All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: Its one permanent object is to police him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. Thus one of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives.
H.L. Mencken, “Le Contrat Social”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922
March 14, 2014
December 27, 2013
“Getting the PM to choose the right bishop is like a conjuror getting a member of the audience to choose a card. With the Church of England the choice is usually between a knave and a queen.”
“The bench of bishops should have a proper balance between those who believe in God and those who don’t.”
“Bishops tend to live a long time, perhaps because the Almighty is not all that keen for them to join him.”
“The plans for a new church in South London had places for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos, but nowhere to celebrate Holy Communion.”
“Theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England.”
“The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra.”
December 19, 2013
Ebenezer Blackadder: Cork it, fatso! Don’t you realise that this is the Victorian Age, where apart from Queen Piglet-Features herself, women and children are to be seen and not heard!
Prince Albert: Queen Piglet-Features!
Ebenezer Blackadder: Yes! “Empress Oink,” us lads call her. The only person in the kingdom who looks dafter than her is that stupid Frankfurter of a husband. “The Pig and the Prig,” we call them. How they ever managed to produce their one hundred and twelve children is quite beyond me. The bed-chambers of Buckingham Palace must be copiously supplied with blindfolds!
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, 1988.
December 5, 2013
In History Today, George Goodwin reviews A Great and Glorious Adventure: A Military History of the Hundred Years War by Gordon Corrigan:
As Corrigan explains, the Hundred Years War extended over a longer period (1337-1453) than its name suggests, but then it was not a continuous war either. Instead its series of intermittent campaigns featuring major battles and sieges was interspersed with periods of lower tempo siege warfare and long stretches of peace. The war was initially sparked by Philip VI of France’s formal declaration that Edward III’s territories in France (most notably Aquitaine) had been confiscated because the young English king had refused to act as his vassal and to hand over Robert of Artois, Philip’s mortal enemy. The war escalated after the Declaration of Ghent in 1340, when Edward proclaimed himself king of France on the basis that, through his mother, he had a superior claim to the throne than Philip, as she was the daughter of Philip IV, while Philip VI was merely his nephew. France, however, had never allowed for kingship to descend through the female line.
Corrigan’s dramatic description of the Battle of Sluys in 1340 gets the book going. Though fought between opposing navies, Sluys was essentially a land battle that took place on a flotilla of French ships chained across the mouth of an estuary, with the victorious English army moving from vessel to vessel and pushing their French opponents overboard. Corrigan accounts for England’s victory being due to superior tactics and the far greater effectiveness of the longbow in comparison to the French crossbow. This was down to both to the nature of the weaponry and the superior skill of the Anglo-Welsh archers. They proved decisive time and time again at the great set-piece battles of Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Verneuil.
November 16, 2013
As a British-born Canadian I’m used to the occasional ill-informed jab from American commentators about our form of government being a barbaric remnant of the dark ages, what with still having a monarch and all. If I respond at all, it’s usually to point out that we owe a lot for the longevity of our slowly evolving political system to the “Baronial brute squad of 1215” and the fact that we’ve (for the most part) steadily moved the monarch away from the levers of power. 798 years of political evolution is not to be sneered at. In the United States, the evolution has apparently gone in the other direction: moving those levers of power toward the monarch and away from the soi-disant “legislative branch” of government.
I haven’t seen as much fun-poking about the monarchy from my American friends lately, as they seem to have introduced a new form of non-crown-wearing, non-ermine-trimmed monarchy:
It is a condition of my admission to this great land that I am not allowed to foment the overthrow of the United States government. Oh, I signed it airily enough, but you’d be surprised, as the years go by, how often the urge to foment starts to rise in one’s gullet. Fortunately, at least as far as constitutional government goes, the president of the United States is doing a grand job of overthrowing it all by himself.
On Thursday, he passed a new law at a press conference. George III never did that. But, having ordered America’s insurance companies to comply with Obamacare, the president announced that he is now ordering them not to comply with Obamacare. The legislative branch (as it’s still quaintly known) passed a law purporting to grandfather your existing health plan. The regulatory bureaucracy then interpreted the law so as to un-grandfather your health plan. So His Most Excellent Majesty has commanded that your health plan be de-un-grandfathered. That seems likely to work. The insurance industry had three years to prepare for the introduction of Obamacare. Now the King has given them six weeks to de-introduce Obamacare.
