The return of the queen

Royalty with a capital 'r' became an obsession for the commoner in 2012. Is everything all right with British democracy?

British democracy seems to have lost its way. This is a matter of serious concern for those of us who gained from Thomas Babington Macaulay's Minute (on education), read Christopher Hill and Ivor Jennings, and spent many hours wondering how an unwritten constitution works, and memorised weekly advice given by The Economist on how to build a democracy. The long history of British democracy, from the English Revolution of 1640 through the centuries of constitutional battle that followed to 2012, has been one of the people's struggles to change the laws, redesign institutions and build parliamentary conventions. The key values of a democracy, "political equality" and "popular control", were heroically promoted.

The last 60 years has, however, changed all that. A remarkable comeback of the monarchy has been quietly taking place in the reign of Elizabeth II. Its most recent triumph was the naming of a portion of Antarctica, larger than the size of England, Queen Elizabeth Land! In the May 22, 2012 issue of The Guardian, Peter Wilby reported that only 22 per cent of the people of Britain think they would be better off without a monarchy and further, that only 10 per cent would prefer an elected head of state after the demise of the present queen. These are not flattering statistics for a democracy.

This victory of the monarchy has been achieved through a carefully calibrated strategy of choreographing state events with feudal pageantry, of preparing honours lists for people in the Commonwealth for example, a Papua New Guinean being made a "Dame", a Bangladeshi barrister given an OBE, a West Indian cricketer a knighthood, an Indian being made a Lord a deliberate strategy of creating distinctions between the ennobled and the commoners. This is M.N.Srinavas' "sanskritisation" at its best, where the democratic mind gets subverted by a monarchical mind. As a consequence, people get obsessed with Princess Eugenie's dress, the Queen's corgis and even forgive Prince Philip his gaffes. When royalty (with a capital "r") becomes the new obsession for the commoner, you know democracy in Britain is in crisis. The toffs have regained the cultural and public space that they had lost to the commoners in the centuries after 1640, when you see this public obsession with royal pageantry. One has only to look at the photographs of the jubilee celebrations to see who commands the glamorous spaces and who is on the sidelines, again behind the barricades, to know how democracy has been shown its place by the Eton and Harrow crowd. The Brits may not recognise this subtle loss of democratic territory, because their lifeworld has been colonised by the monarchy, to use an analytical observation of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. It is our responsibility to point it out.

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