Veblen Royals

The Sun argues that it is in the public interest to publish naked pictures of Prince Harry. I say it is in the public interest to keep them out of the papers. It reinforces the notion that celebrities (and for better or for worse, Royals are a form of ‘celeb’) can operate by different standards of behaviour to the rest of us.
We’ve been here before. Remember when upstanding moral beacon Prince William groped a Brazillian teenager, Ana Ferreira? Antics that would and should get you thrown out of the nightclub, and maybe even a visit from the police in other circumstances, are waved away as ‘just a bit of fun’ or ‘spreading wild oats’ if you are a Royal. People were less understanding when Mike Tindall was caught on camera in a lap-dancing club, but he is only married to a Royal.
The double-standards we grant to some people was amusingly highlighted by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian yesterday:

He is the Boris Johnson of the royal family, a buffoon whose every antic only improves his public standing.

In economics, a Veblen Good is a status symbol that defies the usual assumptions about price and demand. Such goods becomes more sought after when the price increases (for example, Rolls Royce cars). In such a way, Prince Harry is the Veblen Royal, where the things that would sink a less likeable member of the Royal Family (Prince Edward, say?) only increase his stock. Boris Johnson is a Veblen Politician.
Should public figures aspire to Veblen status? No. The problem with the concept is that it is arises due to arrogance and unnatural wealth. We deplore Veblen goods when we encounter them in economics, and we should not encourage the Royal or Political variations either. The excessive attention only encourages the behaviour… and the behaviour usually involves demeaning other people.

Good News on Primogeniture, But Sexism Still Persists

Good news from the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Perth – the Royal succession rules will be changed to end the male primogeniture rule.
Not before time. I’ve argued previously, on several occasions, that the existing law enshrined sexism at the heart of our constitution. In my opinion, this has been settled consensus since women were given the right to vote in the 1920s.
Sadly, in many other countries and cultures, the “we wish you were not a girl” sentiment still persists. The Japanese system does not allow women to ascend to the throne at all and elective abortions of female foetuses have skewed the gender balance in India.

The Royals and Privacy

In my rant a couple of weeks ago about the woman formerly known as Kate Middleton, I expressed a good deal of angst about whether I should be passing comment on her religious choices and motivations.  In the comments, Helen called me judgemental and hypocritical.
Writing in the New Stateman, Peter Wilby offers a defence of passing judgement on the Royals and invading their privacy:

What is the point of a Royal Editor if he doesn’t hack people’s phones?  Laws for the protection of privacy should not apply to the Queen and her family.  The monarchy cannot be private: it is a public institution with no significant function other than to satisfy public curiosity. …
… what to everybody else would be private – family, love, procreation – becomes in royalty’s case public, because it determines the line of succession and the identity of our future head of state.

There is a logic to this.  The Royals have also been referred to as the ‘National Soap Opera’ which speaks to the same idea, that we have some kind of right to know everything about them.  Certainly, part of the justification for their continued existence is as role models and figureheads, for which a degree of discussion about their personal lives seems to be part of the quid pro quo (even if the royal social contract was entered into by distant ancestors, rather than the current incumbents themselves). While I am sympathetic to Wilby’s point of view, I think the Royals do need some privacy, if only to stop them going insane.  The last thing we need is a paranoid recluse for a King.
Its interesting that in the 1990s the monarchy was said to be in “crisis”, when every single problem cited was related to personalities and personal infidelities.  While this posed questions about their suitability as leaders of the Church of England, this in no way affected their constitutional status.  And it never has.  I once read that pretty much every monarch before the 20th Century had extra-marital affairs, which never seemed to weaken their status as Head of State.  One of the few faithful monarchs was King Charles I, who plunged the country and the monarchy into a real crisis, by snubbing parliament and asserting his Divine Right to Rule.

Two Types of Patriotism

Crowds assemble to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Crowds assemble to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Micah in Kansas City is uneasy about the celebrations surrounding the killing of Osama Bin Laden:

The backlash of ignorant commentary and opinion about the death of Bin Laden on Twitter tonight was disheartening, and I’m so very glad I deleted my Facebook so I didn’t have to gaze upon the even more ignorant statuses of “patriots” glad about the death of another human being.

