Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 April 2011

Royal wedding – ‘what Britain does best’ or what Britain is: a union of unequals?

I’m beginning to write this an hour before the service commences: the royal wedding. So I’m starting blind, before the start of the spectacle that I’ll be going round to a neighbour’s to watch – which will provide the necessary flesh to this cultural commentary.

Apart from being a ceremony in which a man and a woman commit their lives to one another, we are told that the royal wedding is an example of ‘what Britain does best’. More precisely, it is the ceremony and the celebration themselves that are ‘what Britain does best’: ceremonial performed with military precision, coupled with joyful but dignified, restrained popular celebration. In other words, the wedding symbolises Britain itself: a hierarchical, orderly society to which the people – like the commoner Kate Middleton – give their joyous but equally solemn assent.

Britain, like a traditional Christian marriage, is indeed a union. And as this particular wedding solemnises the union of the future head of the British state (who in that sense personifies the state and the established order) with a ‘girl of the people’, it symbolises in a particularly apt and condensed way the organic union that is meant to turn a kingdom into a nation: rulers and subjects united, like the married couple, in one flesh.

But is this union – Britain, that is – truly a marriage of equals, or does this wedding in fact symbolise the unequal nature of society and power across the Union, including in the relationship between the different nations (plural) of the kingdom? After all, the wedding takes place in the sacred burial place of the English kings, at the heart of the historic capital of England and centre of English government. It is conducted in a Church of England abbey, with some of the service being led by the pastoral head of the Anglican Communion (its future temporal head being Prince William himself, of course) using the hallowed English rite that is the Book of Common Prayer. This marriage and the union it symbolises are English in all but name, or English but not in name: the United Kingdom of whose perpetuation this wedding is a celebration being in essence a continuation of the ancient English kingdom, with William and Catherine being the future King and Queen of England. No one calls the British monarch the ‘King of Britain’ or the ‘King of the UK’: they’re the King of England – though not explicitly referred to as such in politically correct society – and at the same time head of the United Kingdom state.

This dual function and nomenclature reveals the fact that the UK is not a true and full union whereby the two – England and Scotland – could be said to have come together to form a new entity (Britain); the English crown united with the people (English and non-English) of the realm in an organic, integral British nation. Instead, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall remain as semi-distinct adjuncts to the English crown: like jewels within it but not integral to its English design and manufacture. And a great divide continues to separate the exalted class of the rulers from the people: the crown is not in fact one with the people; and England is not one with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall in a united British nation.

Perhaps this is where a distinct identity for the English people was lost, along with any concept of popular English sovereignty; and where, instead of seeing each other as being oppressed by the same social inequalities and absence of true democracy, the non-English people of these isles have viewed ‘the English’, rather than the British state, as the oppressors. And this is because the English have never divorced their identity as a people and as a nation from the ancient English kingdom that has been subsumed within the British state, which has inherited its powers, prerogatives and mystique. As a consequence, the English have been identified by others with the British oppressor because they have identified themselves as subjects of the English kingdom / British state: not just willingly subjecting themselves to English-monarchical rule as it is continued within the British state, but framing their own subjectivity (their consciousness of themselves as a people) as British subjects: loyal servants and agents of the now British realm.

This is what, for me, is symbolised by the royal wedding: not the true union of a people with its rulers in an integral British nation but the identification of the English with their oppressor, the British state – a ‘commoner’ being ‘elevated’ to royal status, but not in a way that expresses or brings about the equality of the two, but rather in a way that confirms and perpetuates the separate status of those two worlds. But it’s not so much the future king or the present queen that is responsible for this continuing and only exceptionally bridgeable gap between the ruler and the subject. It is the British state – represented by those insipid ministerial faces seated in the row behind the glorious Westminster Abbey choir during the wedding service – that has inherited the privileges and aura of monarchical rule and exercises a power over the English (and non-English) people that is as much subjective as objectively subjecting: a power over our minds – leading us to willingly embrace, indeed celebrate, our subservient Britishness in fawning adoration – as much as it is objective, practical disempowerment and absence of democratic self-determination.

Today, ‘the nation’ may have celebrated a union that in turn symbolised the nation. But this unity of the ‘British nation’ is defined quintessentially in this very act of celebration and of marriage through which the English subject – as personified by Kate Middleton – is subsumed within and identified with the personification of the British state. So this is not a real, mature nation at all but merely a powerful, eloquent enactment of subjection to Britain. And until we break the spell through which the British state charms us into submitting to its ‘majesty’, the English nation will continue to be absent from the party.

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