Opinion

John Lloyd

In Britain, a summer of quiet revolution

John Lloyd
Jul 16, 2013 16:13 UTC

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.

Of princesses and tabloids

John Lloyd
Feb 21, 2013 16:48 UTC

When visitors enter the UK, they should be greeted by a life-size model of a dragon (though what is life-size for a dragon?) with a placard by it that says: “Welcome to the United Kingdom. We devour princesses!”

The dragon might be made of newsprint, for it is the newspapers – followed by waddling broadcasters, tut-tutting along – who are the devourers of these women. The latest British royal scandal features two central British institutions, the royal family and the tabloid press, oddly paired with a distinguished writer. The first two have flourished in a swamp of contempt (on the royal side) and addiction (on the press side) ever since the postwar years, when automatic deference to royalty was replaced by a destructive neediness.

The present queen, Elizabeth II, was a young woman of 25 when the death of her father propelled her to the throne in 1952. No scandal of her making attended her as a princess, nor has any since she became queen. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was a different matter. In love in her early 20s with a divorced “commoner,” Group Captain Peter Townsend, she renounced him at her sister’s request and later married the photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones. She later divorced him. Margaret, a heavy smoker and drinker, was a fixture in the popular papers – mostly for real or alleged affairs, especially with the minor aristocrat Roddy Llewellyn, a man 17 years her junior.

Princesses and their paparazzi

John Lloyd
Sep 18, 2012 20:42 UTC

When the editor of the Irish Daily Star, Mike O’Kane, was asked about his decision to publish a few of the topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William – a future king of Great Britain, the crown perhaps descending from his grandmother’s snow-white head to his own prematurely balding pate – he replied: “Kate is not the future queen of Ireland, so really the only place where this is causing fury seems to be in the UK, and they are very, very tasteful pictures.”

Alfonso Signorini, editor of Chi (“Who”) magazine in Italy, answered the same question by saying, “first of all it is a journalistic scoop … surely it’s unusual to see a future Queen of England topless? I think it’s the first time in history, so it deserves an extraordinary edition.” (He has 200 pictures of the couple and plans to do more.) Chi is the top gossip magazine in Italy, and like Closer, the original publisher of the pictures, in France, is in the magazine division of Mondadori, owned by Silvio Berlusconi.

Signorini, a former classics professor, is also a TV host and did his boss great service last year when he interviewed, with almost paternal sympathy, Karima El Mahroug, otherwise known as Ruby Rubacuore (“Heartstealer”), an exotic dancer in a Milanese nightclub. Berlusconi is alleged to have paid her, while she was under 18, for sex at one of his “bunga-bunga” parties when he was still Italian prime minister. The charge, of encouraging underage prostitution, is now being heard in a court in Milan. Signorini’s interview, dwelling on her tough childhood and her gratitude to Berlusconi for his wholly platonic friendship and financial assistance – “He behaved like a father to me, I swear” – was itself a journalistic scoop: the first time a prime minister of Italy had been revealed as one who gave selfless succor to a penniless young exotic dancer.

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