“I wonder if he has the legal authority to do this,” mused former Vermont governor Howard Dean. But he’s obviously some kind of right-wing wacko. Later that day, anxious to help him out, Congress offered to “pass” a “law” allowing people to keep their health plans. The same president who had unilaterally commanded that people be allowed to keep their health plans indignantly threatened to veto any such law to that effect: It only counts if he does it — geddit? As his court eunuchs at the Associated Press obligingly put it: “Obama Will Allow Old Plans.” It’s Barry’s world; we just live in it.
The reason for the benign Sovereign’s exercise of the Royal Prerogative is that millions of his subjects — or “folks,” as he prefers to call us, no fewer than 27 times during his press conference — have had their lives upended by Obamacare. Your traditional hard-core statist, surveying the mountain of human wreckage he has wrought, usually says, “Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” But Obama is the first to order that his omelet be unscrambled and the eggs put back in their original shells. Is this even doable? No. That’s the point. When it doesn’t work, he’ll be able to give another press conference blaming the insurance companies, or the state commissioners, or George W. Bush . . .
September 21, 2013
The function of Liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the powers of kings. The function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the powers of Parliament.
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State, 1884.
September 8, 2013
Red faces again for the security team at Buckingham Palace:
The incident came two days after a break-in at the Palace, which is said to have left Royal protection officers “jittery”.
Prince Andrew, 53, was walking in the garden when sources claim he was ordered to the ground and asked to identify himself. Scotland Yard say that no weapons were drawn during the incident.
A Palace source told the Sunday Express: “There is a high turnover of the police on duty at the Palace but you’d think anyone would know what Prince Andrew looks like.
“It’s fair to say that to describe the Duke as unhappy and the two officers as highly embarrassed is the biggest understatement of the century.”
Police are on high alert after the biggest security breach at the Palace in 30 years, in which a man managed to scale a 12ft fence, evade dozens of armed officers, and make his way into the state rooms last Monday.
August 31, 2013
In an older post at the Guardian, Miguel-Anxo Murado looks at the place of the monarchy in Spanish society:
King Juan Carlos of Spain must be one of the most Shakespearian kings, ever. His grandfather was ousted from the throne like Richard II, and like Richard III, his brother was killed (though in Carlos’ case it was a tragic accident). Like Hamlet he had a difficult relationship with his father, and like Macbeth, he arrived at the crown by way of an evil creature (General Franco). It sounds inevitable that, like King Lear, in his old age he would be cursed with troublesome daughters. Now, one of them, Princess Cristina, has been summoned by a judge. She has to answer for allegations that, together with her husband the Duke of Palma, they misappropriated millions of euros in public funds. Some say this scandal, the latest in a long series of royal mishaps, threatens the very institution of monarchy in Spain. But is it so?
The rule of King Juan Carlos of Spain is a very interesting example of how the essence of monarchy is not history, but a story — and how tricky that is. The Spanish monarchy is a literary institution. It was born outside and above the law. Its legitimacy was based on symbols, metaphors and, first and foremost, on storytelling: a mostly imaginary tale of continuity and exceptionality. Modernity changed this a bit, but not by much. Like theatre, monarchy had begun like a religious cult and ended in a popular spectacle. That was all. In stable systems like the UK, this transition from statecraft to stagecraft could be done more or less effectively, but in Spain it was pushing the trick too far.
Like with all story-telling, there’s some truth in this fiction. Yes, the king did assist the transition to democracy, and he stood against the 1981 military coup. Yet the often overlooked fact here is that he had no alternative if he wanted to reign. It was true that he was not ostentatious, but he wasn’t austere either. It is true that he seems a likeable person, but not exemplary. He was a patron of the WWF, but he also loves hunting elephants. He needed not to be perfect, but now he has to, because that was the nature of the narrative his friends concocted.
August 21, 2013
It’s odd the world still cares about European royals, whose primary contribution to history has been wars, repression and poverty for ordinary people so that a handful of twits could live in extreme excess, admiring themselves in the mirror. Not just the British ruling houses — the Hapsburgs, Romanovs, Hohenzollerns and other royal lines mainly brought misery to their subjects, and this was so even if Thomas Hobbes was right about corrupt aristocracy being preferable to bedlam. ALIQUATENUS MELIOR CHAOS should have been on every medieval royal family crest. That’s Latin for “We Are Somewhat Better Than Chaos,” at least according to the Google universal translator.
Perhaps anachronistic royalty draws crowds and media gushing because society adores celebrity, which the House of Windsor continues to possess. But through no effort of its own: The glamour, money and position of the Windsor crowd is inherited, not earned. Society’s admiration should go to those who attain their positions via merit.
