrational.  Complex argumentation requires indirection, deviation, digression and extended discourse, but never definition. Do not bother suggesting gun control. Brits discuss the weather, Americans own guns. They are symbols of identity. But do discuss values and social contracts. These shape identities and symbols over time. Guns make sense to America. A risk society.

And this is why Meghan has struck a nerve in the British consciousness. She has learnt the art of indirection. To talk about this, discuss that, over there. Language is funny that way. We can talk about many things, but given the right moment, a timely set of discourse often points to the underlying thing, that sits beneath the froth and bubble. Netflix being an organ that bothers the existence of the BBC as a state broadcaster. Aunty Beeb (the affectionate nickname for the BBC’s warm tones) has been particularly understanding towards British monarchy, reflecting its largely high approval ratings. But on-demand streaming services are eating into the BBC’s model of scheduled mass audience programming. Few used to match BBC originality, where producers were given creative freedoms to experiment. Until Netflix.  

One thing the American constitution did that has supercharged its voice is they federalised, devolving powers. Britain’s great mistake was to overly concentrate power in its parliament. Pulling inwards the sensibilities of its people. Meg is reminding Britons of their core English rights, and rights that America distributed out from its parliament to its satellite states. Washington is then seen not as mother parliament, but an ogre, a threat to freedom (and attracting periodic assault). This dialectic underpins an armed citizenry. Such disdain for power is working. America’s six battle fleets roam the high seas as guarantor of NATO not because the government chooses this commitment. Because its citizens prefer it.

The UK is all up for devolving power. It is needing to happen urgently. The UK depoliticised itself after WWII. Plugging into light entertainment as a sinecure for serious engagement. And now, after the success of ‘Brexit Boris’ (UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who pushed through the withdrawal from the European Union), and the failure of ‘peacetime Boris’, the incompetent country-manager, the long journey of re-ordering Britain’s constitution is open for mature debate.

Harry and Meghan, English free spirits, at home in the American confessional, are heroes to some, whilst Ruritania’s King Charles III is villainous to others. But not as many as you should expect. The monarchy is seen for what it is by the British. A better contingency, or proxy for a President Tony Blair. We see the pain of Emmanuel Macron’s French presidency and wince. Nevertheless, the UK audience is split, and is free to cheer one side or the other. And this is what the Brits and Americans love. The dressing up. Cinderella goes to the ball in each generation.

And this performance of monarchy presents at times the sheer silliness of Britain as a rational project. Others may despise a fully functioning monarchy as archaic but they will first have to construct an argued opposition to its role within a constitution that appeals to its people. It is fair to say withdrawing from the European Union is like Florida departing the United States. Economic illiteracy. But a fair proportion of Brits regard departing the Euro club as as inevitable as the England football team skying penalty balls into Row Z of World Cup stadia. And necessary.

For the UK’s political beingness is rightly or wrongly rooted in parliamentary sovereignty. If there was a shorthand description of the UK constitution, it would be: ‘any agreement that parliament can get the king to sign off’. For the UK monarchy is a working monarchy, doing the bidding of the government. It dare not do otherwise. Remember the sitting monarch has his throne in the UK parliament’s second chamber (the House of Lords). He pops in annually to give ‘his’ government’s major policy speech. Written by government. It reminds that the king is controlled by parliament, and sits there under sufferance. It reminds parliament that the king is preferred to a politicised head of state.

To contradict everything above, the UK does, in many senses, have a written constitution. In truth every written record of British political history, every document, grand charter, reform, amasses into a rational whole. In a sense it is logical to have an American Constitution, with its 27 amendments. But as argued here, what is logical is not always rational. It is rational for the UK’s constitution to be referent to the whole of history.

People demand logic as it is explicable, but dismiss reason, as it is amorphous. To put together a rational argument is exhausting. It requires constant re-asserting and even the person doing the telling has to re-examine what they are trying to say. And each time they lay out their reasoning the story gets told differently.

It is highly rational for Harry and Meghan to tell their story as a counter-narrative. They are moderns in a dialectic with tradition. As one of the last full-scale working monarchies Britain enjoys the absence of party politics in large parts of its state architecture. To remove politics from life and replace it with discourse should be one goal of the nation-state. If you do not, what do you get?

