THE VILLAGE SOAPBOX
Ron continues to berate the Pomp of the Opening of Parliament, the armed forces and the Royal Family. He also questions the honesty of the British Olympics plans
Last month I complained about the pomp and the pathetic pointlessness associated with the opening of parliament ceremony. I wondered why we do it and that caused me to reflect more on the nature of British society.
Class is a characteristic of our society and is far more a feature in England than it appears to be in most other western nations. In the nineteenth century class barriers were immense. Although somewhat reduced they remained very strong through the early twentieth century. In the 1930s 'upper class' people continued to regard themselves as superior to the rest and many got away with treating those from 'lower classes' as though they were an inferior species. Many working class people were so indoctrinated that they accepted the concept of 'their superiors' and showed them deference. Others were forced to show deference by virtue of the power that could be used against them.
The superior attitude was particularly evident in the armed services, perhaps especially so in the army. Those from an upper class background could get a commission with relative ease, the 'better' independent schools had their OCTUs, (Officer Cadet Training Units). Many sons from wealthy families who failed to gain entry to Oxford or Cambridge would be sent to Sandhurst to train as officers. You didn't find many sons of coal miners or bus drivers at Sandhurst. These young officers lauded it over the lower ranks, sometimes meting out sadistic punishments for minor offences. The officer's mess was an upper class club where stuffy formal traditions were maintained. Whilst German officers were absorbed in developing military tactics to take advantage of mechanised military equipment, our officers were enjoying dressing up in fancy uniforms, practising cavalry charges and playing polo. British tank design progressed little in the period between the 14-18 and 39-45 wars. The manner in which British officers had been recruited may have been a factor that contributed to the way in which our army got off to a bad start.
During the 1939-45 war class barriers started to break down. The upper classes were pitched in with everyone and were forced to forget their ideas of superiority, they were equally subjected to German bombing (although some managed to flee to the country or overseas). As the war progressed the armed forces expanded rapidly and hugely with an enormous requirement for officers. Of necessity officers were commissioned and promoted on merit rather than because of who their parents were and our army became much more effective as the war progressed.
I was old enough before the war to be very conscious of the class distinctions; a sense of inferiority was inculcated into the working class as much as a sense of superiority was inculcated in the privileged class. I heard tales of the irresponsible and unchallenged behaviour of the 'bright young things' in London and the manner in which they could put down those whose job it was to serve them. Even the police showed deference to the upper classes and were sometimes subservient to them. All this slowly changed, however, as the war progressed and there was a significant levelling that persisted into the post-war era. After the war I looked forward to seeing Britain progress towards a modern democratic and more egalitarian society. It was all very exciting. Despite strong opposition from the upper classes Atlee's Labour government introduced the National Health Service along with many other social reforms.
Very slowly the old establishment re-asserted itself, however, and class distinctions became more evident again. Of course they were not able to reverse the social reforms but, to some extent, they have restored the concept of a privileged class and returned Britain to an anachronistic society steeped in old traditions that emphasise the existence of class. The recent opening of Parliament is a classic example. To some in the outside world we must appear as a rather peculiar nation that enjoys living in the past.
Today a very small proportion of the population is educated in the more prestigious independent schools and yet they form the majority of the intake to Oxford and Cambridge. The majority of the more senior posts in the Civil Service, in journalism and in commerce are usually recruited from this elite group, and, once again, you will not find many sons of bus drivers or garage mechanics at Sandhurst. A very disproportionate number of our MPs attended independent schools and the upper house of our Parliament has 50% of its membership there by right of inheritance. An unbelievable process for selecting our legislature.
