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I understand the objections to the monarchy’s existence, but the arguments for reforming rather than abolishing it have always seemed to me to be based on dubious grounds. In the last few years, the royal family has been the subject of a number of contentious debates and aroused vehement passions. Whilst you would think this natural considering the economic crisis, a large number of these debates have shied away from addressing the obvious ethical and financial issues involved in support for monarchy. Instead, there has been severe criticism of the fact Catholics are disbarred from ascending the throne, as well as the long-standing tradition of primogeniture, which results in girls being passed over in the line of succession in favour of male heirs. Modern liberal crusaders have decried these conventions as the anachronistic leftovers of a medieval mentality. Such practices, they argue, enshrine discrimination and are completely unsuited to an age of religious and gender equality. But these debates seem to be blind to an obvious point. The monarchy is, by definition, institutionalized discrimination, premised on the inherently illiberal notion that successive generations of one family are vested with an exclusive right to reign over us in perpetuity.
This is why the most recent changes to the law of succession granting equal treatment to male and female heirs, announced last week, have such an absurd air to them. As though eager to underscore the ridiculous charade, Nick Clegg praised the reforms as marking an ‘historic moment for our country and our monarchy.’
Apparently the two are inseparable in the mind of the man who has done more than most to set back the cause of meritocracy in Britain by several decades. This is the same Nick Clegg who reneged on his earlier pledge to abolish tuition fees, proceeding to triple the cost of a university education and render it unaffordable for low-income families. It’s nonetheless reassuring to know that he wasn’t prepared to betray all his principles by entering into coalition with the Conservatives, and that the concessions weren’t, in the end, entirely one-way.
But though Nick Clegg might be comforted by the knowledge that should a girl be born to William and Kate, she will not be discriminated against because of her gender, it’s hard to see exactly how this fatuous piece of legislation aids in the fight for equality of opportunity. In fact, it entrenches discrimination through a series of cosmetic changes, assuaging the superficial sensibilities of liberals who seem incapable of fathoming the contradictory nature of their support for monarchy. More to the point, the reforms are emblematic of the shallowness of the current political discourse on combatting inequality. British society is riven with discrimination. Like the royal family, the British elite is a self-perpetuating clique that passes on its privileges from generation to generation, heedless of all the periodic outpourings of support for meritocracy from politicians. Rates of social mobility are now at their lowest since the 19th century, and the rich have never been richer. The recession has only brought into sharper relief the innumerable ways in which this elite has retained its monopoly on the country’s wealth for so long. Lengthy unpaid internships, for instance, operate to weed out those from lower-income families, ensuring that highly paid jobs go to those from a suitably moneyed milieu. Connections are essential to obtaining the most prestigious internships, and a word to a family friend often gives the inexperienced university graduate their first foot in the door. The aristocratic principle never truly died. Nowadays, nepotism and cronyism in the workplace ensure much the same result as inherited titles once did.
The most that governments can do is speak proudly of their selection of female and ethnic minority MPs, and repeat their heart-felt opposition to discrimination in all its guises. It is rhetoric laden with the most extreme hypocrisy. Women and ethnic minorities from economically precarious backgrounds are among the groups hardest hit by the neo-liberal policies the government promotes. Female single parents are disproportionately affected by cuts in the level of child-care support. The 18 percent gender pay gap and the discrimination women traditionally encounter in the private sector is compounded in times of recession by the disinclination of employers to hire female staff, for fear they will have to pay out for maternity leave. The rates of unemployment for blacks aged 18-24 are double those of young white people. With many people from ethnic minorities concentrated in lower-income brackets, they are more likely to feel the pain of significant reductions in welfare provision.
You have only to look at a few of the poster boys and girls that the two major parties point to as evidence of their tough stance against discrimination to gauge how entirely ineffectual their response is in tackling these problems. Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary who has been hailed in some quarters as a future English version of Barack Obama, is by his own admission as far from being representative of the vast majority of black people in Britain as it’s possible to be. His father was a wealthy businessmen and director of Crystal Palace FC and his grandfather on his mother’s side was a high court judge. He himself was educated privately and trained as a corporate lawyer at a prestigious Magic Circle law firm. Louise Mensch, the former Conservative MP who has in the past said that her being in politics was largely thanks to David Cameron’s efforts to open up the party to women, comes from a well-established aristocratic family and was educated at boarding school before going on to Oxford. Her lineage includes renowned 19th century artists and rich stockbrokers. Given this background, it would be surprising if she were not a Conservative MP.
In the face of rampant discrimination and inequality of opportunity, it’s to be expected that politicians will content themselves with palliative measures that serve little purpose other than to obscure this stark reality. The alternative would be to concede the indissoluble link between the free market policies governments’ prize, and the insuperable economic obstacles disadvantaged groups encounter in their efforts to rise up the social scale. The ultimate outcome of neo-liberal policies is the estrangement of not merely low-income women and ethnic minorities, but low-income families across Britain, from a system where elites face no curbs on their grotesque accumulation of wealth and privilege and inequality of opportunity is considered the norm. The recent changes to the law of succession are a comical illustration of the government’s innate reluctance to tackle the root causes of discrimination…. But, as Nick Clegg would surely agree, God be praised in any event that the festering injustice of discrimination against female members of the royal family has been finally laid to rest.
Joseph Richardson is a freelance journalist in London. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford. His blog can be found here: josephrichardsonblog.wordpress.com