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Britain couldn’t care less about AV but it’ll go crazy for a hat

The royal family is at the centre of a system that makes fools of us all.

In the weekend after the royal wedding, I discovered that even my most serious friends were googling Photoshopped pictures of the hat that Princess Beatrice wore to the ceremony and sending them to each other. For those of you who haven't seen it yet, I hope the editor can be persuaded to stick a picture of it on this page.

The hat now has more than a dozen Facebook pages and fan clubs around the world, from Australia to the United States, and there are hundreds of Photoshopped images of it all over the web. The royal family might have nastily snubbed Sarah Ferguson by refusing to invite her to William's and Kate's wedding but she still managed to upstage them with her daughter's eccentric millinery.

Our relationship with the royal family in Britain - love 'em or hate 'em (and what's the difference?) - is more important than a matter of giggling at hats. It corrupts our relationship with governance; teaches us to treat all power as ridiculous and, worse, as something we cannot affect or alter.
Try finding anything approaching the enthusiasm for discussion of Princess Beatrice's hat in the debate over the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, which, by the time you read this, will have taken place, with the turnout expected to be as low as 20 per cent in parts of the country. Granted, getting to grips with AV takes a little more effort and attention than laughing at pictures of a hat. One is a hat; the other is the method by which we choose to be governed in future. But, even so . . .

You've got to laugh

It isn't that simple, is it? Remember that Beatrice and her sister, Eugenie, whom people are also ridiculing for wearing a rather loud outfit to the wedding, are fifth and sixth in line to the throne; the woman in that hat is four unfortunate bus accidents away from becoming head
of state in 16 countries, including Australia, Canada and Jamaica.

While we might declare ourselves a sophisticated, modern democracy, Britain, and Britons, cannot quite stop being in thrall to our old aristocracy. What else explains the hours of television coverage of William's and Kate's wedding, the pages of grovelling reportage and the extra bank holiday? What looks like witty and ironic parody of the hat is, in reality, not too different from doffing our caps. Mock horror is very close to homage; even those who held "Not the royal wedding" street parties were showing a kind of deference to the aristocracy.

By laughing at the royal family, we are laughing at ourselves. It isn't remotely funny that these two women in silly outfits are so close to having the power to appoint prime ministers and dissolve parliaments. Because it is so uncomfortable to confront the truth that the system by which we allow ourselves to be governed makes idiots of us all, we resort to parodying it, and taking the piss out of a hat.

The country's refusal to get stirred up about changing the voting system has unpalatable parallels with its attitude to the Windsors: it is as if there is, as Estragon said in Waiting for Godot, nothing to be done. The distance between the people and Westminster is farther than the distance between Mohamed Al Fayed and Westminster Abbey on the wedding day, now that Westminster is so much more closely tied to international financial imperatives than to national democratic forces.

We citizens appear to be stuck with something that, like the royal family, we recognise is profoundly undemocratic but we do not know how to shift. Few believe that a change from first-past-the-post to AV will do much to alter this situation; hence the general refusal to engage seriously with the electoral reform referendum and hence, too, the ever-declining turnout at polls of all kinds (the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement excepted). It isn't apathy. It is deep anger.

Tesco trouble

Occasionally, that anger explodes. On the day of the royal wedding, there was rioting in Bristol. It wasn't a protest at Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie but at the opening of a Tesco Express. There have been repeated protests over the shop, which is apparently the 18th to open in the city (I haven't counted them) and has been built on the site of a former comedy club in an area of Bristol that defines itself as "alternative". There have been two small riots so far; at the one on 29 April, people threw bottles at the police and 30 were arrested.

For those involved in the rioting, protests such as these against the domination of the high street by Tesco or Starbucks are all they have left of democracy; their vote against a planning system that fails to prevent the crushing of local business by corporate power.

The sociologist George Ritzer calls it the "McDonaldisation" of the high street, where everything is increasingly controlled by large, distant corporations and everywhere ends up looking the same. Enter any American town and the ugly line of Super 8 motels and Premier Inns, along with branches of Burger King and Wendy's, hits you in the face.

Marching and protesting may feel like the only way to halt the creep of a system in which all financial and governmental powers ultimately lie in the hands of corporations and lawyers. I do not object hugely to Tesco; if people didn't want to shop in them, not so many of them would exist. Many Bristol residents have welcomed the arrival of the city's new branch of Tesco in a street that needed a half-decent supermarket.

But you don't have to be a raving lefty or a violent protester to object to the impossibility of ordinary people wielding any power against the creep of faceless corporations along the high street or of international financial markets into Westminster - or, indeed, of Princess Beatrice into a position of high political status.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden