It’s tough being an intellectually curious member of the British royal family. No royal knows this better than poor Prince Charles. The heir to the British throne is perhaps squirming a little because of the enforced publication of his letters to various government ministers a decade ago. The famous black spider memos were supposed to be confidential, but legal action by the Guardian newspaper forced their publication.
Not that he really has much to squirm about. There have been critics who accuse him of wasting ministerial time by lobbying them over his various hobby-horses. Some have accused him of citing bad science in his arguments. If that is the case, there are many so-called experts who are guilty of the same offence. Climate change and health sciences come to mind particularly.
The prince’s topics reflect deeply-felt concerns on a number of topics. Having a future king who is concerned about issues rather contenting himself with being a mute constitutional ornament is absolutely fine by me. Prince Charles, after all, would never suggest that his mother’s subjects should eat cake.
The hoo-ha about the black spider memos calls to mind the role of the monarch, which by custom is “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.” How the heir to the British throne must occasionally wish that Walter Bagehot’s definition finished with “and to kick ass”.
Other monarchies have that prerogative, not least in Saudi Arabia, where I’m currently on a visit. Prince Charles is also a frequent visitor to the Kingdom. He had a close relationship with the late King Abdullah, who liked to take him out to the desert for traditional Arabian pursuits. I wonder if he has ever cast an envious eye on the wide-ranging powers of his fellow royals, not least the current Crown Prince. Unfortunately for Charles, the last monarch in these isles who exercised anything like the power of the Al-Saud was Charles I, and he lost his head for his injudicious use of that power.
Yet while the modern Charles must sometimes feel that he is waiting an eternity to step on to centre stage as king, spare a thought for the senior members of the Saudi royal family, some of whom must have felt over the last forty years that they were playing an interminable waiting game with no guarantee of the outcome.
What kicked off this train of thought was a long feature in the Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s English-language daily that appeared a few days ago. It was a tribute to the outgoing foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. In a cascade of extravagant praise, the writers chronicled Prince Saud’s forty-year career as foreign minister in glowing terms that you would rarely encounter in an English newspaper. We’re far too cynical. Here’s how the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates began his eulogy:
“Those who do not know him will say he is an adept foreign minister and a faithful politician. Those who do know him will say, in addition to the above, that he is a master, and a cultured and well-read man of the highest caliber, the likes of which we see only every now and again in the annals of Islamic and Arab history. One can only marvel at the man’s astuteness and eloquence, at his soft-spoken words and decisive actions.”
A little over the top perhaps, but the truth of the matter is that Prince Saud did indeed have a distinguished career. He is highly respected within and without the Kingdom. He is an impressive man. His austere features remind one of his father, Saudi Arabia’s third monarch, Faisal bin Abdulaziz. Saud’s brothers, Khaled, Turki and Khaled are also impressive men, with long careers in government. Prince Khaled is currently Governor of Mecca. All the brothers are in their late sixties or seventies.
So here’s where the British royals differ from the Saudis. Whereas from the moment he was born Charles’s place in the line of succession has been was assured, unless of course he makes some gigantic constitutional faux pas. For prospective rulers of Saudi Arabia, accession to the throne is by no means assured. Only two men stand formally in line to succeed the current king. After them the succession is anybody’s guess – or strictly speaking a matter for the senior royals to decide. And perhaps being in the right place at the right time.
King Salman, who assumed the crown three months ago on the death of his half-brother King Abdullah, has finally passed the baton to the next generation of the extended Al-Saud family. Until last month the designated line of succession has featured only the sons of the founder, King Abdulaziz, known internationally as Ibn Saud. But now that the few remaining sons have been deemed too old, not suitable or unwilling to shoulder the responsibility, Salman has appointed two of Abdulaziz’s most talented grandsons, Mohammed bin Naif and Mohammed bin Salman as second and third in line to the throne. The crown prince is the King’s nephew. The deputy crown prince is his son.
For one reason or another the sons of previous monarchs did not make the short list. In the case of Faisal’s sons, age was an inhibiting factor. Prince Saud, for example, is older than at least one of his uncles, Muqrin, who last month stood down as crown prince in favour of Mohammed bin Naif.
It was never an option for King Faisal to put his sons into the line of succession. Faisal’s brothers, particularly Fahd, Abdullah, Sultan, Naif and Salman, were all ambitious and capable men who would have been outraged if their expectations had been thwarted. In the end Sultan and Naif died before they could succeed to the throne. But the family as a whole would have prevented Faisal from elevating his sons. It was only the dwindling number of eligible sons of Abdulaziz that led Salman to the next generation.
Would Saud Al-Faisal and his dignified, well-respected brothers have been regarded as candidates for the succession if their equally respected father had been the fifteenth son of the founder instead of the third? Quite possibly. An accident of primogeniture took them out of contention.
A few years ago I was asked to run a programme for a class of Saudi schoolchildren. The aim was to prepare them for studying abroad. To of find out more about them, I asked them a series of questions. One was “name the person, living or dead, whom you most admire”. Their answers were interesting. Those who did not name the Prophet Mohammed – a natural choice for devout Muslims – almost all chose King Faisal. Apart from one lad who came up with Lionel Messi.
