Class is one of those topics that usually gets marxoids foaming at the mouth. Despite being a graduate in Politics right at the end of the ‘Thatch’ era, I could never get excited about class warfare. It was too complicated for one thing. In the couple of centuries leading up to the mid-20th century it had been fairly straightforward, with a hierarchy of 3 main classes in Britain:
Upper Class – royalty and titled aristocrats with inherited wealth and stately homes.
Middle Class – professionals, businessmen and industrialists who owned property.
Lower or Working Class – agricultural, mine and factory workers who rented property.
It was possible for individuals to get a lucky, or unlucky, break and move up or down the classes – but the system was more or less rigid. After the Second World War social changes made it more fluid and complex. With a university education or business acumen it was possible to move from working to middle class in terms of occupation and income, if not in culture. A portion of the old working class became a ‘welfare benefits class’ spending long periods not working at all. Recently, a middle class girl with working class ancestors married into royalty. In many ways the class system in the UK has died away, but in many ways it’s still very much alive. The class that has probably entrenched itself most is the Upper Class.
So how did taking a DNA test make me think differently about class? Firstly, it showed my direct male line ancestry had probably been in Lancashire for at least 1000 years as part of the agricultural working class – certainly in recorded family history from the 1600s they were of ‘yeoman stock’. These days, I have a middle class job but retain a working class background – I feel working class. So what is it about the aristocracy that has made them ‘superior’ to me and my ancestors for the last 1000 years? Is it genetic? Can it continue?
The theory bit. On its own merits, the model of hereditary aristocracy should fall down within a couple of generations. An aristocracy holds power by right of supposed superiority. From the earliest human societies the first elite will have possessed real superiority – usually as warriors and charismatic leaders. They might have seemed larger than life and higher than human. When the elite pass power to the second generation, it becomes a hereditary aristocracy. The lottery of genetics means that there is no guarantee that their descendents will inherit the same traits. They may do. Even stronger traits may arise in the second generation, or they may benefit enough from certain advantages to attain excellence. However, the chances that they will not are enough to make heredity aristocracy an ineffective system of government and so collapse. So to ensure continuity of power beyond the second generation, the hereditary aristocracy must rely on the myth of superior nobility. To do so an aristocracy depends on greater wealth, better education and unequal opportunities to mask mediocrity within the noble class, while playing up any real ability. An hereditary aristocracy that cannot effectively do this will die out, or be replaced by force. Elitism is the best system of government, as long as that elite is based on accomplishment and or merit. Elite membership based on myth is not.
The myth of aristocratic superiority is typically based on religion. An example of an aristocracy whose own religious myth of superiority led to its own genetic undoing is the Spanish Hapsburg family. The family’s interbreeding over a few generations between 1500 and 1700 led to its extinction. In the Hapsburg view of the universe, not only did the family have a divine right to rule, it had a divine plan to fulfil – to unify the world to prepare for the second coming of Christ. To maintain legitimacy to rule an earthly empire the Hapsburgs employed an army of genealogists to prove their divine male line descent from biblical and historical figures such as Adam, King David and the Roman Emperor Constantine, as well as claiming a blood relation to Christ himself. Statistically speaking, where these people actually existed, the Hapsburgs most probably would have been descended from them. As would their lowliest kitchen maid, stable boy, me and anyone reading this post. Genealogy, however, is all about proving it. The Hapsburgs carried out their divine mission of territorial gain through marriage. By uniting empires, Spain’s influence and power in Europe and world-wide peaked under Hapsburg rule. However, to keep their heritage in their own hands and to keep their divine bloodline pure, the Hapsburgs began to intermarry more and more frequently. Research by the Department of Genetics at the University of Santiago de Compostela showed that out of 11 Hapsburg marriages in that 200 year period, 9 were either uncle-niece or cousin marriages (up to third cousin). The result was that from 1527 to 1661, the Hapsburgs had 34 children of whom 10 died in their first year and 17 died before the age of 10. The last Spanish Hapsburg king was Charles II. Because of his highly inbred recessive genes he was physically disabled, disfigured and mentally retarded. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica citation for him says “there was no room in his nearly imbecile mind for more than childish superstition, insane pride of birth, and an interest in court etiquette.” He was also impotent and produced no children from his two marriages. When he died in 1700 the divine line of the Spanish Hapsburgs died with him.
