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“Are you for King or for Parliament?” I was taught at a tender age to ask the burning question of mid 17th century England as a means of assessing an individual's take on society. It seems apposite once again.
During the past few days, the nation (or at least a significant part of it) has hyperventilated over the wedding of two anodyne and highly privileged young people whom it does not know and is unlikely ever to encounter in anything other than a ceremonial context. It will also soon have the opportunity to vote on the foreseeable future of its electoral system (5 May 2011).
How we respond to these two events says much about the way in which we are willing to perceive our future democratic common life. Both require thinking beyond vested interests and received opinion; neither is receiving the level of serious and objective coverage which would facilitate such thinking.
The royal coverage will go on boring many of us comatose with speculation about Ms Middleton's wedding dress and details of the guest list. The for and against camps in the AV campaign, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, have failed to engage more than a relatively small number of people. Many with whom I have spoken over the last few days have a vague idea that the 'Noes' are reactionary and have employed some dubious tactics, but do not seem to be willing to follow up that concept as a stimulus to investigating what might be at stake. Bank holiday plans seem to be far more important for most people.
It is this 'bread and circuses' weakness which has been successful at keeping us passive and uncritical about our status as subjects rather than citizens. Much pro-monarchy sentiment depends heavily on spectacle and celebrity froth. Soldiers got up like 19th century hussars, gilded coaches and pointless 'revelations' about the activities of various Windsors have a wide popular appeal. Asking questions about the justice of a system which permits the continuation of an hereditary head of state with considerable powers (just wait for Charles III if you doubt that) and privileges, whilst insisting that they be the eldest son and a member of one denomination of one religion, is far less popular.
The reluctance to question whether things could be done better and with an outcome which models greater equality, wider representation and a re-distribution of power, is what enables the sclerotic and self-interested to retain their privileges. Whether they use scare tactics and condescension or a bogus interpretation of 'tradition', they can only be successful if we are too indolent to question and to resist.
We can have a modern constitution. We can insist on a politics which is driven by and responsive to us, the people. We can choose Crown or Parliament, unaccountable privilege or real democracy. Let us use the next few days to focus our thinking.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet