• Why Royals Work

    (Photo by Markus Spiske)

    Everyone loved Queen Elizabeth II. ‘No one had a bad word to say about her’ is the defining phrase of the moment. Her popularity and success is usually ascribed to who she was, rather than what she was. But is that really so?

    Just an ordinary Queen

    Royalty is generally regarded as anathema to the meritocratic, democratic age. How can we possibly accept people being born to rule? It flies in the face of all we are taught to believe.

    If that’s true, then the only way the Queen can have been so great in her role as a born ruler is by dint of her being a truly wonderful person, on an individual, human level, in spite of the unsavoury task of hereditary rule.

    Deserving to rule us

    There are two other choices: our rulers either rule us due to corruption or merit. Depending on whether we live in an autocracy, a weak democracy or a strong one, the sliding scale between corruption and merit will be different.

    Queen Elizabeth’s United Kingdom is generally regarded as more meritocratic than corrupt. By that rationale, our politicians rule us because they are better than us through merit.

    The trouble is, meritocracy is hard to swallow. When you ask an individual: do you think a political leader is ruling you because they are better than anyone else, you soon hear arguments about the innate corruption of the system.

    The Queen’s (or King’s) magic

    Hereditary rule removes the notion of someone having more merit than someone else, so problematic to our tastes. In doing so, it ironically allows monarchy a back door into the meritocratic, democratic age.

    The Queen was not the Queen through merit. She was just born to it. That makes her no better than anyone else at being a queen – if you were born to it. This notion puts people at their ease.

    Sure, the whole edifice of royalty is deeply unedifying to the modern mind. But if in our hearts we don’t truly believe the utopia of meritocracy can exist, then monarchy becomes a fallback against worse corruption.

    And so most people become happy with the Queen, or indeed, the King.

    Feeling comfy with your royals? Feeling comfy with your country, too?

  • What is Hong Kong?

    Hong Kong Island skyline with Kowloon in the background
    A city or a state? (Photo by Ryan McManimie)

    Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997. Now it’s Chinese. Looking from the UK, that’s pretty much how things appear. It’s only as you get closer that you find it’s not so simple as that. 

    Sort of sovereign

    In light of the current protests against extraditing Hong Kongers to Mainland China, I was reminded of my surprise – on crossing the land border – at the extent to which Hong Kong still feels like a separate state.

    I first visited Hong Kong in the 2000s. At the time, I regarded it as my first visit to China. After all, it’s officially Chinese territory. On top of that, it’s quite clearly a Chinese city in ethnic and cultural terms. 

    When I took the boat to Kowloon, I was even surer I was in China. The district felt a little less Western, a little less British than Hong Kong Island. What’s more, Kowloon is on the mainland – in purely geographical terms. 

    Where does the mainland start?

    I made my second visit to Hong Kong in January 2019. That time, I crossed the border between Hong Kong and what everyone calls ‘The Mainland’. I visited the Chinese city of Shenzhen – and this was no EU-style border. 

    The majority of Hong Kong’s land is actually a peninsula of the mainland, not islands. Along its 30km land border with ‘The Mainland’, there are several border crossings. 

    Whereas borders between sovereign states within the European Union can be crossed without even realizing it, you know all about moving from Hong Kong into Mainland China. 

    Passports and visas please!

    You must pass Hong Kong border guards. Then you’re driven across no man’s land. Finally, you must pass Chinese border guards. All that can come as a shock to someone who thought it was all one country. 

    And officially it is. One country, two systems, and all that. Just don’t forget your passport. 

    Read more about my visit to Shenzhen in my blog: When Baldrick met a QR Code in China

  • Imagine your vote counted

    Person voting at a ballot box
    They all count (Photo by Element5 Digital)

    I voted last week. Local elections. Just local people with local issues. Nothing exciting for the outside world. But something unexpected and previously unknown happened… The candidate I voted for won. 

    Guess what, my vote counts

    My candidate didn’t just win – she won by a landslide. In that moment, it dawned on me. All my life, I had walked into polling stations with reverence. I knew how lucky I was to be able to vote. But I never actually thought my vote counted. 

    I have always voted in rural England, a place where politics barely exists. I realised in that moment that to vote in rural England is a bit like voting in Egypt. Yes, you can have a vote. Choose whomever you like. It makes no difference. 

    The Tory will always win

    Because the Tory will always win, I realised that even at the age of 40, I still hold that slightly disgruntled, apathetically accepting peasant’s attitude that someone else will always serve.

    I can get all the education I like. I can be as well-informed about the world as possible. But I will never enact decisions. The Tories do that for me. Them, and occasionally Labour. I’m merely a passenger. 

    What will you do with your power? 

    When the candidate I chose – The Green Party’s Diana Toynbee – won with 531 votes, taking 52.9% of the vote, I had a new sensation. I felt like the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution Egypt. Wow. We won? Now what do we do? 

    The act of responsibility, of actually being given the opportunity to make decisions, is a heady one, even by the proxy of representative democracy. When it happened, I realised how much potential is wasted when people like me spend most of their lives assuming they are voiceless. 

    Democracy is a great idea

    I could paraphrase Gandhi here. In England, democracy would be a great idea. If we could move on from the notion that the Tories simply run things – outside a few urban Labour areas – we might stop grumbling about them. 

    More importantly, we might learn the lesson the Muslim Brothers briefly learnt in Egypt. That running things is hard. Much harder than living in eternal, angry, impotent opposition to power. 

    Talking of votes, fancy another one on Brexit?

  • Brexit and morality

    ‘Democracy’ and ‘the right thing to do’: we’ve heard a lot about both from British Prime Minister Theresa May over the past few years. Everyone claims the moral high ground on the issue of Brexit

    But this was never about democracy. It was always a power struggle: one that began inside the British Conservative Party and was allowed the spill out of pubs and sitting rooms into the political mainstream. 

    “You don’t want a referendum and neither do I”

    When Mrs May spoke these words in her live address to the nation on 20 March, it was yet another example of the echo chamber politics of Brexit. She has only ever spoken for Leave voters. 

    Mrs May is as instinctively Brexiteer as her opposite number, Jeremy Corbyn. Both have insular notions of a strong, centralised state and are uncomfortable with globalised fluidity. 

    Carry on until you vote the right way

    Before the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage speculated that if the Leave campaign lost narrowly, it would not be the end of the issue. Yet it was remarkable how quickly Mrs May decided that the wafer-thin result had been the final, definitive will of the entire nation. 

    She persistently repeats the idea that democracy will be fatally undermined by another poll. Yet this isn’t principle, otherwise why does she keep asking MPs to vote again on her Brexit deal?

    Mrs May doesn’t want another referendum because she is happy with the result achieved the first time out. Mr Corbyn is of the same mind, with the subtle difference that he wants to be in Number 10 instead of Mrs May.

    But don’t mind me. It turns out I’m so old the only politician I understand anymore is the Right Honourable Ken Clarke