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Archive for June, 2012

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We are in the midst of a major football tournament that is running parallel to the greatest crisis in Europe since 1945 and this has led some people to find parallels and make political points about the current state of the continent, and I have a simple plea – please stop.

At its most harmless are the tweets provided by the Politics Department of the University of Nottingham who provide irrelevant trivia about the political culture of the sixteen participants of the Euro 2012 tournament. This provides a surreal addition to the tournament, and much more entertaining preparation than anything that the televised golf club of Match of the Day can offer.

However, too often the political parallels game is played by people who are far too happy speak in generalities. This trend is likely to find its zenith if, as widely expected, Greece and Germany play each other in Friday’s quarter final. Beyond being tedious, to the extent that it is nearly as annoying as constant uses of the term ‘Greek Tragedy’, there are legitimate fears that it is going to add to the offensively oversimplified narrative of ‘lazy Greeks v industrious Germans’.  

As well as attempting to find mindless political parallels there have been too many people trying to use this for political purposes. . A variety of people on the British left have used the excitement that comes along with a major football tournament, as well as the scenes around the Diamond Jubilee, to espouse their own positions about the British constitution, whereas I would contend that they are events too out of the ordinary to draw any wider conclusions from.

Figures on the British left, typified by Liberal Conspiracy founder Sunny Hundal, saw the celebrations that came with England’s phoenix-like performance in Friday night’s Euro 2012 game with Sweden as evidence of an increasing tide of nationalism that the left should embrace, rather than ignore. By contrast I feel confident that you can’t draw any wider lessons from people enjoying watching England win a game of football. When watching a sporting event there is a tendency to gather with your community and go through the highs and lows of sporting contest together and – hopefully – celebrate an eventual victory. It tells you only about the deep human need to form communities for any purpose. The ninety minutes of a football match typifies this. On Friday people gathered together in pubs and clubs to experience England’s win before melting away again. However this does not just happen when the national team is playing. As a supporter of Ipswich Town I can remember the delight that the team being promoted in 2000, the despair of relegation in 2002, and the exhausted sense of weariness at the consistently dull performances ever since, engendered in the wider community.

The occassions when sport and politics do meet are those that are as unrepresentative as the sporting events, South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup win or the violence of the water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary at the 1956 Olympics. These moments are interesting and sporting events can bring them to the fore but generally attempting to read something into the reaction to sporting victory is pointless.

There are serious questions to be asked about the future of the British constitution, but it shouldn’t be informed by the passing moments of delight that come from these extraordinary moments such as football tournaments. These are questions about the inherent democratic deficit that exists in a country with no recourse to the representation provided to their Scottish and Welsh neighbours, but following the heightened emotions of a football match is not the time to do it, and we shouldn’t try to use these moments to make wider political points.

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Can the monarchy outlive this uniquely popular figure?

It is a depressing time to be a British Republican, our point of view – if one believes the latest polls – is shared by just 13 percent of our fellow citizens (or subjects if you will). Furthermore the monarch and in particular that symbol of traditional British patriotism, the Union Jack, are an inescapable part of British culture this summer. The dominance of the monarchy is brought home in the crushingly unsubtle form of a charmless family portrait overlooking Temple Bar in a way that feels better suited to Pyongyang or Maoist China. This is the moment when figures on the left declare their love for the Monarchy and, despite what is expected to be the biggest Republican protest in many years on Sunday, Republicans are painted as unpatriotic party poopers.

There are, though, reasons to remain positive about the future of British republicanism, it seems to me that the monarchy’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. That is, of course, the person of Elizabeth II whose 60 years on the throne we are celebrating with the long weekend. She has been remarkably successful in defining her role as head of state throughout the 60 years she has been on the throne to make her appear relevant to the country over which she has reigned.

When monarchists have made their cases they are inexorably tied up with the personality of this almost uniquely popular figure in British public life. This is a necessary side-effect of an institution which is based on the personality of a single person, that and the symbolic ghosts of historic power. However the exceptional qualities of the woman who has held the office for the whole lifetime of most her subjects have left advocates of the monarchical system complacent whilst their republican opponents have, throughout these darkest days for their cause, strengthened their constitutional and democratic case.

The popularity of the monarchy is something that is as shaped by events as much as that of any politician. In this democratic era the monarch has to appear to be a reflection of the national mood and the speed with which this can turn can be seen in the fallout from the death of Princess Diana. One misreading of the public mood, which was coupled with the entirely understandable desire of the Royal Family to protect and support two young men attempting to come to terms with the death of their mother, produced a outbreak of public vitriol that saw the institution’s popularity plummet.

When the enigmatic figure of Elizabeth II, a role that allows everyone to project their ideals on to her, passes away and is replaced with a Prince of Wales we will see a head of state whose views about everything from architecture to alternative medicine are widely known this great strength will be gone.

It is at this point that the arguments of constitutional legitimacy that have been being pushed by republicans for so many years will begin to resonate with the general public. Throughout Elizabeth II’s reign those challenging her position in public life have come up against the unbeatable bulwark of her generally exceptional abilities at this most difficult job, this is not an argument that will work when you are advocating for the Prince of Wales. Once the figure of Elizabeth II is no longer a factor monarchists will be faced with challenge they do not appear to have prepared for, how defend an institution whose legitimacy is based on deference in a culture that has gone through erosion of deference with someone who appears to be entirely unsuited to the role he is in line to inherit.

This long weekend of festivities have a value, we should celebrate the contribution of someone who has made a unique contribution to British public life, but it is these unique qualities that are likely to be the greatest weakness of the royalist case going forward. This should be a time for celebration for everyone in Britain but one unlikely ever to be repeated.

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