God, the Queen and Tony Blair

The British are uncomfortable with a politician who "does God", but don't mind when the monarch does

When Tony Blair expressed a desire to end a broadcast at the time of the Iraq War with the phrase "God Bless Britain", consternation ensued. Committees were convened, aides (we must imagine) shuffled uncomfortably and looked at their shoes, and a "po-faced" civil servant -- we have Blair's own word for this -- reminded the PM in a very disapproving tone that "this is not America."

And indeed this is not America.  It may be customary for US presidents to call upon God to bless America on every conceivable occasion -- the phrase has become a mere vacancy, with no more theological significance than an automatic "bless you" uttered in response to a sneeze -- but in the mouth of a British prime minister it would sound jarring, unexpected, un-British.  This is not so much a reflection of the greater religiosity of Americans as one of culture and history.  God, in Britain, has not been usually been requested to bless the nation.  Rather, He has traditionally been required to Save the Queen.

If Blair had chosen to conclude his broadcast with that formulation, he would probably have avoided the disapproving stares of his civil servants (although Alastair Campbell might have been unimpressed).  It would not have sounded hammy or pious or overly theological.  It would, on the other hand, have struck many as jingoistic, not to mention helplessly old-fashioned.  That Blair (presumably) never even considered using the phrase says more about the prejudice against nationalism in modern Britain than it does about the eclipse of religion or even about New Labour's somewhat ambiguous relationship with the monarchy.  For both "God Bless America" and "God Save the Queen" are linguistic expressions of national solidarity rather than of religious faith.

In the USA the country; in the UK the monarch.  In a similar way, prosecutions in America are brought in the name of "the people", while in Britain criminals are charged in the name of the Queen (and, if convicted, sent down to reside at Her Majesty's Pleasure).  Our shops are now full of patriotic tat in advance of the Diamond Jubilee.  Americans come out to celebrate Americanness every Fourth of July (and many don't seem to need even that excuse).  For us Brits, however, only the irregular occurrence of a Jubilee or a big Royal Wedding permits a patriotic blow-out.  (England winning the World Cup or Euro 2012 would, I suppose, provide another, though even rarer, opportunity.)  We have no national day.  We are condemned to celebrate our nationhood by proxy, by pretending to celebrate an hereditary ruler or her heirs.

This also helps explain, I think, why according to a new opinion poll almost three quarters of the public believe that the Queen should continue to sport her traditional (originally and ironically papal) title of "Defender of the Faith".  For a President to say "God Bless America" is for him to speak in his capacity as priest-king.  To invoke divine blessings on the nation is part of the symbolic function of a head of state, as it has been since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs.  For a British prime minister to do so would be a usurpation.  It's not his job.  God, like the Queen, is supposed to be above politics.  Therefore only the Queen is allowed to "do God" -- as she often does, for example, in her Christmas broadcasts.

Today's poll, which also found that almost 80 per cent of respondents agreed that the Queen still had an important "faith role", failed to impress Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. He believes that the monarch's close relationship with the Church of England "renders everyone who is not of that religion to be less than full citizens."  But this rather misses the point.  Sanderson apparently thinks that Prince Charles's stated wish to be "Defender of Faith" rather than of "the Faith" would be "a step forward".  On the contrary, it would be divisive: it would imply the monarch's active participation the increasingly ugly battle between secularists and the religious, on the side of "faith" rather than of "no-faith".

I would suggest that public support for the Queen's continuing, if attenuated, "faith role" is part of the same national psychology that has long been uncomfortable with politicians "doing God" and that now looks on aghast as religious and secularist pressure groups take each other to court with claims of discrimination or offence.  The majority of people in this country are vaguely spiritual rather than actively religious or anti-religious.  Faith belongs to the private sphere rather than (as in the US) to the sphere of active citizenship.  Institutional religion exists for big personal occasions -- weddings and funerals -- rather in the same way that overt expressions of national pride are best confined to intermittent royal Jubilees.

For this reason, unenthusiastic about the monarchy as I am, I say God Save the Queen.
 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.