U.S. President Barack Obama said at the Group of 20 meeting in Cannes, France, earlier this month that he was told that he had just been given a “crash course” on the complexities of European politics. Well, that’s us, the folk who brought you Byzantine.
We do have the habit of talking about one thing while doing another, like your mother peeling potatoes at the sink while telling you to hurry up and provide her with some grandchildren. And, often, the thing we’re doing is not what it appears, and the thing we’re talking about is not what we’re thinking. But it’s OK -- we’ve been at this a long time.
So while the stagger and stumble of markets revealed ever-more-worrying cracks in the foundation of this old continent, it might have seemed an extravagance for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to announce that he was going to change the ancient laws of primogeniture and succession to the British throne.
Up until now, the crown has passed from king to prince whenever possible. Only if there’s really no alternative, including infants and imbeciles, would they give it to a princess. This is plainly indefensible, and quite possibly illegal.
A Group Decision
But it isn’t just the British who are affected by this proposed change; 15 other countries have the same monarch as head of state, including Canada, Australia, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Each has had to agree to change the rules, and at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia last month they unanimously did. This means that Prince William and Kate’s first child, of whatever sex, will go to the head of the line. (Though it won’t be retrospective, so Princess Anne won’t be usurping Prince Charles. She can continue breeding murderous bull terriers and being fabulously irritable.)
What was interesting about this twist in the golden thread that runs through the gay tapestry of heraldic life was not those who supported it, but those who opposed it. There were quite a lot of them, not all wearing their jackets back to front and being fed with plastic spoons.
They really couldn’t claim that monarchy was a man’s job, because the very few women whom genetics have allowed in included Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and the present queen -- three of the most successful heads of state ever. Then there was Queen Anne -- who reigned over John Locke, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and a golden age of French-thrashing -- and Queen Mary, who ruled as “William and Mary” because Parliament thought she needed a bloke. Nor should we forget Matilda, a medieval empress who briefly ruled during a civil war known as the Anarchy.
Altogether, the caliber of our queens so outclasses the collective performance of our massed kings that there is a good case for only women being able to inherit.
The basis for opposition to gender-blind inheritance boiled down to: “We’ve always done it that way. To change the waft and web of history will be to tamper with the ineffable course and the delicate equilibrium of the nation.” As if the past itself would notice and, more than that, care. It might disinherit the present. There is a phrase for this, and we hear it a lot: “You have to keep faith with the past”; a sort of soothsaying, proactive, spiritual nostalgia.
A European Imperative
“This is the way we’ve always done it” is a particularly European imperative. It would mean little in the East. I suspect it might be an argument for change in America. But here, the past, that continuum of hand-to-hand passing of tradition and culture, the skill and panache of being European, is greatly valued. Keeping faith with the past is as important as planning for the future. Indeed, it could be considered the only guarantee of a future that we would recognize.
And this all might go some way to explaining Obama’s eye-rolling incomprehension at the parlous state of European politics. Every argument isn’t just between those for and those against, but also all the ghosts who have ever had this argument. We live in crowded rooms.
Male primogeniture isn’t simply what it appears. But then you suspected that. The Royal Family is the top of a hierarchy of landed gentry who have taken their lead from above, and always passed their houses, lands and wealth on to the eldest son, effectively disinheriting their other children. You aren’t allowed to do this in France or the other nations that took on the Napoleonic Code. But the English remain ruthless about keeping family wealth entire, and a change at the top might cause elder daughters and younger sons to question the monstrous, unloving inequality that their fathers produce with the sanction of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Queen Elizabeth II, old and conservative as she may be, agreed to the change with a feminist alacrity. Her family have kept their heads in the crown and their bottoms on the throne by constantly shape-shifting and accommodating to the times. The monarchy may look like the brand leader for “keeping faith with the past,” but in truth, it wields change to its purposes.
Talleyrand said that that the Bourbons had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The Royal Family of the U.K., Canada, Australia and Saint Kitts and Nevis learns fast and remembers selectively. While its members rely on others’ sense of heritage and history, they themselves will disinherit the past without a backward glance or regret.
(A.A. Gill, the restaurant and TV critic of the Sunday Times of London, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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