Many of us get suckered into it. Even if we despise these historical societal inequalities, somehow the media gets us excited about the British monarchy. These conventions and institutions, although rooted in some of the most backward of practices, catch our attention, and many of us are genuinely fascinated by them.
I am sure that many South Africans must have been aware of last Saturday’s British royal wedding of Prince Harry to American TV star, Meghan Markle. Many may not agree with the monarchy as an institution, but we readily accept these archaic European conventions, and regard them as harmless. But are these archaic conventions, which are generally unequal and unfair, harmless?
Since we have highlighted the monarchy, have any of you noticed that when the queen of Britain travels to St Paul’s Cathedral by chariot to address her subjects, she is not actually dropped off in front of the cathedral? If you recall, she is dropped off by a red carpet which has a velvet rope in front of it.
And then someone who is described as the lord mayor of London, releases the velvet rope and grants permission for the queen to enter.
I don’t know about you, but I have always wondered about this protocol, and who is the lord mayor, and why can’t the queen, who is the head of state, just enter? In fact, the queen cannot enter, because she is not the head of state of the Square Mile of London. She requires the permission of the lord mayor, hence the ceremony of releasing the velvet rope for the queen to enter. London you see has two mayors.
The one is elected by the people of London, and the other is the lord mayor, elected ostensibly by the businesses in the Square Mile, or to give it its proper name the Corporation of the City of London, which owns, or rather rules the Square Mile. This is a city-state similar to the Vatican State in Italy.
It has its own defence force, the London police; its own head of state, the lord mayor; its own citizens, the companies located within the Square Mile, and so forth.
I first learnt of the Square Mile and its peculiar idiosyncrasies, when Occupy London was taken to court to force their eviction from sitting in front of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The court ruled that the Occupy movement could hold a sit-in but not in front of St Paul’s Cathedral because this was a part of the Square Mile of London, which was private.
Hence, the queen cannot even enter the Square Mile without the express permission of the lord mayor. I kid you not. Britain, mind you, is supposed to be a modern democracy not some Byzantine state.
One of my favourite political analysts, George Monbiot, described in the British Guardian this Square Mile of London. As I will relay below, you will observe that it gets even weirder.
There are about 9000 residents within the Square Mile who vote, but their votes are restricted to just four wards. There are another 21 wards, where private companies vote. The bigger the company, the bigger the vote, but the bosses of the companies decide which staff members can vote. Talk about a skewed form of democracy. I am sure Vladimir Putin would love this type of power!
There are four types of elected representatives, at the bottom are common councilmen, then aldermen, and then sheriffs and finally the big enchilada, the lord mayor. To be elected into any of these positions, you must be a “freeman”. To become a freeman, you must be approved by the aldermen, and you must also be a member of one of the livery companies. These livery companies are the medieval guilds that were established when the merchant class was developing in Britain. To become a sheriff, you must be elected by the aldermen of the livery companies. To be a lord mayor, you must have once served as an alderman and sheriff.
Somebody better go and advise King Mswati that he just needs to rename Swaziland the Corporation of Swaziland and all his problems will vanish.
But what if I told you that this gets even weirder. There’s an official called a “remembrancer”. When I first saw reference to this figure in Monbiot’s article, I could not help but think of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. But truly this is a dark spirit.
A remembrancer is an official of the Square Mile who sits in the House of Commons (essentially Britain’s parliament) just next to the Speaker. The remembrancer has the power to overrule the House of Commons,if he believes that the rights and privileges of the Square Mile are at risk.
Have you ever heard of anything weirder?
Yet, none of us will jump up and say that Britain is not a democracy. We easily accept these medieval conventions as harmless.
One does not want to play Fanon and psychoanalyse South Africans and their lack of confidence to develop their own conventions, but I do want to raise one last inconvenient truth.
Executive presidents are not a convention in Europe. Indeed, it is highly unusual for a European head of government to be directly elected and to be constitutionally bound to a ceiling of two terms of office. Across Europe, many countries, like the Netherlands or Britain, have a monarch with ceremonial powers as the head of state.
And where the head of state is a president, that position is basically ceremonial, with no executive powers.
Generally, it is only those countries that directly elect their president, who although possessing ceremonial powers, have a two-term ceiling.
Whereas, where there is a politician with executive powers, there is no self-imposed limit to how long they can serve.
In March this year, Angela Merkel was elected to her fourth term of office in Germany.
As South Africans, we are a weird bunch. We claim to have the right to chart our own purpose and process. We claim to be a young democracy, and therefore in the position to cherry pick what conventions and systems we copy.
However, we seem to relish choosing the most difficult paths. For instance, convention says reduce foreign exchange rates, but we cannot just reduce the exchange rate, we must reduce it faster than any other place even though it will attract short-term investment.
It’s like there was a remembrancer from the Corporation of the City of London whispering in the ears of our leaders because in these last 24 years of our democracy we have constantly chosen conventions and practices that make our lives so much worse.
It’s like we believe we are born to suffer and made to look at the British royal family living lives of fantasy enjoying our diamonds and gold, and say that it’s harmless.
As if we do not deserve conventions that enhance our lives and objectives, and like the purpose of our lives is to serve others.
Anyway I hope you enjoyed the royal wedding!
The Sunday Independent