Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Shame Game: Why sorry is not the hardest word.


Why do the Royal Family still dress like this?  Is it because formal military dress is smarter than civilian clothing?  Is it because the Queen is the head of the armed forces?  Or is it just because they always have?  The fact is this clothing is extremely symbolic.  The Queen no longer wears uniform, though she once did.  The President of the United States is also the Commander in Chief of US forces but, with the toe-curling exception of George W. Bush, they would not dream of dressing up in a uniform.

Of course Trooping the Colour is a military event and the official celebration of the Queen’s Birthday which is the closest Britain gets to a National Day.  On the face of it therefore there is a good reason for the Royal Family to get kitted up in military finery.  However when the Queen stopped wearing uniform the rest of the family could have followed suit but they did not.

The reason for this can only be tradition.  But what is the tradition being maintained?  It is many decades since we as a nation have had a collective experience of military life.  Despite this the monarch and her family continue to emphasise the significance of Britain’s military legacy in a way that is removed from the living experience of the vast majority of the British people.

The word legacy is significant because the glory of Britain’s contemporary military engagements is very difficult to delineate.  Instead the instinctive reaction of monarch, politicians and the media is to hark back to the World Wars.  The reason for this is obvious: we were the good guys.

Despite this the Royal Family do not wear the uniforms of the Trenches or the D-Day Landings.  Instead like the parading troops they are decked out in splendid ceremonial epaulettes, gold frogging and bearskins all of which derive directly from the 19th century.  Were we the good guys then?

2015 marks 200 years since Waterloo.  Far removed from any living memory we have still celebrated a battle that removed the yoke of tyranny from Europe.  What we do not celebrate quite so noisily is that our imperial ambition and reach was immensely enabled by Bonaparte’s downfall.

It is a modish predilection to judge our ancestors by the mores and sensibilities of our time and assumption of our modern superiority and enlightenment blinds us to our own indifference to the significant social shortcomings of today.  That said with what honesty have we reflected on our history?  Have we reflected on it at all?

It is a world known cliché that the British are forever saying sorry.  Any native of this island knows full well that a British sorry can mean a hundred different things.  Only one of those meanings involves actually being sorry.  And how often are we actually sorry?  How often have we been sorry?  If love is an action not a word then so is contrition and how contrite have been our national actions?

Race is sometimes referred to as the great untreated cancer eating at the soul of America since the outcome of the Civil War papered over a schism the size of the Grand Canyon.  For the British class has always been our Achilles Heel and the source of our shame.  The Class System is just that, a system to ensure that all those within it know their place and, if at all possible, remain in their place.

The Class System is usually regarded as a peccadillo peculiar to the British and their conception of themselves as a people.  Foreigners cannot participate in or infiltrate the Class System ostensibly because, by virtue of their origin, they are classless.  However this conceals a truth about the British Class System which is that it does not regard foreigners as being outside it but beneath it.  Cecil Rhodes, who else, coined the aphorism: "To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life." What few born in Britain today will admit is that even now this is an instinctive belief.

The senior infantry regiment of the British Army is the Grenadier Guards which has had awarded to it 74 Battle Honours, distinctions which appear on the regiment’s quasi-sacred colours.  The first is for Tangier (1680) and the last before World War One is South Africa (1899-1901).  Without digressing into an involved history lesson it will be abundantly obvious that very many if not all of the intervening engagements were not motivated by a desire to free the oppressed and downtrodden.

It is a remarkable aspect of the British Empire that its passing prompted so little fuss at home.  As country after country proclaimed independence Britain largely just let them go.  Absence of fuss has always been a hallmark of ‘Britishness’: it is with good reason that Kipling’s If has for decades been a classroom staple.  But while we have gone on with our fancy dress rituals and afternoon tea huge swathes of the world have been torn apart as a legacy of our actions.

Few things are more unattractive and unconvincing than agonised self-flagellation but that is not the same thing as a good hard look in the mirror and a naming of the historic warts and carbuncles that disfigure the national body politic.  Articulating individual shame is a difficult and chastening experience but until it is done it will continue to fuel addictions and other toxic behaviours.  Candour about national shame is a vastly more complicated and nuanced business, as the Germans know too well, but until it takes place we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past with a mindset incapable of growth and maturity.

Would our heedless foray into Afghanistan have occurred if every school child learnt in intimate details the shambles of the First Anglo-Afghan War rather than our heroic stand against Hitler? Equally would the endlessly deferred Iraq Inquiry Report even have been necessary if we had expunged from the national instinct a desire to interfere in countries far beyond our borders?

Being British does not absolve us of recognising historic wrongdoings.  And saying I am sorry is not the same thing as saying I am ashamed; still less being ashamed.  Other countries have truth and reconciliation we have absent minded business as  usual.

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