Tuesday 1 February 2011

Toffs protest for the 'lower class'

Unfortunately this week’s column demands a prefatory apology and explanation. The apology is for the egregious schoolboy error of claiming that descendants of Charles I still have their official residence in St James’s Palace. As anyone with the faintest knowledge of British history will realise, the present Royal family are descended not from him but from his father, James I. The direct and legitimate male line of descent from Charles I ended with the death of Henry, Cardinal York (to Jacobites, King Henry IX) in 1807. Franz, Duke of Bavaria, who is descended from Charles’s youngest daughter Henrietta Anne, is the current head of the House of Stuart, and has indeed made the career-limiting move of being a Roman Catholic.

I know all this because I am a fanatical monarchist and a bit of an anorak. But I wasn’t feeling well when I wrote my column, and clearly had a momentary brainstorm. That is the best I can offer by way of explanation.

Sadly for me, it does not provide much of an advertisement for a grammar school education, or indeed for having a first class degree in history. I hope that it will not be seen as a reflection on my excellent education either in Newcastle or Cambridge. My embarrassment is only increased by the fact that The Journal has chosen to run my column under the headline “Be repulsive if you must, but be right.”

I am on the side of liberty and jollity, colour and glamour, cakes and ale – so I have always loathed the “right but repulsive” Roundheads and admired the “wrong but wromantic” Cavaliers.

Strolling through London last Sunday morning, I was therefore pleased to encounter the mainly well-nourished and grey-haired Royalist members of the English Civil War Society, clad in 17th century fancy dress and equipped with muskets, pikes and even horses to commemorate the last journey of Charles I from St James’s Palace to the scaffold in Whitehall.

A 'two shirt' January Sunday in London
Marching past St James's Palace
Another fine Stuart tradition: pelicans on the lake
It was a bonus for the tour guides, attempting to explain what was going on to the foreigners who had turned up to see the usual changing of the Queen’s guard – our 11-year experiment with republican government by the 1650s equivalent of Gordon Brown having been ranked such a rollicking success that the executed king’s descendants (though not, of course, his most direct descendants, who made the career-limiting move of embracing Roman Catholicism) still have their official residence in St James’s Palace.

The day before I had overheard other guides trying to explain an English tradition with rather less tourist appeal, as placard-wielding youngsters in hooded tops, with scarves pulled over their faces, jogged through Trafalgar Square chanting “Fight back!” Luckily they had neither pikes nor muskets to hand.

Viewing the many cordoned-off streets and the faintly menacing crowd assembling in Bloomsbury from our taxi from the station that morning, I had experienced the same sense of unease that an aristocrat must have felt as his carriage skirted around the mob advancing on the Bastille.

Yet we did not see or hear any more of the student protesters until the early evening when, walking to the theatre, we encountered a small mob advancing down Charing Cross Road, gesticulating at the traffic and chanting a very rude word about the police. They were escorted by a few stoic officers whose poker faces successfully concealed any suggestion that this sentiment was heartily reciprocated.

The British media understandably felt that the protests in Cairo had rather more brio and potential import than this, so I had to consult a search engine to find out what else happened in London at the weekend. Not a lot, apparently. All I could find was a single report on a Bournemouth newspaper’s website, quoting 20-year-old Harriet from Sussex University who “invoked the memory of how popular protests overthrew the poll tax, said demonstrations needed ‘a certain amount of agitation’ and added ‘The lower class people won’t be able to afford to better themselves. It’s terrifying.’”

The lower class people? I kid you not. The language less of Socialist Worker than of the Dowager Lady Grantham, circa 1911.

A grammar school boy like me is naturally inclined to point out that schools like ours were a very effective way for select members of the “lower class” to better themselves until politicians kicked the ladder away on the grounds that it was not available to everyone. With the unsurprising result that the leadership of the country is once again concentrated in the hands of privately educated toffs.

As, on all the evidence to date, is much of the protest movement against them. I can’t see the likes of Harriet bringing down this Government. The cause of continued taxpayer funding for three years drinking and watching daytime TV while acquiring a BA in Public Relations with Dance hardly inspires the passions of the poll tax or the miners’ strike, let alone the Civil War.

While Cameron and Clegg are certainly not romantic or glamorous enough to be classed with Charles I, their opponents have the fatal disadvantage of being the offspring of Cavaliers, masquerading as Roundheads, behaving badly in a not particularly compelling cause. It’s bad enough being repulsive. If you are, it is important at least to be indisputably right.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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