Yet there is continuing enthusiasm for anachronistic monarchs of several nations: During the baby countdown outside Clarence House, crowds showed up in Brussels to cheer for new King Philippe, who may be the most irrelevant human being ever to don a purple sash. Fantasy may explain this. Mired in quiet desperation, people like to imagine being born into wealth and glory, treated as special and chosen. Fantasies about sports, sex or money help men and women get through their day, and getting through the day is important.
But let us not forget that kings, queens, princes, princesses, dukes, duchesses and the rest have had an almost entirely negative impact on the human family. Billions of people across the centuries would have lived better lives if the curse of royalty had not arisen. As for empire — whether British or in any other form, it is a hateful, destructive concept used by the few to bleed dry the many. Britons shouldn’t feel nostalgia for their lost empire, they should feel shame an empire once was held. Americans ought to join Indians, Pakistanis, Kenyans, Egyptians, Chinese, Afghans, Boers, Burmese and others in contempt for the memory of the British Empire.
Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback: NFL could set a better safety example”, ESPN, 2013-08-20
August 20, 2013
1/2 tumbler red wine
I have it on the authority of Colm Brogan that the Great Queen was “violently opposed to teetotalism, consenting to have one cleric promoted to a deanery only if he promised to stop advocating the pernicious heresy,” and that the above was her dinner-table drink, “a concoction that startled Gladstone” — as I can well believe.
The original recipe calls for claret, but anything better than the merely tolerable will be wasted. The quantity of Scotch is up to you, but I recommend stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler. Worth trying once.
Scholars will visualize, pouring in the whisky, the hand of John Brown, the Queen’s Highland servant, confidant and possibly more besides; and I for one, if I listen carefully can hear him muttering, “Och, Your Majesty, dinna mak’ yoursel’ unweel wi’ a’ yon parleyvoo moothwash — ha’e a wee dram o’ guid malt forbye.” Or words to that effect.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
July 30, 2013
I confess, my views on Emperor Caligula (formally Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) were almost completely informed by the character in the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. BBC News Magazine‘s Mary Beard thinks Caligula got a fearful load of bad press:
Of course, there had been some very nasty monarchs and despots before Caligula. But, so far as we know, none of his predecessors had ever ticked all the boxes of a fully fledged tyrant, in the modern sense.
There was his (Imelda Marcos-style) passion for shoes, his megalomania, sadism and sexual perversion (including incest, it was said, with all three of his sisters), to a decidedly odd relationship with his pets. One of his bright ideas was supposed to have been to make his favourite horse a consul — the chief magistrate of Rome.
Roman writers went on and on about his appalling behaviour, and he became so much the touchstone of tyranny for them that one unpopular emperor, half a century later, was nicknamed “the bald Caligula”.
But how many of their lurid stories are true is very hard to know. Did he really force men to watch the execution of their sons, then invite them to a jolly dinner, where they were expected to laugh and joke? Did he actually go into the Temple of the gods Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum and wait for people to turn up and worship him?
It is probably too sceptical to mistrust everything that we are told. Against all expectations, one Cambridge archaeologist thinks he may have found traces of the vast bridge that Caligula was supposed to have built between his own palace and the Temple of Jupiter — so it was easier for him to go and have a chat with the god, when he wanted.
So the idea that Caligula was a nice young man who has simply had a very bad press doesn’t sound very plausible.
All the same, the evidence for Caligula’s monstrosity isn’t quite as clear-cut as it looks at first sight. There are a few eyewitness accounts of parts of his reign, and none of them mention any of the worst stories.
No revisionist slant on Caligula is complete without a few nasty cracks directed towards kindly old Uncle Claudius:
More topical though is the question of what, or who, came next. Caligula was assassinated in the name of freedom. And for a few hours the ancient Romans do seem to have flirted with overthrowing one-man rule entirely, and reinstating democracy.
But then the palace guard found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and hailed him emperor instead. Thanks to Robert Graves, Claudius has had a good press, as a rather sympathetic, slightly bumbling, bookish ruler.
But the ancient writers tell a different story — of an autocrat who was just as bad as the man he had replaced. The Romans thought they were getting freedom, but got more of the same.
Considering what happened then, it’s hard not to think of the excitements and disappointments of the Arab Spring.
July 24, 2013
I suspect Colby will be getting lots of hate mail from republicans after this column:
The secret of constitutional monarchies is not that they indulge the dynastic impulse, but that they have found a means of circumscribing it without losing the advantages. Chief amongst these, I think, is a sense of historical continuity: we still so clearly remember the new prince’s gin- and horse-loving great-great-grandmother, born in the reign of Victoria, and now comes R.B. himself, unlikely to warm the chair of St. Edward until even the youngest of you reading this are pensioners (if you’re lucky, and if “pensions” are still a thing). It provides a natural, almost enforced occasion for a species of “long now” panoramic, intergenerational thinking that various nerds and hucksters like to profit from.
