Sunday, July 16, 2006

Family farewell

Yesterday the whole family gathered in Royal Tunbridge Wells to bid farewell to Richard and his girls before they depart for Seattle. We had a leisurely pub lunch that went on until 4-30. Of course, they aren't leaving until the end of August, but that is only 6 weeks away and it is a very busy time for them. They have rented a house by Green Lake for a year and have got the older two into schools. Richard has a three mile cycle ride to his work in the center of Seattle. There is a pre-school nursery at the Adventists hall close to where they will live. We are planning to visit them for the first time in October, but we have yet to fix a date.

I am not really a Royalist, but it is a strange coincidence that my other son, David, also lives in a Royal borough, Royal Leamington Spa. He was there with his girlfriend, Charlotte - they are known to their friends as Chas and Dave. He is fitting everybody up with Skype (I think that's how it is spelt) so that we can all keep in touch.

Newly married Karen and Tim were there from Hayling Island. Dr Angela, who lives at home, was also there. She followed up behind us in convoy. The drive from Bournemouth to Tunbridge Wells is an unpleasant one involving A31, M3, M25 and A21. I don't mind the A roads, but the M roads are so crowded, with traffic bunching up and then accelerating away. Nobody attends to the speed limit, so you have cars flashing by at over 100 mph on both inside and outside, changing lanes to gain a few seconds advantage. It requires constant intense concentration, and I had a headache after 5 hours driving, there and back.

We ate at a pub/restaurant called the Beacon. It was a gloriously hot summer's day and we had a large table under a grape vine outside. Five grandchildren were there; wedding photographs were passed around; news was exchanged. An altogether happy occasion.

Speaking of Royals, lots of Americans have a misapprehension of the Royal family in Britain. They hark back to George III and 1776 and imagine royalty as what the Americans rebelled against. Even in 1776 the monarchy had little influence of public life and of course, today it has none.

I notice that Andrew Sullivan in his blog has been calling George Bush, King George; a reference to his assuming to himself executive powers without congressional endorsement. In the UK parliament has been supreme over monarchy since 1688 and the Glorious Revolution. Today, the Queen is the symbolic head of state, deliberately outside and barred from party politics. She has the right to be consulted by the Prime Minister of the day, but although he (or she) must listen he may or may not take any notice of what she says, depending on his own policies. She has to give assent to acts passed by parliament, and although theoretically she has the right of veto (like the American president), were she to execute it without the will of the people she would face a constitutional crisis and the monarchy would go. One could envisage a scenario where a deeply unpopular government undertook an unpopular course of action based on an old electoral mandate. For example if Tony Blair were to commit the country to invade Canada, which he would be able to do because he has a parliamentary majority, she would likely veto it (and not just because she is also queen of Canada) because it would not be the will of the British people. (Actually, George Bush is more likely to invade Canada).

She also has the right to dissolve parliament and order fresh elections. It is possible to imagine scenarios where this might occur. Something similar happened in Australia a couple of decades ago, when the Governor General dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam. Although she is also Queen of Australia, she delegates this role to an Australian who acts with the same power.

The purpose of this safeguard is to prevent an elected tyranny.

All democracies have slight differences in methodology. An anonymous contributor several blogs back, claimed that America is the world's oldest democracy. This is hardly likely to be true as America is just 230 years old and only had true universal suffrage since 1968, when Jim Crowism was legislatively put to rest. Even now there are barriers to some people voting. But, such barriers have been commonplace in all democracies. In the UK suffrage was once the privilege of landowners, then women were denied the vote, finally the voting age was lowered to 18. It is only recently that women have been allowed the vote in Switzerland.

Another question has been raised about democracy following the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. Is democracy the best form of government? Winston Churchill thought that democracy was the worst form of government apart from all the others. Hamas's victory was achieved by campaigning against the corruption of Fattah and promising social improvements. But these social improvements were to be financed by the continuing aid from the US and EU. But another plank of their manifesto was a war with Israel (not explicitly stated, but implicit in their unwillingness to recognize Israel's right to exist). It is plain that US and EU aid would not continue if war with Israel was an objective. So it proved. Hamas won the election by fooling the electorate.

Anyone can win an election by offering wealth, health and happiness. What's to object to? A sophisticated electorate wants to know how it is to be paid for. Those voting for the first time in a free election may not see that.

The British constitution has arisen over hundreds of years. There are built in checks and balances to keep the government honest. One of those checks is the law against buying power with money. The selling of peerages to rich businessmen in return for contributions was outlawed at the time of Lloyd George. It seems to have been part of Tony Blair's strategy to free the Labor party from the subjugation to the Unions, a worthy aim, no doubt, but against the law. Now that it has come to light, it seems to me that it presages his downfall. He not only has the Tory newspapers against him, he is also at odds with the left wing of his own party, since they see why the peerages were sold.

You can have some sympathy with him since most Tory peers acquired their honor for favors to kings in the past, and New Labor legislation was hindered by the House of Lords which was packed with Tories. In a way he has unblocked that jam by not allowing the hereditary peers a vote in the Upper House (apart from 92 of them who were elected by their peers).

He was unwilling to go the whole hog and have a completely elected Upper House, since that would rival the Commons as the prime legislative chamber. Currently the House of Lords is an appointed House, comprising the great and the good; people are appointed because they have excelled in some aspect of public life - there are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, church dignitaries, soldiers, civil servants and scientists. But there are also failed politicians who are there as lobby fodder and many who are more interested in the honor than the legislative power. So you would in the past have seen such people as Laurence Olivier, Sebastian Coe, Melvyn Bragg, and many others who would hardly ever take part in debates or vote.

In America favors are paid off with ambassadorships, so it is probably little different, and the objections are so much humbug, but it is against the law.

Happily, the Queen is above all this. For the past 54 years she has conducted herself with dignity and patience in the face of great challenge and temptation.


Roger Bourland said...

Maybe she could be prevailed upon to remove our King George from office? Preferably before he does something else stupid.


Jim McVey said...

A timely lesson on Royalty and Brit connections. Pity you didn't include war time Government in UK.
When I believe the best people were chosen to maximize the war effort and never mind the party they were affiliated to.

With the US split 50/50 my view is that such a lesson is needed here.

I salute you once again doctor and diplomat.

I am sure with your family in Seattle you will become even more knowledgeable about living differences in two great countries separated by a common language.

Broadband connections will keep you in immediate contact.