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Modernising the monarchy? Hardly, says Laurie Penny

The way the royals are reported is like a Disney film.

In our storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy wellingtons over democracy.

The true purpose of the British monarchy, as the late Douglas Adams might have put it, is not to wield power, but to distract attention away from it. We can be curiously coy about the way privilege works in this country: consider, if you will, the horrified reaction to the news that Prince Charles has been allowed to dabble in the affairs of government.

Parliamentary loopholes have meant that the unelected heir to the throne has been granted power of veto over matters that affect the private interests of the Duchy of Cornwall, including road safety, planning and environmental policy. We are shocked by the reminder that the royal family is more than a tinselly relic to bring in the tourists: it actually has political influence and some of its members are uncouth enough to use it.

While all of this has been going on, there has barely been a day when the young Duke and Duchess of Cornwall have been absent from the front pages. It's as if the loveliness of the Duchess, wafting in designer gowns around various official engagements with her subtly balding beau and the international media in tow, were enough to distract the world from a nation creaking with corruption and civic breakdown.

In Britain, we are comfortable with the trappings of power as long as they are phrased in the manner of a fairy tale. At the end of last month, changes to the royal succession were made, to much fanfare, to ensure that female firstborn will be able to inherit the throne. "Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen," said David Cameron, with all the political gravitas of an episode of Jackanory. This "modernisation", which, like most recently hailed feminist triumphs, makes cosmetic alterations to the existing system while ensuring that nothing of relevance changes, is as clear a message as any that the House of Windsor intends to squat in its position of privilege for many generations to come.

Giving it welly

The real story of power and privilege in Britain is far murkier than the Disney-princess version peddled by the tabloids. In this storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy, expensive wellingtons over the democratic process.

It is worth noting, in these circumstances, that the word "privilege" actually means "private law". It means that wealthy or aristocratic influences are allowed to bend the rules to suit their own interests - and this goes on all the time behind the closed doors of Whitehall, not just with the Windsors. Documents leaked to Private Eye showed that the permanent secretary to HM Revenue and Customs personally shook hands on a deal that let off the investment bank Goldman Sachs £10m in unpaid interest on a failed tax-avoidance scheme.

The Ministry of Defence is only just staggering away from a scandal in which it emerged, among other things, that a lobbyist who had paid a reported £20,000 in expenses to Liam Fox's aide was granted face-time with the arms sales minister. Time and again, private law trumps the public interest, yet we allow ourselves to be distracted by a fairy tale of functioning democracy.

This is no time for sugarplum politics. Behind every modern fairy tale is an ancient fable of thuggery, hierarchy and blood, and the story of modern Britain is no different.

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

Photo: Getty
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There are sinister goings-on in the race to become the UN's next Secretary-General

The United Nations can and must do better than this, says David Clark. 

2016 was meant to be a year of firsts for the United Nations as it prepares to choose a new Secretary-General. Optimism was growing that the top job would go to a woman for the first time in the world body’s seventy-year history. There was an emerging consensus that it should be someone from Eastern Europe, the only region never to have held the post, provided a candidate of the right calibre was put forward. Above all, the selection was supposed to break new ground in openness and transparency after decades in which decisions were stitched up in private by a handful of the most powerful countries. Innovations like open nominations, public campaigning and candidates hustings were introduced in a bid to improve public scrutiny.
 
All of that now threatens to be turned on its head as the battle to succeed Ban Ki-moon becomes embroiled in intrigues and plots, according to stories that have surfaced in the Belgian and Portuguese media in the last week. Allegations centre on the activities of former European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, and ex-Portuguese MEP turned lobbyist, Mario David. Both are said to be promoting the undeclared candidacy of Kristalina Georgieva, the serving European Commission Vice-President from Bulgaria. Barroso reportedly arranged for Georgieva to participate in a recent meeting of the Bilderberg group in order to boost her profile with world leaders. David is said to be touring the capitals of Eastern Europe to canvas support.
 
While there is nothing necessarily unusual about senior European politicians supporting a colleague in her bid for a major international job, there are two things that make this case very different. The first is that Bulgaria already has an official candidate in the person of Irina Bokova, a career diplomat currently serving her second elected term as Director-General of UNESCO. Reports suggest that Barroso is among those pressing the Bulgarian government to switch its nomination to Georgieva, while David’s role has been to find another country in the region willing to nominate her in the event that Bulgaria refuses to budge. The second piece of the puzzle is that Portugal also has an official candidate – its former Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres – who Barroso still publicly insists he is supporting.
 
It is in the nature of the way these matters are often decided that there is no necessary contradiction between these facts. Georgieva’s candidacy would appear to stand no real chance of success. She lacks diplomatic experience and news reports suggest that the Bulgarian Prime Minister’s decision not to support her was based on information linking her to the communist-era intelligence services. And while there is nothing to stop another country nominating her, precedent suggests that a lack of domestic support will be fatal to her chances. Georgieva is highly unlikely to end up as UN Secretary-General, yet she could still have a significant role to play as a spoiler. Bulgaria’s official candidate, Irina Bokova, is frequently described as the frontrunner. As a woman from Eastern Europe with heavyweight UN experience, she certainly has an edge. A rival Bulgarian woman candidate would create doubt about the strength of her support and potentially open the way for other candidates. The aspirants who stand to benefit most are men from outside Eastern Europe. Step forward Antonio Guterres.
 
Those with the best chance of preventing these manoeuvres from succeeding are the governments of Eastern Europe. Although the principle of rotation does not confer on them the automatic right to have one of their own chosen to run the UN, a degree of unity and professionalism in the way they approach the contest would make their claim much harder to resist. Unfortunately there has so far been little evidence of the kind of collective solidarity and diplomatic co-ordination that helped to deliver the top UN job to Africa and Asia in the past. The strongest advocate for Eastern Europe is currently Russia, although it has stopped short of threatening to use its veto in the way that China was prepared to do for Asia when Ban Ki-moon was appointed in 2006.
 
In addition to casting doubt on Eastern Europe’s chances, the descent into private plotting is an ominous warning to those campaigning for the UN to become more open and representative – the appointment of a new Secretary-General may not prove to be the turning point they had hoped for. What is the point of public hustings for candidates when the real discussions are taking place at a closed meeting of Bilderberg group? Why bother to encourage women candidates to put forward their names when the power brokers of international diplomacy already have their man? Seventy years after it was established, the UN should have found a better way to do this. It still can.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.