The British Aristocracy
The history of the British aristocracy stretches back over a thousand years to Anglo-Saxon times. After 1066 the Anglo-Saxon monarchs were overthrown by William the Conquerer, who brought with him a new Norman aristocracy. Their hierarchy was based on feudalism. William rewarded them with land and titles (peerages), while ensuring the centralised power of the Crown. Peerages were largely hereditary (titles could be inherited) until the regular creation of life peers (titles could not be inherited) in the second half of the 20th century. Today there are 759 hereditary peers in the UK.
The centralised power of the monarchy was eroded over the centuries, to the point where today the UK is governed by a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch as head of state. It’s main difference from a (genuine) republic is that its head of state, the monarch, is unelected, keeps the role for life and passes it on to his or her descendants. Constitutional convention limits the monarch’s role to representing the nation in a mainly ceremonial role – the actual governing is done by the elected Prime Minister and cabinet ministers. Constitutional monarchies are also in place in other Western European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Spain and Sweden.
There has been debate in the UK on the relevance of the monarchy and hereditary peers in our political system, particularly since 1999 when the Labour Government expelled all but 92 of the 759 hereditary peers from the House of Lords as a first step in its reform. Members of the royal family do not generally speak out publicly to lobby on their own behalf, although Prince Andrew was quoted in 2009 on his role (and his genetic suitability) as the UK Special Representative for International Trade and Investment:
“I was brought up to do this sort of work. It is training, experience and genetics. We offer consistency and regularity. We have been around for a long time and will be around for a long time. We are not going to disappear. I have a family pedigree that allows me time to build up relationships.”
The royal family does publicise its role and activities through a press office and royal website. However, it’s left to pro-monarchy organisations like the Constitutional Monarchy Association to be more vocal. The CMA criticises negative press reporting on the royal family based on fantasy not fact, with little mention of the international visits made by the royal family and their benefits to the UK. It urges us to look at the number of engagements on the royal website and argues that popular support for the Queen is underestimated. It makes an appeal to younger people to understand the extent of the role of the royal family, the arguments in favour of it and against a republic, and laments that the value of the institution is not adequately taught in schools. It denounces constant attempts to suggest that the monarchy is outdated and anachronistic, citing its steady evolution over the years. It states that to call it ‘feudal’ is nonsense and to suggest that “it is at the head of the nobility and a class system is to talk about the past rather than the present” – it constantly strives to maintain its relevance in a rapidly changing society. It addresses the criticism that Britain can never be a really modern state while it still has a monarchy by pointing to other constitutional monarchies in modern countries where the majority of the people have absolutely no intention of removing it. In fact, it says, many in some countries which have ditched theirs wish they could have it back (though, it doesn’t mention which countries). In its arguments against a republic, the CMA points out the practical problems of a presidency in terms of type, election and powers. It says that a country opting for an elected head of state with little power, limited tenure, who attempts to be above politics, may get “a nonentity whom very few people know outside the country and indeed sometimes inside the country!” It states that there can be “huge difficulties” with a head of government undertaking ceremonial duties with the armed forces (a pity it doesn’t go into detail on these) a job best done by the non-political royal family. It warns that elected presidents are more concerned with their own political futures, are more subject to corruption and “tend to devote their energy to undoing the achievements of their predecessors and setting traps for their successors”. Monarchs, however, “build on the achievements of their forebears to strengthen the position of their successors.”