Those who named Faisal gave many reasons for their decision. He was devout, he was principled. He pioneered girl’s education. He made his country respected throughout the world. I’m sure that their choice of Faisal was no reflection on King Abdullah, who was on the throne at the time and was also held in great esteem. But the children I worked with were born many years after Faisal was assassinated by a member of his family. So it’s highly likely that their views reflected those of their families.
And no wonder. After all, Saudi Arabia has Faisal to thank for the fabulous wealth that has enabled his successors to build the infrastructure that stands today. It was Faisal who engineered the oil embargo against the west that increased the price of oil many times, and brought the economy of the US to its knees. His reason for doing so was to protest against America’s support for a country that he regarded as illegitimate – Israel. The era of cheap oil was over, with profound implications worldwide. Once the embargo was lifted, the oil price stayed as a much higher level than before, thus enriching Saudi Arabia beyond the wildest dreams of its people.
The fact that Saudi Arabia has remained coherent and prosperous over the seventy years since the passing of the founder is a tribute to the ability of the sons and grandsons of Abdulaziz who have held executive power since then. These days absolute monarchy is something of an anachronism more or less everywhere except in the Gulf region. Absolute dictatorship, on the other hand, or rather various degrees up to absolute, is alive and flourishing. Dictatorships often ends badly. So do monarchies sometimes. And yet Al-Saud are still very much with us.
Part of the reason is that they can no longer be considered a family – more a tribe. There are many thousands of them. So the king has a large pool of talent to choose from. And despite the possible frustration and thwarted ambitions of those who might feel they deserve to be closer to the big prize, successive kings have been able to manage those tensions without letting them erupt to the surface.
Of all the Kingdom’s rulers since Abdulaziz, Faisal – I’m assured by those schoolboys and by a number of my Saudi friends – holds a special place in the hearts of ordinary Saudis. For all his ground-breaking achievements as king, he is particularly respected – to use modern parlance – for walking the walk. Whereas his predecessor, King Saud, was known for his self-indulgent spending, Faisal was a devout and frugal man. All families have their wayward sons and daughters, but Faisal’s offspring reflect his own example and his disciplined approach to parenthood. Not only are they known to be hard-working, but they are untainted by personal scandal.
The younger generation will before too long be in control of Saudi Arabia’s future. If filial piety doesn’t prevent them from looking for role models in addition to their own fathers, Mohammed bin Naif and Mohammed bin Salman will surely consider the careers of King Faisal and his sons. After all, were it not for that accident of primogeniture, at least two of Faisal’s offspring might have been standing in their shoes.
And others who may be champing at the bit for more responsibility could perhaps take some inspiration from the dignity and good grace of Prince Charles as he patiently awaits his place in history.
So it’s over, thank goodness. And what now?
I’ll start with a truism popular both in business and politics: there are times when it’s better to make a decision that turns out to be the wrong one than to make no decision at all. And that, effectively, is what the electorate has unwittingly done by returning the Conservatives with an overall majority.
The stock market has reacted positively. Oligarchs and mansion owners have quickly moved to unblock the logjam of delayed activity in the upper end of the housing market.
Financial confidence, however, may prove to be short-lived if the certainty of majority government is tempered by the uncertainty of a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union. According to David Cameron’s schedule, that event is due in two years’ time.
When I was a young boy learning about politics, I understood that Conservatism was about maintaining the status quo. That may have been the case in 1961, when Harold Macmillan was telling us that we’d never had it so good.
But since Margaret Thatcher handbagged her way into power in 1979, our largest right-wing party hasn’t done too much conserving. Deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing have been the hallmarks of Conservative rule, and there have been times when the Labour Party has come over as the reactionary force. Perhaps not during the Blair years, but certainly under Gordon Brown and prospectively under Ed Miliband. Under Brown, the mission seemed to be to roll back Blairism. Under Miliband, the positive proposals he put forward were overshadowed by the overwhelming impression was that the objective was to get rid of the Tories. That was also the most common sentiment I’ve seen expressed among Labour supporters in the social media.
To take Britain out of the European Union be would a staggeringly risky step, outstripping any risks Thatcher took. Not necessarily wrong, just risky. Projections that show the impact – positive or negative – of a British exit are basically extrapolations into an uncertain future. They prove nothing either way. For that reason I have a hunch that that the outcome would be that the out lobby will fail, unless a Greek exit triggers a financial disintegration within the Eurozone. The majority of us will simply not want to take the risk.
Even so, a referendum would not end the debate. The out voters would continue to agitate against our membership of the EU, just as in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum enough voters have rejected the result to turn Scotland into a one-party country as far as Westminster is concerned. I’ll come back to Scotland a little later.
