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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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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.