The Constitutional Monarchy Association is aiming rocks at republicans in general, but I suspect at the pressure group Republic in particular. Republic campaigns for a republican constitution, the right to a democratic head of state and an end to the monarchy. It’s website has a large number of articles from a variety of contributors taking issue with varied aspects of the constitutional monarchy. It’s public face is Graham Smith and the organisation enjoys a high media profile. It’s supporters page lists over a hundred well known faces – mainly the usual lefty politicians, journos and media luvvies – but, I was interested to note Richard Dawkins’ name among them. Whether any of them float your boat is down to personal taste, but the Republic list seems to have more street cred than the list of patrons on the CMA site who mainly have titles or are Tory MPs. The best showbiz glitz they can muster is ‘Sir Cliff Richard OBE’. One-nil to Republic. The two pro-monarchy poster boys that come to my mind are not on the list – MP Nicholas Soames and historian twerp Andrew Roberts. As Roberts openly declares his own snobbery and celebrates a monarchy that is “atavistic, archaic and irrational” the CMA can probably do without him.
Role of Monarch
While Graham Smith says that he has no interest in denigrating the Queen personally, there are some vitriolic attacks against her and the Royal Family on the Republic site. In a recent piece, he tackles the common assessment that the Queen has “never put a foot wrong” and has done a “great job” as head of state. Smith says that she has not done anything of note or worth, there is nothing memorable about her time as head of state, or one notable speech attributable to the Queen – apart from her use of the term ‘annus horribilis’ (‘horrible year’) to describe 1992. I disagree. On her 21st birthday in 1947 she pledged: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”. Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, that was quite a famous soundbite. Another one that leaps to mind was her live broadcast the day before Diana’s funeral 1997, “No one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her.” The broadcast was probably more memorable for the controversy surrounding it, but it was memorable nonetheless. Graham Smith takes issue with the supposed unifying role played by the then king during the Second World War. He asks, “when we think about this country’s darkest hour who comes to mind as the one person who spoke for the nation, whose quotes are so memorable? Winston Churchill, the elected leader of the government, a politician.” True, but the Queen quite famously made her first radio broadcast in 1940 on Children’s Hour addressing evacuees, saying, “We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well”. That was a memorable effort from a 14-year-old at a time of extreme national danger – and it helped morale. Granted, her quotes aren’t as memorable as Churchill’s, but then who’s are? From the top of your head, can you give a memorable quote from prime ministers like Alec Douglas-Home, James Callaghan or John Major? Me neither. It’s a bit harsh to knock her for not being allowed to talk out meaningfully on matters of state, and then having a go at her for having nothing memorable to say.
However, having a go at how hard the Royal Family works is fair game. The following quote from Mark Bolland, Prince Charles’ former press officer, is pure gold for republicans: “the Windsors are very good at working three days a week, five months of a year and making it look as though they work hard.” On the Queen, Graham Smith asks “what job does she do, and is it really so hard to ‘do a good job’ in her circumstances?”, as her work is rarely scrutinised. He grants that she hasn’t done anything controversial in public and describes her as “perhaps the last professional monarch.” He reminds us that the rest of us work under all sorts of pressures 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year to get paid just a basic salary; those who succeed do so in highly competitive environment. He believes that we could have much better heads of state, elected from the people, by the people, with a proven track record – an ordinary person doing an extraordinary job, inspirational to us all.
As an amateur family historian I can’t help but be impressed by the Royal Family’s ancient and well documented family tree. Elizabeth II is the 32nd great granddaughter of Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871 to 899 as the first effective King of England (though I said above, statistically so are a great many of us, we just can’t prove it). However, there is a common misconception that there was a direct unbroken line of succession over the centuries, with the child of each monarch being prepared from birth to succeed the parent. This would be too impressive a feat even for a family that specifically focuses on births, marriages and deaths. Republic notes that in fact the succession from one crowned head to another has often been bloody, controversial and complicated. The Queen is head of state as the result of her uncle’s decision to abdicate (her father took his place). Victoria was the niece of her predecessor; William IV was the brother of his predecessor; George III was the grandson of his predecessor George II. The biggest shift in the line of succession came in 1714 when Georg Ludwig von Braunschweig-Lüneburg became King George I. There were over 50 people above him in the list of succession, but he was chosen by Parliament because he was a Protestant and the others were not. Graham Smith reckons that the “inheritance of public office is immoral and just plain daft.” The monarchist argument is that inheritance ensures stability, that we know well in advance who the next head of state will be and that the royals are ‘trained from birth’ to fulfill the role. Smith asks what advantage is this? Why do we need to know well in advance who the head of state is going to be when we are happy to change prime ministers within 24 hours of an election. Why give us plenty of warning and not give us a choice? What sort of training do they actually get?