For me, it was impossible not to make the mental link between the celebrations in America, and the recent flag-waving down on The Mall.  Both events have been obvious moments of unity for the respective countries.  Both events mark symbolic endings to a particular period of national history.  In the British case, the confusion of Princess Diana’s marriage, the sorrow of her death, and perhaps the end of a particular type of monarchy.  In the American case, it is the ending of something much more significant (what Emily Maitliss on the BBC just called a “psychological watershed”), a decade of fear, insularity and a sense of revenge not yet wrought.
Moreover, the Royal Wedding and Osama’s death both signal much more optimistic new chapters.  A pared down, modern and middle-class Monarchy for us.  And for the Americans, a reassertion of their primacy in matters military.
I wonder whether these events can sustain this symbolism.  Wills and Kate are but two individuals getting hitched in a country that has massive economic problems and not a few social and cultural challenges ahead of it.  And in the American case, the death of a figurehead will not in itself stop the Al Q’aeda threat, nor reverse its economic decline relative to the Asian super-powers.  Time will tell whether these outpourings of national confidence, on both sides of ‘the pond’, mark a new period of success or a patriotic dead-cat bounce.
Regardless of the final significance, Micah’s post highlights an crucial difference between the two groups of cheering crowds: On The Mall in London, the flag-wavers were celebrating life;  On The Mall in Washington, they were cheering a death.  I wonder how this essential difference between these two moments of patriotic punctuation will affect the two nations in years to come?

Making Do With The Monarchy

Heart and head are split over the monarchy. The moral case for a Republic is unassailable, yet I was filled with delight at yesterday’s pageantry. How to rationalise this?
I think it’s a form of what we call Making The Best of a Bad Job. A useful comparison is with the Premier League, a more regular spectacle. The way that league is commercially arranged is clearly damaging to football as a whole, and ticket-buying fans do not get value for money. Yet that doesn’t stop us thrilling at another close run title race, or another brilliant goal by the most obnoxious of the overpaid stars, Wayne Rooney.
In the sphere of politics, I entirely object to the counter-productive format of Prime Minister’s Questions, a barrier if ever there was one to reasoned policy-making. Yet, while it exists, I can enjoy the event and value the fact that our leaders can be held to account in such a robust manner.
So it with the Royal Wedding. I can hold that the Hereditary principle has no place, however ceremonial, in modern politics. But while it exists I can enjoy a history lesson that incorporates Bank Holiday drinking, street parties (including one in London a quarter of a million people strong), and the the pinnacle of UK fashion design. This not principle in action, but pragmatism. Making do with what we have. A very British trait, no?

Kate's Confirmation Churnalism

Pintando a la Monarquía
Pintando a la Monarquía by americanistadechiapas on Flickr

Last weekend I made the assertion that Kate Middleton’s confirmation had been subjected to a press strategy, and was thus an appropriate topic for debate and conversation on the blogs.
I realised I had not actually linked to any online story announcing the news, which isn’t ‘best practice’ in blogging! However, Googling the story reveals something odd – the stories from many respectable outlets are exactly the same, revealing that they are indulging in lazy churnalism. The structure and wording of the stories in the Telegraph, Standard, BBC, Daily Mail, The Mirror, Daily Express, The Sun, and ITV are all pretty much exactly the same.  The Guardian at least tried to disguise their recycling by adding a knowing, chatty paragraph at the start of their article.. but the content is otherwise similar.
This is understandable, because the earliest of the articles I found was from Reuters, so one assumes that they had the scoop and put it out over their wire for other news organisations to pick up.  That’s how it works.  However, such blatant exposure of the way that news reporting operates should make us reconsider what value newspapers and broadcast media actually bring to us.  In the internet age, is it actually useful to the public to have hundreds of versions of the same story online.  Why not just link to the original post?  Newspapers are quick to tell us that reporting must be paid for, and that we have an obligation to support an independent media.  But why, when they are not doing independent reporting?  Most appalling is the fact that The Times report was also obviously recycled from the same press release, but it is behind a paywall!  Shocking.

