Deference and the Election

Dinner with friends some time ago, and, things having been a bit lubricated with wine, a friend of theirs aimed a question in my Limey direction, a reasonable paraphrase of which would be something like: “So. The Royal Family. What’s that all about then? Hmm? Hmm??” The edge of belligerence in his tone seemed to be driven by bafflement with a power structure which seemed incredibly alien to his American soul: one of tradition and heredity, rather than meritocracy. It appeared that, as a Brit, I was both responsible for the Royals, and also assumed to be a mindless feudal serf who didn’t see it his place to question that arrangement. He seemed to want me to justify this abomination, or simply to cut to the chase and admit apologetically that I couldn’t. I’m not really much of a monarchist. I couldn’t care about the pomp and the commemorative tea-towels. I tend to see the Windsors as the head of Britain’s tourist industry and, as such, they’re worth every penny of the (moderate and decreasing, by the way) tax groats that get shovelled their way. The bottom line is that they make more for Britain than they cost, way more, so arguing that they’re a bad thing on those terms does seem to be weak. The other bottom line is that enough people want their continued existence for enough reasons that, well, why not? At worst they’re a harmless dalliance, a bit of symbolic detritus from a different age. I said as much, and that was that.

I might have added, with a sardonic smile: “What, you think Dubya got where he is today on merit?” And if I’d said it right I might have got a chuckle or two, but, sitting here tonight, I’d have wanted to give the gag a great deal more heft. The unspoken comparison the neo-Roundhead appeared to be making, between the unelected, undemocratic, unaccountable British Royals, and the elected, democratic, and (presumably) accountable American heads of state and government, seems less clear to me the more I think about it. If we set aside the issue of heredity (noting in passing that it sometimes seems to work that way over here too, ballot box or not), and we also take note of the absence of any genuine power in the hands of Liz and the boys beyond the symbolic and the whisperingly influential, what’s left for a meritocrat to despise about monarchy — the British monarchy at least — is mostly the deference paid to them, and I caught some of that in the dinner-guest’s annoyance. It’s a fair point — with the caveat that I get the impression Americans think Brits are way more deferential about the Royals than they actually are.

But deference isn’t remotely exclusive to royalty. Driving home tonight, there was a piece on NPR about the British general election, the theme of which was the amazing lack of deference that’s given to politicians from the PM on down. Clips were played of Blair being effectively handbagged by members of the public at extremely close quarters. Blair, for all his occasional disastrous lapses into faith-based ideology, doesn’t seek protection from such moments. It’s the rough and tumble of British election politics, which — as the NPR correspondent correctly suggested — spills over partly as a consequence of the rough and tumble of British parliamentary politics. Oliver Willis notes the same lack of deference from the British media, and he’s right. Here is the sequence of opening questions from Jeremy Paxman to Tony Blair during the televised interview last week:

“Prime Minister, is there anything you’d like to apologise for?”
“But do you accept that there is a trust issue, and that the reason opposition parties can talk about wiping the smirk off your face is because you can’t any longer say, look at me, I’m a pretty straight kind of guy?”
“Alright, let’s look at Iraq. When you told Parliament that the intelligence was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’, that wasn’t true, was it?”
“Okay, but you know, don’t you, that just two weeks before you made that statement, the Joint Intelligence Committee said that ‘intelligence remains limited’.”
“Therefore it’s not ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’, is it?”
“They said it was ‘limited’, you said it was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative.”
“So was the JIC — the Joint Intelligence Committee — report wrong?”
“So when you wrote in the foreword to the dossier that the threat from Saddam was serious and current, it wasn’t, and indeed your own Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, had said that the dossier did nothing to demonstrate a threat.”
“Did you see the Foreign Office legal advice which said that military action against Iraq would be illegal without a further UN Resolution?”
“You didn’t see that Foreign Office advice, saying that an invasion would be illegal without a second UN Resolution?”
“You didn’t see it?”
“The Attorney General is a political appointment, Prime Minister. Shouldn’t you have seen the Foreign Office legal advice?”
“Do you accept any responsibility at all for the death of Dr David Kelly?”
“Do you accept any responsibility at all?”
“So the answer to the question is, you don’t accept any responsibility?”

Those aren’t edited highlights; it’s a single unbroken sequence of questions. And, whatever the non-pejorative opposite of deference is called, that’s what it looks like.

There are all sorts of places one might look for the causes of such undeference: the post-Empire cynicism and worldliness in the British psyche; the freedom to be just plain difficult that’s championed by well-funded and politically-independent public service broadcasting, with the BBC at its head.

I think one might also look pretty closely at the separation of state and government in Britain. To the extent that monarchy takes for itself all of the flag-waving, all of the pomp and the commemorative tea-towels — and, yes, sometimes the deference too — that can be stripped away from government, so that those things can’t be used by government as a shield: attack me and you attack the country; be disrespectful to me and you disrespect the idea of democracy; burn the flag and you Hate America.

So I think I’m seeing merit (if not meritocracy) in monarchy that I’m not sure I’d seen before. If it serves even somewhat as a box into which we can put whatever deference we have, whatever love of the procession and the ritual and the fairytale, whatever need to sing Jerusalem at the Last Night of the Proms, whatever simple unconditional love of country, then perhaps that can licence a hard-nosed, objective, fiercely critical approach to the process of government, and to those who govern. Perhaps, in other words, it’s just plain good for democracy. Lump together state and government, on the other hand, and a cowardly retreat behind the flag is always an option. The metonymy of President as State is cheaply available. I find it quite pleasing that both deference to British royalty and lack of deference to British heads of government are both jarring from an American perspective. From this distance, it seems an effective way to run a quirky little country.

None of this will stop Labour being re-elected tomorrow, of course (the Lib Dems would get my vote, and with greater enthusiasm than ever before), but that’s by the by. If Iraq doesn’t kill Blair politically, it won’t be because the democratic process in Britain has been hidden behind a cowardly Wizard of Oz curtain of deference.

Oh, and the dinner-guest then went on to ask another question, in the same tone of bewildered belligerence, a reasonable paraphrase of which would be something like: “So. Benny Hill. What’s that all about then? Hmm? Hmm??” Those were the two Brit references which came first to his mind. The Royal Family. And Benny fucking Hill. I didn’t have the heart to point out that the President of his country is treated with a far more dangerous deference than Liz and Phil, and that Benny’s T&A burlesque was funded for the last ten or so years of his life mostly by American TV money.

If heredity is anything like the issue, then perhaps America might get itself a head of state who — like Lenin — is frozen into permanence, into whom all flag-draped patriotic feeling might be poured, so that the transitory head of government could be taken genuinely to task. To avoid the problem of over-deference it needn’t be someone too grand. A tastefully-enbalmed Fred Rogers, perhaps.


  • Perhaps when you said “undeference”, you meant “indifference”? As you probably well know, Undeference is not a real word (but it is my Internet identity :-P).

  • No, I meant ‘undeference’, which ought to exist, even if it doesn’t. I wanted something more than ‘lack of deference’; something which is the opposite of it, rather than just its lack. My dictionary says ‘disrespect’ is an antonym of deference, but that doesn’t capture it either, because it’s clearly pejorative. Besides, it’s nice to make up words, and not just for screen-names. 🙂

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