As with the Hapsburgs, religion has always buttressed royal power in Britain. When William the Conqueror landed on the beaches of southern England in 1066, religious relics hanging around his neck, he felt that only God had the power to grant him a new kingdom. Christian religious ritual surrounding the English monarchy goes back at least as far as Edgar the Peaceable. He was crowned in 973 in a coronation ceremony which had changed little by the time the present Queen was crowned nearly 1000 years later. The coronation ceremony involved her being anointed with holy oil as if she was joining the priesthood and took place shielded from the TV cameras under a canopy, symbolic of the illusion and mystery on which the monarchy depends. During the Queen’s long reign that illusion and mystery has been largely ripped away by the modern media.
As the monarch is the “Defender of the Faith”, the monarchy and the Church of England are inseparable. Republic’s Steve Smedley asks why, in a multi-faith and increasingly secular society, should Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, or atheists be expected to recognise the divine authority of an Anglican monarch? Prince Charles has acknowledged this and suggested that he wants to become the “Defender of Faith” rather than “Defender of the Faith” when his turn comes. For Steve Smedley, Prince Charles wants to embrace cultural diversity, but remain heir to an office of state that by law is exclusively Protestant and open only to members of just one family. For republicans religion of any kind has no place in government. This means the formal disestablishment of the Church of England. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said that there is a “certain integrity” to breaking the link between church and state. This would have a major impact on the monarchy, as the Queen heads the church and takes her role seriously – she appointed the good Archbishop.
According to Republic, the armed forces owe their loyalty to the people of Britain, not the Windsor family. James Gray in a piece on ‘royals, regiments and chests full of medals’ talks about how the official Remembrance Sunday ceremony is a powerful reminder of just how deeply the monarchy and the military are intertwined in the popular imagination. However, Republic counts many former service men and women among its membership. One of them is quoted on how, although both Prince Andrew and his father did have genuine military careers and earned the right to wear campaign medals, it makes his “…blood boil to see Charlie and his brother Edward weighed down by rows of medals and awards which have not been earned and are therefore totally meaningless and immoral.” As someone with my own medals, I have mixed views about this. My campaign medals I have earned – less so than many who found themselves in far greater danger, but I was there so earned nonetheless. But most servicemen will also wear medals that they haven’t really earned either, namely medals issued to commemorate the monarch’s coronation and jubilees. They are ‘earned’ for having the requisite number of years’ service on that specific day. When civvies ask how I got them, I usually say they are for surviving Defence cuts. Some detractors say that the campaign medals earned by Prince Andrew in the Falklands and Prince Harry in Afghanistan are somehow bogus because they will have been “kept out of harm’s way” during the conflict. I think that’s impossible to judge unless you were there alongside them, but I doubt very much it’s the case. Prince William will not earn any campaign medals as a search and rescue pilot, but I know SAR crews and it’s a damned dangerous job. Anyway, the only medals that are truly earned are the ones for bravery – and they’re few and far between in the UK armed forces as a whole.