For as long as we allow an accident of birth to determine who should be our head of state we are stuck with the concept of privilege associated with birth and a class structure that follows. I saw some published figures recently that suggested that 0.6% of the population own 67% of the land in Britain. Most of this elite group acquired their land through inheritance, some of them can trace their ancestry back to the Normans. Much of this land was stolen from the indigenous people and given to them by the king in return for services rendered. It was only through the force of arms that the king gave himself the right to give this land. Many of these land owners form part of the aristocracy today, people such as the Queen, Prince Charles, Duke of Westminster, Duke of Marlboro, Duke of Bedford, Earl of Leicester et al. They are among the richest people in the land, yet they have been receiving millions of pounds a year as subsidies to support their farms. At the same time we have around four million children in Britain classified as poor by the UN and are seen to have a bigger problem with child poverty than our near European neighbours. Efforts by our government to reduce this number have met with very limited success.
The gap between rich and poor is wider now than at any time since the war. Social mobility, that had improved so much during and just after the war, fell sharply from 1958 to 1970 at which time we were then bottom of the international league. Very recent research by the London School of Economics for the Sutton Trust revealed that there has been no improvement since then and we remain at the bottom of the international league. Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, described the report's findings as shameful and called for an inquiry into how to break down class barriers.
Of late we have been deluged with TV programmes about the royal family. Intended or not, it is all propaganda in support of the monarchy, there is never a critical consideration of its impact on society and never a discussion of possible alternatives. The media love it of course: TV has a star performer that doesn't demand star fees, newspapers have the easiest copy. Judging by the cheering crowds the public love it too, allocating a semi-divine status to a family of German origins and mediocre abilities. I have no idea what proportion of the total population these crowds represent or how many of them are there just for a spectacle. In view of the way in which the powers of the monarchy have been eroded one might argue that it may not matter too much how the monarch is chosen, yet a head of state selected by birth is an extreme anachronism, it is medieval. Unfortunately it is the existence of the royal family, the aristocracy and the hangers-on along with their traditions that provide the framework for our class structure and we will never achieve a more egalitarian society as long as the monarch is there.
It is not the Queen's fault, of course, neither is her extended family to blame but they don't appear to be in any hurry to change the status quo or to modify their behaviour or attitudes. It has been reported that Prince Charles believes that he should live in some conspicuous grandeur. He has an enormous retinue of servants; people to arrange his diary, arrange his transport, prepare his food, layout his clothes. I read once that he even has help with his personal hygiene, the mind boggles. If he wants a chauffeur he only has to whistle, if he wants to drive himself he has a Bentley or two to use, if he wants to avoid mixing with the people he can have a helicopter. He is surrounded by sycophants, he does not know the real world. How could he? Members of the Public Accounts Committee were denied knowledge of the scale of his income. It has been put at £12M/year, much of that goes on official business of course, but his personal expenditure is of the order of several millions annually. Despite the best education that money can buy he failed to obtain good A level grades and, according to reports, he struggled with very limited success to learn navigation whilst in the navy. His former private secretary Edward Adeane is reported as claiming that "Charles was extremely easy to lead....." even Jonathan Dimbleby, his friend and biographer said that Charles' aides "were uncomfortable with his tendency to reach instant decisions on the basis of insufficient thought". Isn't it crazy that someone like that should be our head of state?
Currently there are not many news items more likely to cause my blood pressure to rise than these 'games'. In 2003 Tessa Jowell announced that the games would cost £1.8 billion, within a few months this was revised to £2.4 billion. In 2006 a figure of £3.3 billion was stated. As predicted these costs are soaring, now officially put at £9.3 billion. That is a huge sum. Unfortunately there are five more years to go. What will the final cost be?
Of course the supporters argue that these costs are not really for the games they are largely for the redevelopment of that area of London's east-end. Unfortunately these developments are not directly aimed at improving the area but are aimed at providing a good venue for the games. If the area was to be developed for the benefit of its population I have no doubt that the result would be very different. As it is, among other things, a much prized nature reserve and a traffic-free cycling route have been sacrificed already.
It would not be quite so bad if the games were all about sport and the sporting ethic with friendly rivalry, but they are not. They are about politics and politicians, along with personal and national pride where the need to win drives people to use performance enhancing drugs. There is a ridiculous escalation in the scale and grandeur of the games and more and more they have become a huge media circus.