Typical! On a day on which, for various reasons, I feel more anxiety than even my usual background levels, I face a very uncomfortable 45 minutes on Moral Maze.
Tonight's issue is monarchy and meritocracy and I have agreed to be on the side arguing that Royalty is bad for social justice. Being the CEO of a Royal Society and having enjoyed reporting to Prince Philip our current, outgoing, President and looking forward to working with Princess Anne, our incoming President, you can see this is a tricky proposition. Sophisticated listeners to Maze know that the panellists sometimes adopt positions to further debate rather than to advertise their own opinions but it still isn’t easy reconciling support for monarchy with a critique of its effects on society.
I thought it might help to rehearse an argument or two with my readers...
There are two defences of the privileged position of the royal family. The first relates to the office the second to the people who occupy the office. Paradoxically, perhaps, the first argument may be easier to reconcile with meritocratic principles.
The fact that a small number of positions which carry notional authority are allocated according to the hereditary principle does not necessarily undermine the idea that all other positions of status and privilege in society should be earned on merit (not ,of course, that they are).
However, the second arguments - one that is implicit in a great deal of the wedding coverage - that the royals are, as it were, special people is more problematic. Whatever the undoubted merits of individual members of the royal family - and my experience of our past and future President shows them to be dedicated to public service – they do not hold the posts because of their own personal virtues.
In this sense the media coverage is in danger of making the Royal couple seem like so many celebrities; famous for being famous. And I have no difficulty in arguing that celebrity culture does damage the idea of meritocracy, not only by the lack of connection between success and ability but also by fostering a sense among the ambitious that ‘making it’ is to do with looks and luck not skill and sweat.
The problem is that the combination of a long term decline in the deference and power we afford Royalty as institution coincides with a 24 news celebrity culture which encourages us to focus on the personalities of the people under the crowns. The Queen has avoided this problem by being both a model citizen and studiously avoiding controversy. Is it all fair or realistic to expect Friday’s happy couple to do the same (for the next seventy years!)?
A second thought – but one which I think goes beyond tonight’s programme – is whether far from upholding ‘British values and traditions’ as some monarchists argue, the survival of (and public affection for) the Royal Family give us a false sense of national purpose and unity. After all, the USA does not have monarch but American citizens’ adherence to flag, constitution and national pride is surely stronger than ours (the same may be said for the French). Will Friday be not a moment of national bonding but an exercise in papering over the cracks of a fractured society with an identity crisis?
Well, that makes me feel a bit better, but not much. To make matters worse I’m up against a couple of really good witnesses tonight so if you’ve nothing better to do at 8.00 (after all you can always record Real Madrid versus Barcelona to watch later), how about tuning in and sending me calming thoughts through the ether.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.