Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I believe in: The equality of man

Westminster Hall, London
Yesterday, the Queen, as part of her Jubilee Celebrations addressed members of both houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

It was of course covered by the BBC, and I watched the first half hour of the programme, but switched off before the speeches, for reasons that will become evident.

What a marvellous building this is. To quote from the Westminster web site, "Westminster Hall is the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate. What makes it such an astonishing building is not simply its great size and the magnificence of its roof, but its central role in British history. Closely involved in the life of the nation since the 11th Century, a journey through the Hall's past is a journey through 900 fascinating years of our history".

While I marvelled at the magnificence of the Hall, what was going on under its awesome ceiling filled me with nausea. You see, I don't believe in a monarchy, and never have, though I do remember once, in support of the organisation I worked for attending a Royal Garden Party at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. I did escape a line that was waiting to shake hands, as that would have been too much, but I must say that the strawberries were wonderful, but as it was the season for them, they would have been great anywhere. I'm not an aggressive anti-monarchist, or a rabid republican: neither to I want to reintroduce the guillotine, imprison royalty or banish them to some far off island. It's the institution that I object to not the personalities. I'm sure that the Queen is very nice, and that Prince Philip, in spite of the occasional blunders is no worse than anyone else.

Thomas Paine
The reason why I am not a monarchist is because I believe in the equality of man. (I use man in the generic sense to denote man and woman). You cannot have equality when you are described as "My loyal subjects". If you are a subject then you are inferior to the person you are subject to. Superiority or inferiority have no place in the equality of man.

I'm currently reading "The Works of Thomas Paine" - and this man could write. Though born to a Quaker family in Thetford, Norfolk in 1737, he went to live in Philadelphia around 1774, where he began a new career as a journalist. In 1776 he published a short pamphlet (though the definition of a short pamphlet in the 18th Century is very different from that of today) called "Common Sense". He quickly gained a reputation as a revolutionary propagandist. As one of his biographers said, "He attacked monarchical government and the alleged virtues of the British constitution, opposing any reconciliation with Great Britain. He also urged an immediate declaration of independence and the establishment of a republican constitution".

He rested his case on the moral basis of the natural equality of men (in the sight of God). The statement about natural equality is true whether you are religious or not. If religious, then we are all created equal; if not religious then we are all born equal. In the same year as Paine published his pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson was responsible for writing the United States Declaration of Independence, which declares, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Eighty seven years later, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, referring to the Declaration of Independence, opened with "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal".

There have been those who have pointed out that this equality was fine as long as you're not black or a native American Indian. This comment has not been made with the benefit of hind sight, as in the year that the Declaration was written, the abolitionist Thomas Day said about its hypocrisy, "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves". One hundred and eighty seven years later in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr was still waiting for this equality, when in his famous 'I have a dream' speech, he said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal".

The fact that men are imperfect, and have imperfectly followed through on this equality does not negate the belief that all men are born equal, and remain equal. Monarchy is incompatible with equality. Monarchy says that some are better than others, that the majority should be subservient to the minority, that the few should be fawned over by the many. The equality of man does not allow for subservience; for fawning obedience; for bowing or scraping; for allegiance. Socialism believes in the equality of man, and therefore I don't believe that a Socialist can also be a Monarchist.

In Tony Benn's blog of June 2002, at the time of the last Jubilee, he wrote, "In Royal Britain we are expected to confine our loyalty to someone at the top rather than express it in solidarity with our fellow men and women, and this is the basis of the feudal class system within which our duty is to those put above us, know our place and keep it out of respect for our betters. The feudal class system is still a very powerful force in Britain, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the socialist definition of class which identifies very different economic interest between those who work to create the nation's wealth and the handful at the top who own that wealth". He also said in a Guardian article in 2003, "Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country - or enjoy the privileges it affords". 

The equality of man is not just some fancy philosophical statement; it has to be seen to work out in practice. As far as I'm concerned, Monarchy has no place in a modern, so-called democracy, because there is no equality of man with it in place. The alternative to monarchy is an elected First Citizen who would be fully accountable to the Parliament that we also elect. Was this what Lincoln was saying in his Gettysburg address, when he concluded with the words, "... that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". But that's for another discussion.

At the last Jubilee in 2002, Tony Benn wrote words that are still relevant. "The Jubilee has provided them (the people at the top) with a marvellous opportunity to put the clock back more than a hundred years by providing bread and circuses for the peasants and allowing the powerful to celebrate their new found sense of security". 

I've tried to be reasoned and reasonable here; avoiding personal criticism of the present royalty, as it is the issue of monarchy and not the personalities that is important. Let me leave the final word with the Monarchy, in the shape of Prince Charles. "Something as curious as the Monarchy won't survive unless you take account of people's attitudes. After all, if people don't want it, they won't have it". Well I for one don't want it, as it is an affront to the equality of man.

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