Republic’s ex-serviceman has a view about fighting ‘for Queen and Country’, seeing the concepts of Queen and Country as completely unrelated – “a bit like ‘love and sausage’”. This may have some truth in the sense that, when you are ‘in the dwang’ ‘Queen and Country’ are probably furthest from the mind – the only thing that matters is the mates you are with, with any remaining sentiments being reserved for family. Republic is confident that today’s men and women of the armed forces would still be willing to serve and fight for a republic, as they would regard it as fighting to preserve their family’s freedom and way of life. They may be partly right. I have been a recruiter and think most kids join the forces between ages 16-25 for adventure, uniform, skills and pay, rather than any ‘higher’ motivation. Republic believes that the message is clear: it is not unpatriotic to believe the link between monarchy and military must be broken. I think they may struggle to convince many servicemen about that – the older ones especially take their oath of allegiance to the Queen (and her heirs and successors) seriously. There may be irreverent barrack and crew room banter – this is a feature of British military life off duty. But loyalty is a key military virtue – numerically scored on annual assessments. Loyalty in the military isn’t blind either, it’s a two-way street. Whenever I was on duty at a certain headquarters at Northwood a few years ago, I would be the first UK point of contact for reports on casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the main points of contact for onward reporting would be the Queen’s staff, because she would have been upset to hear of a casualty first via Sky News. The Queen is popular with the military because she genuinely cares for them, more so than the politicians and the country at large does – at least, that’s the perception. That’s why many servicemen would be suspicious of a politician as head of state (to quote a cliché oft referred to on Republic – President Blair anyone?).
Republic shows as much scorn to monarchists as to the monarchy itself. James Gray reckons monarchists are driven by “deference, sychophancy and the desire to cringe in front of their betters.” Republicans don’t feel the need to bow or scrape to any public figure, politicians or royalty. Graham Smith asks what drives people to sycophancy and the blind adoration of a “very ordinary” family? He says that “politicians, editors and celebrities are keen to ingratiate themselves with the royals to improve their chances of nabbing a prized OBE or knighthood”. Agreed. The baubles and trappings can apparently turn the head of even the most ardent lefty – cue Baron Prescott of Hull (the big steaming hypocrite).
But what about the rest of us lower down the food chain without anything to gain? Graham Smith thinks some mimic the behaviour of those they revere to gain the appearance of elevated status – “If I love those who are superior to me I will feel superior too”. I remember years ago being on parade in front of the Queen. After the parade I got changed into my track suit to jog home through the woods from the parade ground to my Married Quarter. My house was at the top of the road leading to the Officers’ Mess, which was the next stop on the Queen’s itinerary. As I waited at the junction to cross the road, the Queen’s car came up the hill to turn in. She was in the back with the Station Commander. There was nobody else around. I felt I had to acknowledge her, but I couldn’t salute because I wasn’t in uniform. I felt like I couldn’t wave as that would have been a bit – ‘cooeee!’. So I bowed my head. She waved back. Why did I do that? I was caught up in the moment – it was a brush with history. The Station Commander later told me in the bar that the Queen had remarked it was the first time anybody had bowed to her in a jogging suit. I would have been scorned by those on Republic. Graham Smith says that the act of bowing to royals is immoral, “it says a lot about those who bow and those who expect to be bowed to, and nothing it says is complimentary.” Republic’s values are about “treating people as equals, treating people as we would like to be treated, showing respect, but not grovelling…we certainly shouldn’t be bowing to someone in public office whose job it is to represent and serve us.”
As far as foreign attitudes to the British monarchy are concerned Republic asks, “doesn’t the government realise that foreign cultures don’t all gasp in awe at the mere idea of the Queen’s existence, and that instead it is both ludicrous and demeaning to have to use flattering titles in connection with a person whose ancestral lineage is far from noble or honourable?”. On the first point, pro-monarchists can at least point to global live viewing figures for the 2011 Royal Wedding of around 300 million (if not quite the 2 billion originally estimated). On the second point, I do enjoy the sales pitch of the following website (which I think has the American market in mind):
Noble Titles is the “The World’s Largest Genuine Title Retailer” selling genuine bygone titles online from £1,400 – £120,000. Citizens of the UK, USA, most EU and most Commonwealth countries are able to add these titles to their passport and driving licence (some countries like Australia forbid all titles).
