Wednesday 6 May 2009

The Royal We

Denis MacShane, in a piece for the Spring Fabian Review, argues that the Royal Family is more like us than we might think. MacShane believes they have developed into:

“a very typical British family with three of the children divorcing their spouses, enjoying adulterous dalliances and relying on state hand-outs to pay for housing, food and travel.”

Does that qualify as typical?

In some respects, yes. Divorce rates in Britain stood at 45% in 2008, while the number of people needing state-support is rising in the current economic climate.

On the other hand, the Royals are subject to a level of scrutiny that is anything but typical. Plus their ‘state hand-outs’ tend to consist of travel by private jet and the collection of millions of pounds from various Duchies, rather than Prince Charles signing-on each week.

Of course, if you’re a member of a Royal Family, you’d expect a bit of pomp and pageantry. The constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot knew that when it came to the monarchy, “its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”

But in today’s media-saturated world, daylight has flooded in on the Royals – to the extent that some of them are looking more than a little sunburnt.

However, MacShane sees family breakdown – as exemplified by the personal trials of the Royals – as being in large part caused by the ‘hedonistic individualism’ of modern capitalism. We live in a society, he says, which seeks to “segment and individualise family members… pushing people into work at the expense of finding time for them to be with their children.”

It is suggested that the left has yet to develop an adequate politics of parenting and family life. This perhaps neglects the impact of schemes such as Sure Start and child tax credits, but MacShane’s broader point is hard to deny. The political right, too, currently doesn’t have much to say beyond its traditional emphasis on ‘family values’. But family values should not be the preserve of the right. As MacShane argues:

“The family remains the best example of socialist solidarity ever created: from each according to means, to each according to need is (or should be) the central tenet of family life. Families allow the transmission of wisdom across the generation. Families are where the cocky are teased, the strong are told to do the washing up, and where tolerance has to co-exist with firmness.”
Yet the family still has to operate within a wider social system. Most families aim to provide the best life they can for their children. But some are able to provide infinitely more than others. In a society that allows this disparity to develop unchecked, social divisions become increasingly entrenched – to the extent that our life chances are still to a large extent determined by the position of the family we are born into.

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