“Soldier does the job he is trained and paid to do.”
That’s the big headline on most of this morning’s national newspapers. Take a look – it’s there as the main front page headline on the Daily Mail, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror, The Sun, the i, and the Daily Telegraph, and as a smaller front page headline (with photo) in The Independent, The Times, The Guardian, the Daily Express and The Scotsman. It was, yesterday evening and this morning, a lead story on the BBC News website and its national radio and TV news bulletins.
I’m not trying to belittle or trivialise the job that British soldiers do in Afghanistan (and anywhere else in the world where they serve). In fact, I think quite the reverse. It’s the aggrandisement of the unremarkable contribution of one unremarkable soldier that demeans the largely unreported work of all the others. Why should this one soldier receive quite so much attention?
The answer, of course, is that he is (at least, in the eyes of news editors) not an ordinary soldier. He is Prince Harry, third in line to the throne (a phrase you are supposed to read in the sombre tone of a BBC correspondent since it denotes superiority over us lesser humans – you may not snicker at its suggestion that Harry is simply at the back of a short queue for the toilet).
Harry has chosen a military career for himself, and it is one that he clearly enjoys and finds rewarding. He has completed extensive training, has apparently proven himself capable in combat, and has achieved the rank of army captain. He has been put in charge of some very expensive and deadly machinery which, in the course of his duties, he has used. This is not news. Harry is not news. Even to ardent royalists, Harry holds no office of constitutional or political significance. He is, essentially, just another celebrity. I can understand why the Daily Star or The Sun might think him news – they think celebrities are axiomatically newsworthy. The BBC, for some reason, feels that one of its core purposes is the delivery of a steady stream of unthinking Royal propaganda that is blind to the cost, propriety or actual worth of anything the Royal family does, so their complicity in this fiesta of craven adulation is understandable if not forgivable. But The Guardian? The Independent? Has every editor in the country gone mad? Clearly, yes – but, since they are only responding to what they know to be the expectations of their audience, the madness is ultimately ours.
I do not understand public support for the institution of royalty. None of the arguments I have heard in its favour seem to address adequately, for me, the obscenity of the hereditary principle – the idea that a single family, by virtue of birth alone, is entitled to such high status and colossal privilege, at public cost. Whether as trade envoy, charity fund-raiser, global ambassador or national figurehead, there is nothing that a monarch can accomplish that an elected head of state could not equally do – and we could hold the latter to account if they were no good. The next king could be a deluded half-wit with only a tenuous grasp on reality and really bad taste in architecture – it doesn’t matter. We can’t stop him being king and we can’t take it away from him once he’s got it. And it makes no difference how talented or loved you may be – you could be considered a national treasure, an institution in your own right, a combination of Shakespeare, Brunel, Churchill and Fiona Bruce – it doesn’t matter. The institution of Royalty is closed to you, except by the misfortune of marriage (at which point the whole nation will remind you – in the belief that they actually care about these things – that you are just a ‘commoner’).
I have heard royalist friends say, at times of great occasion like Royal weddings, jubilees or the state opening of Parliament, that royalty makes them feel proud to be British. It make me queasy and embarrassed to be British. It’s not just that we have a monarchy – it’s they way we do monarchy in Britain that turns my stomach. We have a head of state whose core attribute is her remoteness from her ‘subjects’. Not for us a monarch who understands our lives and our concerns – “just one of the lads” as Prince Harry imagines, in delusion, he is. No, we like the weirdly Disneyfied fantasy of Royalty – the more outlandish and ostentatious the better. We think the overblown costumes and the pantomime carriages are pre-requisites of great state occasion; that pomp and circumstance are an essential part of our national identity and they cannot be achieved without monarchy. But have a look at an American presidential inauguration, like President Obama’s yesterday. Plenty of ceremony and ritual. You were left in no doubt of the significance of the presidency as the personified representation of the nation. But where our royal occasions could not look more preposterous if you staged them on another planet, the inauguration was moving and dignified (and that would have been equally true if it had been Mitt Romney taking the oath of office rather than Barack Obama). It was also democratic. Not because of nonsensical symbolic representations of democracy, such as the charade of the House of Commons momentarily shutting the door on Black Rod (before obeying the Royal command to traipse across the hall to stand, cramped, at one end of the unelected legislative chamber – a more obvious symbol of our contempt for popular sovereignty you would be hard pressed to invent). There was actual democracy – the American people, a million strong, gathering to witness in person the inauguration of the citizen that they had chosen to be their head of state.
Why does anyone consider the Queen to be the personification of Britain when royalty is the antithesis of everything that is good about this country? Where the most positive aspects of the British national character are its sense of decency and fairness, nothing could be more indecent or unfair than hereditary monarchy and the excess of privilege with which we endow it.
And why do we labour under the huge national inferiority complex that perpetuates the whole system? For, if we insist that the Royal family is superior to us, then we must regard ourselves as inferior to them. More than that, we are perpetually, innately and unavoidably inferior.
Last May, Princess Alexandra visited RHS Rosemoor, the Royal Horticultural Society garden in North Devon, near my home. Children were taken out of school to wave flags pointlessly at her. The local newspaper did a special photo feature on it. I had to look her up just to work out who she is. She’s the Queen’s cousin. That’s it. That’s her only role in life. She does “Royal duties”. She is – wait for it – “41st in the line of succession to the thrones of 16 states”, by which is meant the UK and the other 15 Commonwealth countries with insufficient self-worth to have become republics. I’d have kept the kids in school. I’d probably also have charged her admission to Rosemoor and given her a map to guide herself round, like everyone else. I’d have got Alan Titchmarsh to unveil my plaque. He is someone. Princess Alexandra is just the cousin of someone. Forty very specific people have to die, simultaneously, before she gets to be someone. Why do we treat her as if she matters more to us than any other visitor to Rosemoor in an ugly blue hat?
It does not matter what little intelligence, talent, skill or ingenuity they possess, we will bow, scrape and curtsey to them, call them “your highness” and “ma’am”. It does not matter how little actual impact they have on anyone’s life, how few will be enriched or enlightened by their presence, how little they may care about anyone but themselves, we will always treat them as if they are absurdly important.
It doesn’t matter how good an army captain you are, how skilled you are at flying Apache helicopters on combat missions, what dangers you’ve faced or what courage or compassion you’ve shown, how many lives you’ve taken or saved. It doesn’t matter what struggles you will face when you return home, what financial difficulties you or your family may endure, problems finding work or housing, health issues, your kids’ education. It doesn’t matter what you achieve when you return, what businesses you build, what charities you support, how many people depend on you or are grateful to you for how you’ve helped them or changed their lives. These things do not matter because you are not Prince Harry. You are inferior. You are not news and you never will be. Only Harry is news. The great Captain Wales.
And so it will continue to be. I see no prospect of change in my lifetime. The monarchy is as popular as ever. We like our inferiority complex – it feels safe and comfortable to us. The moral compromises we make to preserve it are, it would seem, a price we are happy to pay.