Noble Titles’ advantages of being titled include:
“Social Status - Titled people experience a higher status of respectability and a higher class of standing in the community.
Good for Business - A Title opens doors of opportunity as the Title Lord or Lady is superior in rank to Mr. or Mrs. Lords or Ladies have the reputation of good breeding, being honorable, well educated and being fair in business, the “perfect gentleman or Lady”.
Financial Advantage - Banks and Financier’s credit score Lords and Ladies as low risk, as they are unlikely to default on loans due to the jeopardy of their reputation.
Service - As a Lord or Lady you will notice a better attitude bestowed on you with your new Title, generally people in service industries (Hotels, Restaurants, Travel etc…) treat Lords and Ladies with a noticeable degree of extra respect.
Standard of living - Once you have experienced what it is like to be a Lord or Lady, you will never look back, as the difference is a feeling of privilege and being honored. A Title is the ultimate status symbol, it says you are a V.I.P, it says CLASS.”
Maybe this is what did it for John Prescott?
I started this post by asking:
What is it about the aristocracy that has made them ‘superior’ to me and my ancestors for the last 1000 years? Answer – religious myth, wealth and whatever brain implants they receive in the public school system.
Is it genetic? Definitely not. Posts like this on Eupedia on the haplogroups of European kings and queens strip away that myth. It shows Princes Phillip, Charles and William as belonging to Y-DNA haplogroup R1b, the most frequently occurring Y-chromosome haplogroup in Western Europe, accounting for around 60% of the male population. Almost anyone of European ancestry could be descended from British royalty. With a limited pool of nobility to marry into, some descendants will have inevitably ‘married down’, so any branch of a noble family can easily go from prince to pauper within a few generations. I’m also reminded of a spoof article in Viz comic ahead of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005 which ‘sensationally revealed’ that Camilla’s distant ancestors were humanoid apes and how palace courtiers were worried that she would embarrass herself by swinging around the chandeliers of Buckingham Palace eating monkey nuts.
Can it continue? While 75% of the British public continue to support the monarchy, yes.
Am I swayed by any of the arguments for or against?
As far as hereditary and even life peers are concerned, a parliamentary democracy needs a fully elected second chamber – so ditch them. They can stand for election along with anyone else who fancies it. Oh, and anyone standing must also renounce any affiliation with a political party. As far as hereditary peers in general are concerned, I don’t have a problem with inherited wealth – we owe it to our descendants (and the carriers of our genes) to give them the best ‘leg-up’ in life. As for titles, they don’t impress me and I wouldn’t want one. But I wouldn’t abolish somebody else’s out of spite, so let them crack on – just so long as they don’t expect to bump me out of my hotel room or aeroplane seat because they have one.
As far as the monarchy is concerned, I too am mindful of my oath of allegiance. I hadn’t really considered the issue until I had my DNA tested. The Constitutional Monarchy Association makes valid points on the value of the monarchy, but if they want to get young people (future taxpayers) on side they need to dump Sir Cliff and sign up Cheryl Cole. All the monarchy itself needs to do is keep looking after the armed forces and put on shows like the Royal Wedding, the Golden and Diamond Jubilees, and the state visit to the Republic of Ireland every few years and their position will be secure. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of the 2011 Royal Wedding. I was the same rank in the RAF as Prince William when I got married; I just wish I’d thought of the idea of putting on the uniform of a full colonel in the Guards for the day as well – the wedding photos would’ve looked miles better. Like Richard Dawkins on god, the views of Republic on the monarchy are strident – but, like Dawkins’, their arguments are also persuasive and you can’t fault their logic. I will continue to read their posts with interest.
In a biography by Sarah Bradford, the Queen is apparently quoted as saying that she wouldn’t mind retiring to the Ribble Valley in rural Lancashire one day. She has impeccable taste. I’ve already bought my 2-bedroomed terraced house there for when I retire. So if she is ever pushed, or jumps, I would be delighted to have her as a neighbour.
5 ways a DNA Test can change your world view: