01 September 2009

Bagehot was smarter than me

I've always felt that Bagehot's advice in the English Constitution was a bit outdated, the whole needing the majesty of the monarchy and lords to deflect attention from the real politics of the Commons seemed like it belonged in a time where most people were uneducated and believed in the natural order of things

But recently I've been rethinking this position in light of the death of Ted Kennedy, who seems to have been revered for who he was rather than what he did

What does a Kennedy have to do with Bagehot's famous work? Not a lot really, but his death made me remember the bizarre nature of American politics and how regal a lot of it seems to be - the Kennedys are by far the best example of that - champion of healthcare reform 'Teddy' may have been but if you think he, and his siblings, got where they did on merit alone you're a loon - it was all down to their father's wealth and influence

This is a family of attractive people who are (or were) more worthy of celebrity than politics, the reverence shown to them in Massachusetts is extraordinary - they have held at least one of the Senate seats for the past 57 years and the last one was re-elected as he was dying and unlikely to see his term out, this is common practice - the most 'senior' senator, Robert Byrd, is on his last legs too

This is of course common in America - the senate basically is a club of white-haired old men with a bizarre concept of 'seniority' in place - these are the elder statesmen of America and their position is more usually down to parentage than democracy

We suffer the same problems of course - once people have a stranglehold on a political position they have a natural advantage to give to their children, this is just as rife in our House of Commons as it is their Congress

However there is a difference - we don't like politicians, not all yank ones are beloved of course, but no son of a famous family will come back from Parliament a hero, a celebrity, a 'lion' on an open-topped bus - Joanna Lumley might, but we don't show respect to those 'above' us

Except of course, we do - the difference is it is the royals that receive this odd reverence - a family who are famous and a big part of our constitution and yet are powerless, the Kennedys have been called 'virtual royalty' too many times to remember this week - and yet we don't give our 'actual' royalty a jot of real power

So whereas the American dynasties are an active part of their democratic process and have control over their politics, ours is a merely an image, a shiny trophy to distract us from the nasty world of politics - the irony of a system intended to better ours being more firmly entrenched should not be lost on us

This was the thrust of Bagehot's idea - that we need a family to focus on and revere, idiots who will go out and get drunk and intrigue us by who they last slept with, and that it is very useful to have the real politics happen behind all that - I used to think we had no need for this theatre any more, and that it would be quite insulting to 21st century people to say that we need this trickery

But it's all true! Look at the stories about royals, they are akin to celebrities in a national role - we humans seem to need our sportstars, celebrities and popular heroes for some reason and it would appear that managing to keep that aspect out of our legislative and executive apart from it is still a huge part of the British constitution

...Bagehot was aware of the human condition far more than I gave him credit for

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