Some Words on Primogeniture

Primogentiture is the right of the first born to inherit titles, estates and thrones. At present the UK has a form of male primogeniture, which sets the Duke of York and Prince Edward above the older Princess Anne in the line of succession. In the 21st Century, this is absurd. With the #RoyalWedding suggesting the possibility of new heirs being born soon, there are plans afoot to legislate for a more equal form of primogeniture.
Keith Vaz MP is quoted in a BBC report:

I hope that they will give their full support to my bill which is currently before Parliament.
If they do so we can resolve this matter before any child of Prince William and Kate Middleton is born, not afterwards. The clock is ticking. We need to act fast.

Ignoring the distasteful idea that legislation has to race against one woman’s fertility, this is still not quite right. The legislation will only become awkward after a second child is born to Prince William and Princess Catherine. When their first kid is born, he or she will become 3rd and directly in line to the throne (bumping Prince Harry off the podium and, probably, into drunken obscurity). Only when a second child is born, and only if that second child is a boy and the older child is a girl, will there be any awkwardness. Assuming Wills and Kate do want kids, and assuming they want more than one kid, and further assuming this is biologically possible (because for some women it is sadly not) then it’s a 25% chance, and will likely take at least half a decade to occur.
So there is no urgency to this, just a bizarre set of sensibilities to spare the feelings of Royal toddlers who probably wouldn’t care anyway. Altering the law right now would mean demoting Princes Andrew and Edward and their offspring in favour of Princess Anne and her issue, and we don’t seem to worry about that.
Interestingly, had full cogniatic primogeniture prevailed, Queen Victoria – our longest serving and one of our greatest monarchs – would not have ascended to the throne. It would instead of passed to the family of Princess Caroline, a sister of George IV and William IV who was older than Victoria’s father, Edward. And since our current Queen is a direct descendant of Victoria, she would not have reigned either! This is doubly true, because Queen Victoria’s oldest child was a daughter (also named Victoria) who died in 1888. Had full primogeniture been law by the time Victoria died in 1901, the throne would have passed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War would probably have been avoided.
On the other hand, that other great queen, Elizabeth I, would have ascended to the throne at exactly the same time, on the death of her sister Mary. However, since Catholic Mary would have have had an extra six years on the throne (with the sickly Edward VI being passed over) she may have maneuvered to exclude her Protestant sister from the succession.
In the last century however, Royal succession has been indifferent to gender. The eldest children of all the monarchs since 1901 were male, except for George VI who had only daughters, so questions of gender primacy never arose. Had a more equitable law of succession been passed when (say) women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, there would have been absolutely no difference in the Royal lineage.
Its not an idle point about Women’s Suffrage. I would say that the argument over women’s equality was settled when they won the right to vote, so legislation on women having equal right to the Throne is at least 93 years overdue! I find it amazing that anyone in Britain or the Commonwealth needs to think about this. When Nick Clegg says that the issue still requires “careful thought” he is being utterly disingenuous… and I really don’t understand why.

