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Decoding the royal guest list: Laurie Penny on the new elite

Celebrity elitism is merging with the elitism of previous centuries.

The English royal family is a devious dynasty. Over centuries of bloodletting, back-stabbing and intermarriage, the monarchy has used all possible means to secure the one thing that matters to it above all else: its own survival. Although the withering of the English aristocracy has been dinner-table discussion in this country for generations, you need only glance at the publicity for the coming royal wedding to understand that the royals plan to be around for a long time yet.

After over a decade of mutual hostility, this wedding represents a strategic thawing of relations between the monarchy and the world of celebrity. Every photo shoot has been posed and distributed with care and the gossip press has been permitted to gorge itself on endless morsels of irrelevant detail about the intimate lives of the happy couple. The awful, see-through dress in which, according to the rather strained tabloid legend, the prince first saw Kate at a student fashion show is now apparently an icon of modern tailoring, even though it looks like a tinsel-edged colostomy bag.

All of this has nothing on the guest list. Alongside the usual dukes, diplomats, generals and bishops, a number of pop stars will be in attendance, including the first couple of British celebrity, David and Victoria Beckham. When the Spice Girl and the superstar footballer married in 1999, they seemed to be the people's answer to the tarnished rituals of the post-Diana aristocracy.

At their wedding, the Beckhams quite literally held court to an adoring international press on two enormous, gleaming, custom-made thrones, with matching sparkly fake crowns. For the royals, the iconography couldn't have been more baffling if Rob Brydon had bought a plastic sceptre and declared himself the prince of Wales. Yet, in a culture where the terms "rock royalty" and "fashion aristocracy" are used without irony, celebrity elitism is merging with the elitism of previous centuries.

Posh and posher

Victoria Beckham, for example, has made the transition from pouting, post-pubescent pop star - whose "Posh" moniker served only to highlight her relatively humble origins - to multimillionaire model and designer partying with royalty. Other significant wedding guests include Elton John, who has done more than anyone else to fashion the royals into a mawkish celebrity freak show.

Fourteen years after the singer howled his way through an updated version of "Candle in the Wind" at Diana's funeral, the royals have finally come out of hiding, sliding into an entente cordiale with the latest upstarts.

None of this is new: the English aristocracy has always responded to enemies it cannot face down by inviting them in. Every decade, the British declare that they have buried class and, every decade, the grave stays empty as the elite choose to evolve rather than fade away.

This royal wedding, with its guest list and sleek PR machine, might seem a refreshingly populist operation but it merely signals the determination of the British monarchy to weather the storm of celebrity. Above all, the English aristocracy are survivors and, in tight situations, it plays the class card better than anyone else.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.