Friday, 15 May 2015

Prince Charles' Letters

This week the British monarchy was hit by a devastating scandal. Republicans rejoiced as the Royal Family hung their heads in shame. The whole country, irrespective of class, creed and colour, reeled from the revelation that the Prince of Wales, the future King of the United Kingdom, had written to the Prime Minister... And expressed concerns that the military didn't have the equipment they needed to do their jobs. That's not all, of course. His Royal Highness also had the temerity to campaign for better rights for British farmers being underpaid by major supermarket chains and lobbied to protect wild albatrosses by conserving the Patagonian Toothfish, a key food species. It is, of course, utterly unacceptable for the future head of state to have views on such things.

Of course, I'm being sarcastic here. No one is more enthusiastic about the Royal Family taking the initiative to actively advise the Government and contribute to policy decisions, especially on issues where they have some degree of expertise. Prince Charles is well-qualified, after his long years of campaigning, to pass comments on matters such as architecture, building preservation, environmental affairs and conservation. Of course, no one will agree with His Royal Highness on absolutely everything. I for one was disappointed that the Prince took a position in support of badger culling- probably the most controversial issue he involved himself in- and lack his enthusiasm for "alternative" medicine. Even so, I have no objection to the future king expressing his views in private to ministers. Indeed, it is the right of any British citizen to write to the Government. Most would consider it utterly inappropriate for any such letter from a private individual to the Government to be openly published without the person's consent. And yet, the Supreme Court has ruled that the same right to privacy does not belong to members of the Royal Family.

The letters, all from ten years ago when the UK was under the Labour Government of Tony Blair, were published after a decade-long campaign by the notably Left-wing newspaper The Guardian, which is known for its strong views on "free speech" (which in the past has extended to leaking information sensitive to national security) as well as its flirtations with republicanism. If journalists were hoping for a sensational headline, they were disappointed- besides the Prince's comments on badger culling, the matters discussed in the letters were mundane and the Prince's positions largely uncontroversial. Clarence House issued a statement that "the publication of private letters can only inhibit [Prince Charles'] ability to express the concerns and suggestions which have been put to him in the course of his travels and meetings." Despite this, prior to the letters' publication the Prince and his staff were said to be "sanguine" over the decision, perhaps realising that nothing in the letters cast the Prince in a seriously bad light.

Indeed, many of Charles' positions seem eminently sensible; he lobbied for the British Government to help conserve the Antarctic huts built by explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton during their polar expeditions as part of our cultural heritage (in Charles' own words, "I just wanted to emphasize the iconic importance of these huts in those great Antarctic journeys which will surely resonate strongly in the public imagination"), requested that historic buildings be listed by English Heritage thus protecting them from redevelopment, campaigned for the retention of the Hill Farming Allowance for upland farmers, claiming hill regions are "the most beautiful areas of the country which tourists flock to see, and yet they are the most difficult areas to farm and are the most disadvantaged in every way for those who live there," and expressed concern over reports that the army's Lynx helicopters performed poorly in high temperatures, telling Tony Blair that "I fear that this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources." 

Despite the overwhelming response of the British public being "so what?", republicans have attempted to spin this nontroversy into a major scandal. Traitorous Labour MP Paul Flynn called for a referendum on whether Charles should succeed his mother as monarch, stating that "Charles has proved himself to be the mouthpiece of sensible views, eccentric views, and barmy views." He went on to say that "as we are not living in a medieval state, the public should have a say into who should be the head of state: should it be Charles, or should it be William, who has the gift of his mother in remaining politically silent and inert." The Hon. Gentleman is apparently unaware of how hereditary monarchies work. Unsurprisingly, fringe anti-monarchist group Republic wasted no time in pursuing the headlines, their miserable leader Graham Smith declaring that "the government must now act to end royal secrecy. Any risk to the monarchy from disclosure must pale against a risk to democracy from having an activist prince acting in secret." Some of the criticisms from the press are simply inexplicable- the Mirror Online seemed to think it was significant that then-education secretary Charles Clarke ended one letter to the Prince with the phrase "I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Royal Highness's most humble and obedient servant". Apparently no one in the Mirror's offices knew that this is the customary way to close a letter to a member of the Royal Family.

