In Britain, a summer of quiet revolution
The British Isles are sentries in a turning world. The monarchy, pageantry, the mediaeval House of Lords, titles, accents, the established Church of England with the Queen at its head — they all give the adroit illusion of continuity and the primacy of tradition over change.
But this summer there are diverse changes modernizing the Isles. These revolutions, small and large, will not be reversed, and will contribute significantly to a redefinition of what it is to be British (and Irish). The illusions of tradition will remain, as diligently served as ever. The core is hollowing out.
These changes are not unique to these wet and windy islands. But it’s more remarkable because for many centuries Britain and its offshoots punched above their weight, making history and creating (or inventing) traditions. The French are famed for having a beautiful and mostly efficient country and for grumbling furiously about it. The British change everything all the time, and worship the old customs whose essence they have long since destroyed, or are destroying.
Ireland, the smaller and much younger of the two sovereign states on the Isles, found its independence in the 1920s. That independence was fought for so hard in part because its majority religion, Catholicism, had been treated as an inferior, even a treacherous, affiliation for centuries. The Republic came into independent statehood with its religion militantly at the forefront of national, social and cultural life.
But the Church’s role in Irish life has been diminishing for some time; it has been dealt another blow. Last week, Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government passed a law allowing abortion when a woman’s life was in danger. The measure provoked princes of the church to threaten Kenny (who’s a devout Catholic) with excommunication and saw him lose his Europe Minister in a resignation of principle. The law dilutes, but does not reverse, a ban that has seen some dozen women leave for the UK every day for abortions. Some reformers have protested it did not go far enough, but it’s a breach in a so far adamantine wall. Kenny has twice faced down the Catholic Church. Ireland is no longer what it was in its post-revolutionary years, and remained for decades after — a quasi-theocracy. It’s fully secular.
In the much larger state of the UK, the established church is preparing its own initiative linked to the position and rights of women. The new Archbishop of Canterbury — the former oil executive Justin Welby — will soon put a draft before the General Synod, the church’s ruling body, to allow the appointment of women as bishops. In doing so, it lags behind the Anglican/Episcopalian churches in the U.S., Australia, Canada and other countries; but for the church’s mother country, it’s a big shift. It might even reverse the church’s gentle decline — another time-honored British tradition.
More of interest popularly: Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William, is preparing to give birth, and in doing so will break all kinds of precedents. Her husband will attend the birth; they will spend the first weeks of the baby’s life with her parents, who are commoners of middle and working class origin; and William will take only the standard two weeks of paternity leave from the Royal Air Force, in which he’s a helicopter pilot. He’ll then return to work. Unheard of — before now.
Now, there’s an unannounced determination to put Britain’s monarch on something like the same level as the Dutch and Scandinavian royal families, though retaining the splendid and popular public ceremonies at which the theatrical, sentimental British excel. The newborn child will inherit wealth and status, but will be expected to be modest about it. Royals can’t swagger anymore in democracies. The Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, believes the British royals survive on their thrones and in their palaces only because the public like them: once that ends, so do they.
Also this past week, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Ed Miliband, announced he wanted to see unions that are affiliated to the party offer members an upfront choice about paying a political levy to the party (they are presently deemed to consent unless they explicitly “contract out” of payment). What appears a mere technicality is instead a casting away of one of the few ropes tying the unions to a Labour Party that, one hundred years ago, they founded. In Britain more than in most democracies, the labor movement was an organic whole, the unions and the party umbilically tied, with a democratic socialism as the natural position of the working class.
Miliband’s suggestion attracted bitter rhetoric, including a call from Bob Crow, leader of the biggest rail union, to form a new party “that speaks for the working people and the working class communities that find themselves under the most brutal attack from cuts and austerity in a generation.” The links, once very strong and close, were weakened under Tony Blair’s leadership, but even Blair didn’t go so far as to propose a measure that must radically reduce the party’s income, and force it further away from the unions in finding alternative sources of income. Miliband expressed the core of the matter, when he said, “in the twenty-first century, it just doesn’t make sense for anyone to be affiliated to a political party unless they have chosen to do so.” Now, choice, not class, is king.
Finally, and most shockingly: a Brit — a Scot, even! — won Wimbledon. Now that really is the end of the British way of doing things.
PHOTO: A clock in the press pen shows the time outside the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital, where Britain’s Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is due to give birth, in London July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris