Laurie Penny: Why should we pretend to be delighted by Kate Middelton's pregnancy?

I don't know the Duke or Duchess of Cambridge, but I do know too many couples who can't afford to have children.

When the occupation of the uterus of the Duchess of Cambridge was officially announced, the Prime Minister declared himself "delighted". I’ll bet he was. The news couldn’t have come at a better time. Coverage of the Glorious Impregnation of the Magical Vagina of Monarchial Succession has knocked our woeful economy conveniently off the front pages, and distracted attention from the omnishambles that was once the British fourth estate in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. Now we’re in for months of name speculation and bump-watching. It’s as if the House of Windsor were just another soap opera, rather than an institution that continues to confiscate full democratic enfranchisement from seventy million other humans living on this rainy little island. Never mind, though. Babies are cute, and we have to wish the Royal Couple well. Or else. 

Even the most hardened republicans, those world-weary activists and opinionators who still get the guillotine gleam in their eyes after a few beers, even they feel obliged - before declaring the Monarchy a rotten anti-democratic monster squatting with intent over British civil society - to announce how happy they are for the Royal parents-to-be. That’s what we’re all meant to say: how very, very happy we are for the prince and his pretty princess, so young and so in love, and now with a baby on the way. I’m going to go out on a limb here and count myself one of many thousands who didn’t feel any particular surge of joy at the news. I’ve never met these two people, and probably never will. Like most of us, I only know what they’re supposed to represent, which is power, and the ways in which power and privilege justify themselves to the rest of us with schmaltz and parades and a buggerload of bunting.

When I think of William and Kate and how happy we’re supposed to be for them, I can’t help but think of another young couple I know, around the same age as the Royals, and living only a few miles away, on the other side of the river - friends of mine whose fairytale wedding I attended earlier this year. It really was a fairytale, in its own ordinary way. They met when they were just teenagers, on an internet chat forum a decade ago. They fell in love, crossed the country to be together, but were both too young and messed-up to make it work, fell apart, lost touch. Then, ten years later, they rediscovered each other through mutual friends, and it was as if all those years melted away: they moved in together, got engaged. This summer I watched them have their first dance in the room above the local pub with all their friends, with him bent at a strange loving angle to reach her mouth for a kiss, because he’s a lanky sod and she’s under five feet tall. Now the two of them want to have a baby. But they can’t.

Not because of any physical complications. Because of circumstance. Because he’s on night shifts and she’s in full-time further education, and despite working so hard they’ve barely seen each other since their honeymoon, they can’t afford a flat big enough for the two of them and their cats, let alone for three. The welfare benefits they rely on to keep them in their home have been slashed. They don’t know when, if ever, they’re going to be able to afford to have children together. 

Then there’s another young couple I used to know, again just a few years younger than Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. They met at college, fell in love, were planning to get married and have children, but one of them suffered from a painful physical disability that worsened the more she worked to build them a home together. Her partner watched her struggle to claim disability benefits, like millions of others, watched her self-esteem slowly eroded by the gruelling process of applying for sickness support under the new punitive welfare system, and failing, time and time again. She watched her slide into depression and despair. They could only afford one small room to share. There was no money left over for them to leave the house, not even for a pair of tickets to the cinema. Sometimes young love survives that sort of hardship, and sometimes it shrivels. They broke up, and barely speak anymore.

This is a story that’s being repeated, with different actors and the same terse, tragic theme, all over the country this year. These are the love stories you don’t see, the ones where poverty and hard city winters and the heart-hammering unfairness of life in modern Britain get in between a young girl and her prince or princess. Because the truth is that fairytales are harder and harder to find in this country. Do not be fooled by the flag-wagging and fist-pumping. We are becoming a colder, meaner place, and love, a force that is supposed to be more powerful even than class, is harder than ever to fight for.

Next year, about 750,000 babies will be born in the United Kingdom. At least two hundred and fifty thousand of them will be born into poverty.  They will grow up with no idea how they’re going to afford education, or housing, or any of the things even their parents took to some extent for granted. Those children, and their parents, will spend the next 20 years watching another infant grow up in unimaginable privilege and luxury in the pages of their daily papers.

The lesson is: know your place. The lesson is: know your class, and its limits, and who, ultimately, is in charge. In modern Britain, despite what you might read in the international press, fairytales are getting thin on the ground.

Kate: the Duchess of Cambridge. (Photo: Getty)

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

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.