Ultimately the response to the letters' publication has been muted, much to the disappointment of those who wish to undermine the monarchy. After ten years and around £400,000 of taxpayers' money being wasted, these letters have only confirmed what we all already know about Prince Charles; that he is a passionate campaigner with strong views on a range of topics which, without his tireless lobbying, would probably never get the recognition they deserve. The Prince has reportedly been writing to ministers since he was sixteen years old, and he's not going to stop now. I hope he never does. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Thoughts on the General Election

A map showing the outcome of the 2015 UK general election.
Thursday 7th May 2015 was a significant day for the United Kingdom. After five years of government by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the British people had the opportunity to decide who would govern the nation for the next five years. It was a tense campaign; the major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, were neck and neck right up to the last minute, and all involved predicted that we would once again end up with a hung parliament- meaning another coalition government. The Conservatives sternly warned of the dangers of a Labour government propped up by the left-wing separatist Scottish National Party, whilst on the other side of the fence the Left flagged up the possibility of a Conservative-led government backed by the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, both well to the right of the UK's political spectrum. So everyone was shocked when exit polls predicted that the Conservatives would do much better than previously expected. What completely blew commentators out of the water was that the Conservatives actually did even better than the exit polls suggested, winning, against all odds, a majority of the Commons- albeit a small one.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg
resigned after his party's annihilation
at the polls on Thursday
And so the next day, David Cameron was able to walk into Buckingham Palace with a swagger in his step, and inform Her Majesty the Queen he was ready to form a new government. Labour's leader, Ed Miliband, soon announced his resignation, Labour HQ having admitted during the night that everyone had already accepted that he had no other choice. The real losers, however, were the Liberal Democrats- having alienated their core voters by allying with the Tories and abandoning their core pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, they were reduced to a measly 8 seats, with a lower proportion of the overall vote than UKIP. Despite holding his own seat, LibDem leader Nick Clegg also resigned. Despite massive gains for his party, UKIP's Nigel Farage, too, resigned as party leader, as he promised he would should he fail to win the South Thanet constituency where he was running against Conservative Craig Mackinlay, ironically a former UKIP member himself. Farage did, however, suggest he might "throw his hat in" for re-election as UKIP's leader, showing he's not prepared to give up the reigns of power just yet. At any rate, despite receiving 12.6% of the vote- coming third after the Tories and Labour- UKIP ended up with only one seat as a consequence of the UK's first past the post electoral system.

Nicola Sturgeon replaced
Alex Salmond as SNP leader
 after the nationalists
lost the 2014 referendum
on independence.
Scotland, meanwhile, was swept by the SNP. Despite receiving only 4.7% of the national (UK-wide) vote, they won 58 seats, taking virtually the whole of Scotland. For unionists hoping that they had cut the head off the beast in the 2014 referendum, the result is depressing. On Friday morning, former SNP leader Alex Salmond was quoted as saying that "the Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country." With England and much of Wales a sea of Tory blue with a handful of islands of Labour red, and Scotland turned the SNP's bright yellow, it's easy to fear for the future of the United Kingdom; the political divide north and south of the border seems greater than ever. Today Salmond declared he would see Scottish independence in his lifetime, despite the 2014 referendum being trumpeted as a "once in a generation opportunity." But Salmond may be talking too soon. The SNP may have swept Scotland's seats, but they won only around 50% of Scotland's vote; a spectacular triumph, true, but hardly overwhelming evidence that Scots have changed their mind on independence. Nicola Sturgeon remains tight-lipped on the possibility of another referendum. One more referendum may be around the corner, however- one on the UK's continued membership of the European Union, one of the Tories' flagship promises in their manifesto, and a commitment reiterated by David Cameron in his victory speech yesterday.

Ultimately, it is clear this election will be remembered as a significant event in British political history; the best ever result for a separatist party in British politics, a totally unexpected majority for the Conservatives, and quite possibly the beginning of the run-up to the UK's first referendum on our role in Europe since 1975. The latter is all the more significant because euroscepticism is so much weaker north of the border. There are fears that, if the UK as a whole voted in favour of leaving the EU, the stridently pro-European SNP would seek to take Scotland out of Europe in order to remain an EU member state. But if we look at the actual results from this last general election, it becomes clear the SNP's gains aren't so significant as they appear. There remains hope for unionists that our United Kingdom can be saved, and it now falls to David Cameron to keep the promises made to the Scottish people after the 2014 referendum. If Cameron fails to keep his word, it may spell the end of Great Britain as a nation. But if Westminster fulfills its promises, there might yet be a chance that the nationalist hydra can be slain for once and for all.