A vote to stay in the European Union would certainly give David Cameron the prospect of calmer waters over the remaining three years of his government unless some new black swan – one of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns – throws everything out of kilter. I would put the chances of that happening as highly likely. In which case the natural momentum of politics would suggest that disillusionment with the Conservatives and a reinvigorated Labour Party could threaten Cameron’s fragile majority by 2020. So another coalition or even a majority Labour government would be in prospect after the next general election. The electoral boundary changes now on Cameron’s agenda may prevent a Labour majority, but would almost certainly not stop the Conservatives losing their majority.
If you happen to be a house-owner looking to cash in on the long house price boom by downsizing and pocketing the profit, it would therefore seem that black swans permitting – 2018 will be the last opportunity to do so without your sale being blighted by yet more political uncertainty. Also by that time the current housing shortage will have started easing, because you can bet on the government introducing measures to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.
For the rest of us it looks like more of the same austerity medicine as the government struggles to meet its ambitious commitment to reduce the deficit. Further cuts on social benefits and public services await. Further tinkering with the National Health Service. Stealth taxes here and these.
The National Health Service is the ultimate sacred cow. Free at the point of delivery is the mantra with which no government since its establishment has dared to tamper. Except that it’s not free. Taxpayers pay for it. Those who don’t pay taxes don’t. Is it so iconoclastic to suggest that the mantra could change to free at the point of delivery, but only for those who don’t have the means to pay for it? Already there are voices calling for a £10 charge for general practitioner visits.
If the tax burden was shifted to allow the NHS to charge for certain services, an argument could be made that those who rarely used the service would no longer end up subsidising the frequent flyers to the extent that they are today. Tax breaks for infrequent use could incentivise healthy habits (maybe!). Any charges need only kick in when a user has achieved a certain level of income – say the 25% tax level.
I’m not advocating abandonment of the principle of an NHS free for all. But I can see that there are alternatives that would not necessarily be counter to social justice. Sacred cows may be sacred for a good reason, but that’s no reason not to cast a sceptical eye upon them from time to time.
The extraordinary political upheaval in Scotland raises some interesting questions. For any party in British politics to gain a virtual monopoly over a region is an anomaly to say the least. The Scottish Nationalists will need to walk on water over the next five years to maintain their current ascendency in 2020. Labour, from being an integral part of the Scottish establishment, will become the insurgents.
The SNP’s performance in government, which this time around escaped any serious national scrutiny, will be under the microscope. The three other parties whose representation in the region has been reduced to almost zero will be looking to exploit any failure by Nicola Sturgeon’s Holyrood legions. Therefore expect the SNP numbers in Westminster to decline from the current high water mark next time round.
One potential consequence of the SNP’s triumph might change the landscape dramatically. A major reason for the SNP’s success seems to have been a disillusionment with Westminster politics. The SNP is of Scotland and for Scotland. Its opponents in this election, even if they give themselves a tartan identity by inserting “Scottish” before the party name, are seen as instruments of their national party machines. Ergo, according to the SNP narrative, they are not of Scotland or for Scotland.
What if one or two parties arose that were genuinely independent of Westminster and the central party machines? Parties, say, that espoused left-wing, right-wing and centrist principles but were not in thrall to their natural allies in Westminster? They would therefore compete on equal terms with the SNP – untainted by a Westminster connection.
The fastest way for this to happen would be for the existing parties, Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats, to allow their organisations in Scotland to sever formal links with the central party machines. A re-brand, including as a minimum a name change, would almost certainly be necessary. As is the case in Northern Ireland, the main Westminster parties would no longer contest Scottish elections, leaving the field to the new-born Scots-only rivals to the SNP.
While the Westminster parties would lose control over Scottish MPs wearing their colours, they could expect the support of the parties most closely aligned with their policies. And the SNP would be deprived of their unique sales proposition: of Scotland and for Scotland.
Even if the major parties decided against such a step, new home-grown Scottish parties will almost certainly be formed in opposition to the SNP. But it might take them much longer to become serious players.
However things pan out in Scotland, looking forward twenty years, it’s easy to imagine a federal Britain in which each region has a lively political forum in which parties are no longer campaigning on the narrow agenda of nationalism, but on issues specific to the regions. Just as political alliances within the European Parliament reflect common but not necessarily identical ideologies of parties in member states, so there would be natural alliances in Westminster.
Whether an English parliament emerges remains to be seen. But a federal model seems to me to be the most likely long-term outcome from the turmoil we’ve just experienced.
My personal feeling after this election is one of relative detachment. My constituency is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. The sitting member is a cabinet minister who clearly has better things to do than run around chasing voters when he knows he’s going to win. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of leaflets we received, and those were for the local council elections.
I would have loved the opportunity to debate a few issues with the great man, but he didn’t come anywhere near my house or any others in the constituency as far as I’m aware. Too busy with more weighty matters no doubt. Nonetheless I felt taken for granted, as I always do on these occasions.
I have some sympathy with the Greens and UKIP, who argue that that the millions of votes they received bought them one seat each, whereas the SNP’s 1.5 million reaped them a far richer harvest. But I don’t see the first-past-the-post system changing any time soon. So my vote, which went neither to the incumbent nor to the two above, will continue to count for nothing.
After all, newly-empowered turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.