It’s true that a domestic Canadian dynasty would do that job about as well, and this is the source for much of the odium in which our system is held by republicans. Dammit, Royal Baby isn’t even Canadian Royal Baby! Barring the overthrow of our Constitution, we are never likely to have a “Canadian” head of state who has grown up entirely amongst us. When you are finished having a cry about that, I would suggest reflecting upon the possible benefits: an indigenous Canadian head of state would have to be some particular person, wedded to one of our regions and official languages and political tribes and social classes and, indeed, component nations. Surely there is some merit in having ultimate last-resort legitimacy — an important plus of monarchy, as the Second World War taught — vested in an outsider. Maybe every country should have a king or queen from somewhere else, someone extremely intimate with its constitutional traditions and language but otherwise neutral; rooted, for safety, in other soil.
Or maybe that is the dumbest idea you’ve ever heard. But republicans do need to take the “particularity” factor into account in weighing their long-term chances. Until the debate over the fundamental Constitution gets serious, the choice is “imaginary elected president from my personal fantasies, perhaps a genetic cross between Barack Obama and Justin Timberlake” versus “actual living family that has had various difficulties and embarrassments.” This is inherently good ground for anti-monarchists to fight on, but only when there is no actual fight.
If we had an Australian-style referendum on the monarchy, the republicans would not only have to present an actual alternative system for criticism — which is what befouled the hopes of Australian republicans — undecideds would also be obliged to start imagining a world in which the personal fountainhead of political legitimacy might end up being Don Cherry or Rob Ford or George Stroumboulopoulos. I personally will take my chances with little R.B. God save the Queen.
July 23, 2013
As you may have noticed, I haven’t devoted any space on the blog to coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son. It’s not that I’m a rabid republican — I’m as much of a mild monarchist as a libertarian can be. What I have found even more tedious than the celebrity pregnancy coverage of the royal baby is the spitting and moaning coming from the “republican” side. Brendan O’Neill (a noted republican) points out that the moaners don’t actually represent real republicans:
So, the royal baby is finally here, and across Blighty the little people will have made themselves virtually bald through frenzied forelock-tugging, or perhaps busted their backs by bowing and scraping before their mewling future king. At least, that’s the impression that has been given by a certain breed of observer, the ironically public-allergic republicans who seem to hate the monarchy primarily because of the behaviour and emotions it induces in the plebs. Once, being a republican meant trusting the public (the clue was in the name) and believing it had the capacity to think and act rationally. Today, if the ostentatious chattering-class wailing about the mob hysteria over Kate’s baby is anything to go by, it means the opposite — it means despairing of the public and shaking a snobby head over its Stepford-like enthralment to all things monarchical.
As soon as it was announced that Kate was expecting, these shallow republicans started bemoaning the mass hysteria that would ensue. Britain will once again become ‘a nation of forelock-tuggers’, clever broadsheet people warned. Apparently, ‘forelock-tugging is all the rage’ in this supposedly modern nation, where the daft blob formerly known as the public is being kept non-angry about the recession and other horror stories through being dripfed info about Kate, Wills and their baby. In the words of the Mirror’s poetic Brian Reade, ‘Our austere country need not grieve, for Wills’ missus can conceive’. That has been the central message of most of the apparently rad commentary on Kate — that the plebs are easily bought off with photos of a pregnant princess and smiling prince. One columnist wrote of the ‘ready-to-whoop peasants’ waiting for news of Kate’s babe. A writer for the Independent said of Kate’s pregnancy, ‘Everyone laps it up… it makes plebs of us all’.
There are two annoying things about all this. The first is that it’s plain wrong to depict today’s media and public interest in Kate’s baby as a resuscitation of old-world royalist sentiment. Most of the public relates to Kate in the way they relate to celebs — not as a godly bearer of a babe whom we will one day bow before, but as another preggers celeb in nice clothes we can read about in our spare time; a posher Kim Kardashian, if you will. The House of Windsor has self-consciously cultivated a celebrity image for itself in recent years, sensing that its old imperial, mysterious, God-derived powers and so-called right to rule are on the wane in this era of profound crisis for traditionalism, and that celebrity is now a far more powerful source of authority than kingliness. Indeed, the popularity of Kate as just another celeb, albeit a super-A-list one, speaks to the moral diminution of monarchism as it was once understood, to the emptying-out of its alleged magic and power, not to its rehabilitation.