Kate Middleton insults the Church

Many wry smiles and twittered Lolz at the news this week that Kate Middleton has been confirmed into the Church of England.
Is it appropriate for a British subject such as myself to comment on our Queen-elect’s faith choices? Probably not, firstly for reasons of deference, and also because to question such an act is to risk being patronizing and a bit sexist. If I express cynicism about Ms Middleton’s faith, then am I not suggesting that she is not her own woman?
In this case, I actually think some comment is justified. Faith should be a private affair, and had Kate chosen to have a quiet confirmation, with no associated press strategy from Clarence house, then the rest of us would do well to shut up. However, since the news has been released by her own media team, I see no reason why we should not raise a few questions about the act.
And anyway, the Faith of the Royals (and Kate Middleton will very soon be the very Royal ‘Princess Catherine’) happens to be a topic of public interest, public discussion, public concern. This is the way our country is constituted. Fact. Catholics are constitutionally demeaned, and should any future heir or near-heir to the throne marry outside Europe (very possible as the world and the Royals become increasingly cosmopolitan) the current system would bully the unfortunate spouse out of their original faith, in favour of Anglicanism.
And ‘bullied’ appears to be what has happened to Kate M. At the very least: ‘pressurized’. No-one who heard or read the news reports would have considered for a moment that this decision was taken by Kate Middleton alone. Rather, we are all entirely certain that this is a cynical and pragmatic act in order to sidestep a theological conundrum that, in Twenty-First Century Britain, is increasingly absurd.
Kate Middleton is not alone in paying lip-service to a religious faith, having previously demonstrated no interest in it. Couples routinely attend church for the minimum number of weeks specified by the vicar, before the picturesque parish church wedding will be sanctioned. Others even sign a statement, saying they will bring up any children of the marriage on the Catholic faith. And I’ve known a few people who have ostensibly converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim, while demonstrating very little interest in, or knowledge of the religion itself.
I should not care about any of these instances of hypocrisy. After all, it is not my faith that is cheapened by these all-to-convenient faux-Damascene moments. But nevertheless, it still irritates me. In being so casual and opportunistic in their conversions, Kate Middleton and hundreds like her cheapen the covenant that the true adherents have with their church. With this confirmation, the message that Wills, Kate and the Royal Establishment have conveyed is that Church-going and church-membership is a mere accessory, a thing of necessary convenience like a new SIM card or an MOT. Something borrowed. For ordinary subjects to behave in this manner is hypocritical. For the future heads of the Church to do the same is gross negligence, a dereliction of duty, a desecration of the Church of England, cheapening an institution that is already weak and belittled. There is no better argument for disestablishment than a rushed and panicked Royal confirmation.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Kate is being genuine, and the timing is just bad. After all, if being chosen as the next Queen of England doesn’t inspire faith in a Higher Power, what would?

The Emir's Third Way

Here’s a dilemma: The Emir of Kuwait has to decide whether his own cousin should be executed for drug smuggling.
To grant a pardon would seriously undermine the rule of law in what is supposed to be a constitutional monarchy. But to allow the execution would obviously cause terrible distress to other members of the Royal Family (and, one presumes, the Emir himself). Such a precedent would also worry other Royal Families around the Middle East, says The Times.
But the Emir has a third way, which is to place a moratorium on executions alogther. Often, draconian laws are enacted because those with power assume “it would never happen to me”. They only change their minds when the unthinkable happens.
In other execution news, Andrew points us to, a blog dedicated to the anniversaries of notable executions. It is fascinating and macabre, but commemorates events we would do well not to forget.

Extending Harry's Tour

Its great that Prince Harry has had a chance to serve in Afghanistan. As this blog has argued previously, to keep him at home would have made a mockery of the armed forces.
Instead, they showed some chutzpah and a little bit of cunning, by sending him off to Helmand and not telling anyone.
Indeed, to be foiled by a measly blog post in America or Australia or wherever it was is disappointing. They need to continue thinking along the same tactical lines. After all, withdrawing Leiutenant Wales early is a significant personell issue, just like a battlefield casualty.


Here’s Leo Docherty, veteran of the Afghanistan campaign, on attitudes to war amongst the officer class:

Put simply, this is a disastrous military adventure and not a just war. Perhaps Prince Harry knows this. More likely, however, is that he’s not too bothered about it because, for him, as for every other young officer, seeing active service is more important than any other consideration. This attitude is perhaps unavoidable in a highly trained professional army in which “cracking on” and doing what you’re told is an institutional requirement.
But the Army has over the past few years of the “war on terror” exceeded itself when it comes to blind obedience. Take the Iraq war. In 2003 my fellow officers and I knew the WMD issue was a blatant ruse, but we cared little. Scenting action we ignored the fact that we’d been told a pack of lies, and satisfied ourselves with the vague notion that it was all for the good. We simply craved active service.