By Mark McNaught
Last week the welfare debate took a turn for the vile when Chancellor George Osborne capitalised on the arson case of Mick Philpott to draw a parallel between receiving welfare benefits and burning your children to death.
There is a picture online of Philpott wearing an England jersey. It would be equally ludicrous to suggest that he burned his children because he’s an England fan. Regrettably, psychopaths come from all classes, and Osborne’s vicious insinuation reflects the current base level of debate on class.
While we’re debating class, the maintenance of all lifestyles must be open to public scrutiny. As I have come to observe UK politics and society more closely, one scent that never fails to induce dyspepsia is the rotten legacy of aristocratic privilege and entitlement.
I realise that being a ‘Baron’, ‘Duke’, ‘Marquesse’, ‘Earl’, or a ‘Viscount’ is not what it used to be. They no longer have their serfs pulling on their locks in obligatory deference, or requisitioning their crops. They are no longer collecting taxes from their vassals to fund their lifestyles, and many other unearned privileges they used to enjoy.
So in many ways, they exist only in name. You can buy a noble title if you want. However, they still constitute a vast swathe of the governing class, most notably in the House of Lords, but also in the upper echelons of business and finance. Their vast network of money, privilege, and entitlement continues to be passed down through the generations. They are often the ultimate skivers, because they are born into the exalted place they hold in society without having to do anything to actually earn it.
The manner in which titles are allocated further diminishes their relevance and credibility, as well as the UK’s status as a meritocracy. Some guy born in Greece became the ‘Duke of Edinburgh’, and is about as Scottish as a Berber. The ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ was born in Reading, and went to St. Andrews University. She is English, so her ‘Duchy’ is at least in the same country. The ‘Prince of Wales’ was born in Buckingham Palace, and as far as I know is about as Welsh as an Eskimo. In terms of ‘merit’ for granting titles, they just make it up as they go along.
True, they hold no political power over the regions for which they hold title, but that does not make the aristocratic system any less corrupt. An independent Scotland can abandon this legacy and instead embody the idea that all citizens are equal, and that all will be given the means to earn their place in society in large part through a decent and equitable provision of education and welfare benefits.
One of the ways in which an independent Scotland can promote the fundamental notions of democratic equality and meritocracy is to abolish any official recognition of nobility in a written constitution.
France accomplished this by the guillotine during their Revolution in 1789. The current descendants of the French aristocracy may still have a nice family manor house in the country, and may reminisce about a time when the faded family crest above the fireplace meant something, but they largely have to earn their place in society just like everyone else. An independent Scotland can accomplish the same result without spilling a drop of blood.
Winston Churchill once opined “I think we need fewer peerages and more disappearages.” If there is to be a second chamber in an independent Scotland, the members can gain their seats in it through the democratic process, rather than it being hereditary or a golden parachute for a failed career in the Commons.
There will be those who object because aristocracy is ‘tradition’, ‘the way it has always been’, or worse ‘what made Britain great’. Most of these will probably be aristocrats themselves, who because of their inherited privilege are ill-equipped to compete on a level playing field with the rest of society. I don’t think most Scots will shed any tears.
Just because the aristocratic system is a ‘tradition’ does not obscure the fact that it is a corrupt and anachronistic form of biological determinism. Picture a young girl born in Easterhouse: why should her dreams of becoming head of state in an independent Scotland be shattered because she was not born in Buckingham Palace to the correct parents?
Giving this young girl hope is perhaps the greatest reason for abandoning the nobility system, and building a meritocratic and democratic Scotland. Only independence can afford this opportunity.
Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.