You get free speech. Or rather you get the American version. Which is largely screaming and shouting. Do not get me wrong. America will come good. It will make it. But only when it removes the logical inferences in its code, and replaces them with a more reasoned discourse. It seemed logical to the Enlightenment spirit of the Founding Fathers, those men of reason, to capture their vision in pithy logical statements. No need for logomancy. European duplicity with meaning needed ironing out with puritanical force. Only to discover it has locked the nation into a hi-literalism that is in part irrational.

Britain had two great prose writers until recently. Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel. Both capable of social criticism that is now too rare in Britain. Amis wrote almost exclusively about the English underclass. John Self and Lionel Asbo were the pantomime villains of broken Britain. The paradox being that the British working class has a rich culture which defies its apparent economic variability. But, to its enduring credit, is fundamentally a genuine cultural movement. Warm, authentically rooted in values that sustain it. Producing people of character and heart. Whereas the British middle class is devoid of any diverse history or substance. Those that enter it regret its limited aspirations. Once there you cannot escape it.

Mantel enriched her working heroes, Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey, as men of interest. They gained power because of their streetwise assimilation of the world around them. Prepared to implode, it was they who Mantel suggested could see the world they had climbed into. They had the best view, because the roots of power lay in the street, and probably in the sewer. The richness of the Tudor court displayed the rational nature of power. The church gradually, over the next 500 years, gave away its dominance to parliament.

Dame Hilary Mantel died this year. At the tender age of 70. I found her an inspirational figure. As free as Meghan in her discourse. Her prose were second to none. Even Vladimir Nabokov or Saul Bellow. The great Russian-American honest brokers of contemporary literature. Why I felt grief at her passing I am still examining. Largely I sense it was because she managed to speak about the English. She risked using her voice in the risk averse post-critical UK. A place that has gone too quiet.

The House of Commons, the dominant chamber of the UK parliament, with its elected officials, is still referent to a second chamber, The House of Lords: “The Lords Spiritual are made up of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester as well as specific bishops of the Church of England. The Lords Temporal are made up of Life Peers, the Earl Marshal, Lord Great Chamberlain, Hereditary Peers elected under the Standing Orders”. Language of another period. In other words the sons and daughters of the gentry, as well as military leaders, and public figures in the arts and business. That is those defined by aristocratic conditioning, combined with an expertocracy. The ennobled with the technocratic. The ancient with the modern.

Noble efforts are made to make this second chamber fully elected. This is logical. Let the people decide who sits in power. But this remains irrational. The ability to construct a good argument is not dependent on coercing voters through false promises. British politicians are party animals, whipped into submission against their own individual views.

And the life peers, those nominated by the Prime Minister, are a rag tag of experienced citizenry, who have been round the block, as well as politicians sent to out to grass. There they offer a different texture of argument.

These are then rational anachronisms mixing with logical modern technocrats. For modern experts are logical types, whilst those rooting their contribution in tradition lean towards historic precedent. This is horribly over-simplified, but the dialectic between logic and reason is worth visiting. What is logical to one, is evidently horribly irrational to the other. The two in interplay create an interesting dynamic. Hilary Mantel and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex would have been equally interesting interlocutors. Mantel offers in an Evening Standard newspaper piece: “I must admit, I love Meghan Markle… I was so sorry she left because I thought that took some of the jollity out of life”.

Mantel’s writing explored the Tudor court through the eyes of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. A man from the streets (whose father is something of a local entrepreneur, so not quite as grimly low-born as Mantel’s portrayal) whose life experience and industry made him useful to Henry VIII: Cromwell had a “grim reputation for blood first and bargaining later”. Henry was an educated man, and an innovator, as is King Charles III. Henry laid the foundation of modern Britain née England. Charles will recognise the already transformed Britain of today. Acknowledging that his mother’s generation waited too long to accept that Britain’s future rests on innovation. The Greatest Generation, my parent’s and Queen Elizabeth’s, were rational spirits, with a keen sense that the absurdity of a declining empire could be mitigated through resilience, humour, wit and charm. That work is done.

Mantel has Cromwell helping Henry grapple with the transference of power under the English Reformation, securing the king as supreme head of the newly birthed Church of England. In effect doing the tyrant’s bidding. A fixer-in-chief with administrative nous, and not a member of any bloc of power represented by the nobility. That is, dispensable. Cromwell was the leading Brexiteer of his day. He would have listened carefully to Meghan, as he had met her kindred spirits in the Tudor court many times during his tenure. She would have been installed by him as part of the complex architecture of power, where discourse from any quarter had value.