And secondly, this pleb-mauling republicanism is not republicanism at all. It is very often fuelled by an anachronistic desire to protect Kate from the prying eyes of the princess-hungry throng. We are putting poor Kate in a ‘gilded cage’, lefty columnists fret. Others claim we are hounding her — we have clearly ‘learned nothing since Princess Diana’. It’s a very odd republicanism which feels empathy for individual members of the royal family and disdain for the public. For me, editor of the uber-republican spiked, republicanism is not about sneering, but rather is about engagement, taking ourselves and the public seriously, talking about how society should be run, and by whom. And as the American revolutionary John Adams said, pursuing such republicanism means believing the public can be ‘sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy and superstition’. Sadly, too few British republicans believe that these days.
Full points to Private Eye for their royal baby cover:
Update: Charles Stross — another republican — has an almost sympathetic view of the new prince’s future:
The kid is not going to have anything remotely approaching a normal life. For one thing, under current UK law, he isn’t eligible to vote. His ultimate career path is already known and if he doesn’t want to put up with it, tough: the pressure to conform to expectations is enormous — he was born under a life sentence. When he ends up in that final occupation he won’t even be eligible for a passport (for long and complex constitutional reasons). He’s going to be the subject of paparazzi attention for the rest of his life. He’s almost certainly going to be sent to a private boarding school of some variety (probably Eton, as with his father), to ensure that he’s exposed to normal people (for “public schoolboy” values of normality); this is normal for the royal family, and it’s worked on previous generations. The usual recipe is for it to be followed by university, then officer training in one of the branches of the military, before joining the Old Firm and learning the onerous duties of public ceremonies and diplomatic receptions. The royals get a particularly brutal work-out in return for their privileges: what other family business would expect an 87 year old great-grandmother to make over 400 public appearances per year?
But those are the traditional parameters of a crown prince’s upbringing. This prince is going to find things a little different because he’s going to be the first designated future British monarch to grow up in a hothouse panopticon, with ubiquitous surveillance and life-logging …
I expect there to be Facebook account-hacking attacks on his friends, teachers, and associates — and that’s just in the near term. He’s going to be the first royal in the line of succession to grow up with the internet: his father, Prince William, was born in 1982 and, judging by his A-level coursework, is unlikely to have had much to do with computer networking in the late 1990s. This kid is going to grow up surrounded by smartphones, smart glasses (think in terms of the ten-years-hence descendants of Google Glass), and everything he does in public can be expected to go viral despite the best efforts of the House of Windsor’s spin doctors.
April 13, 2013
BBC America has what they call a list of 10 things about America that Brits will never understand. A few of them seem likely to be true, but this one is just not right:
6. Compulsive sentimentality
Gushing public displays are usually meant well but give Brits the creeps. For instance, my husband and I recently checked out of a B&B after a two-night stay. Instead of bidding us farewell with a firm handshake and a receipt, the owner — a man in his 50s — latched on to me, then my man, for a prolonged hug. Just when we thought it was over, he announced, “I’ll miss you guys!” No, actually. You won’t.
I can refute the notion that Americans are more embarrassingly sentimental with two words: Princess Diana. Did any country ever show more ridiculous sentimentality than Britain in their “grief” over a former royal person? The old notion of British reserve may still be true in some parts of the country, but most Brits these days seem to take extreme joy in wallowing in sentimentality.
February 26, 2013
In History Today, Alexander Lee discusses the situation in Florence leading up to the time when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his (in)famous work:
In 1512, however, everything fell apart. After a series of military defeats, Soderini was forced from office. With the help of Pope Julius II, Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici was installed as the de facto ruler of Florence. The Republic collapsed.
Immediately, Giuliano purged the government and instituted a city-wide witch-hunt. As a prominent republican, Machiavelli was summarily dismissed from his positions in late 1512, and in 1513, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Accused of plotting against the Medici, he was tortured using a cruel technique known as the ‘strappado’ — which left his shoulders dislocated, and his whole body in excruciating pain — before being released and exiled to his country estate.
It was at this point that Machiavelli penned The Prince. Broken, depressed, and penniless, he saw it as his best chance of getting into the Medici’s good books, and of recouping his losses. Dedicating the book first to Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici — the very man who had destroyed his life — and, after Giuliano’s death, to his nephew, Lorenzo, Machiavelli set out to provide not just a guide to princely government, but a positive justification of all of the terrible things to which he had fallen victim. Much like a fallen Politburo members at a Soviet show trial, Machiavelli defended his persecution in the hope of securing favour. Only later did he feel safe enough to express his republican sympathies more openly.