Popery and Politics in 21st Century Britain

It may be something of a surprise to the regular reader of these pages to learn that I have no interest in watching coverage of the British royal wedding this weekend. Certainly I wish Prince William and Catherine Middleton well in their marriage, but I cannot bring myself to be as enthralled by it as is virtually every pin and cog of the media juggernaut on both sides of the pond. I would never favor abolition of the British monarchy, much as I am quite happy not to live in a monarchical system. Yet as a Catholic I cannot help but turn up my nose a bit at it, since in its present form it represents the continued power of institutionalized British anti-Catholicism in the more than 300 years since Catholics were removed from the line of succession upon passage of the 1701 Act of Settlement.

Recently Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg nixed the idea of abolishing the prohibition on Catholics, following pressure from Church of England leaders. As Peter Hutchinson reports in The Torygaph today Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party, has called for Mr. Clegg to issue a formal clarification of the government’s position on the issue. The reader will no doubt note the curious fact that Mr. Salmond is not himself a Catholic but a member of the Church of Scotland; even more curiously, Mr. Clegg is an atheist who is married to a Catholic Spaniard, and whose children are being raised as Catholics. Make of this what you will.

The issue of the British succession came up last evening in the context of a discussion among friends regarding Prince William’s decision not to wear a wedding ring – a practice very widespread among the married Englishmen I knew during the time I lived in London. One of the gentlemen in our conversation was surprised that I did not really care either way whether he wore one. My response was simply to state that my position on matters related to the Saxe-Coburgs is one which I can only describe, for lack of a better term, as “Jacobite”.

Jacobite views were well-regarded in my family; indeed, one of my siblings has “Stuart” as one of his middle names for this reason. The attempt to try to get the Stuarts back on the throne is one of those great lost causes of history which still inspires the romantic, as indeed is the Carlist cause in Spain. In both cases, these wars of succession are still being fought, albeit off the actual field of battle, in the trenches of constitutional law, where the anti-Catholic reaction to the Jacobites came to be formally enshrined at the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason.

Subsequent attempts to abolish or reform the Act of Settlement in order to allow Catholics to succeed to the throne have been considered and dropped numerous times. This is partly due to the complicated legal maneuvering that would be required, and partly due to the continued opposition of politically conservative British Protestants. Thus the re-emergence of this issue in recent weeks has been more interesting to me than questions about whether Prince William ought to wear a wedding ring or whether the tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter” should be played whenever Catherine Middleton enters a room.

For unlike the romantic notions of putting a Stuart back on the throne of Britain or a Hapsburg back on the throne of Spain, the Act of Settlement is a blatant instance of institutionalized anti-Catholicism that is still enforced today. It remains the law of the land not just in England and Scotland, but throughout the British Commonwealth, since any attempt to change it must be passed by the respective governments of each of the members of the Commonwealth, from Canada to Australia, New Zealand to Jamaica, and so on. It is so ancient a prejudice as to be deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire empire.

Those in Britain, the U.S., and other northerly climes who look at the ongoing arguments between Catalonia and Castile in Spain as being anachronistic remnants of the Carlist and Bourbon conflicts of the early 18th century, have only to look at Britain’s own history for an example of deliberate policies of exclusion that date back to precisely the same period. The key difference, of course, is that in Spain religion did not directly enter into the question of succession. In Britain, by contrast, religion is very much at the heart of the matter.

The Church of England is very right to point out that to allow a Catholic to ascend the throne could create a potential constitutional crisis. That fact would seem to suggest, to a reasonable mind, that the flaw is not in the idea of opening the succession, but rather in the anti-Catholic language of the Act. To undertake what is difficult, but just, may result in tears or worse, but that does not mean that apathy or inaction are the better choices.

Portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1748)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Quivering of the Stiff Upper Lip

Last evening PBS aired the final episode of “Downton Abbey”, a costume drama which was made for ITV in Britain and here in America was run on “Masterpiece Classic”, the subdivision of the venerable old “Masterpiece Theatre”, of blessed memory. If it has been some time since you watched PBS, gentle reader, then you may be unaware that “Masterpiece” has absorbed the formerly distinct “Mystery”, in order to show films featuring characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Kurt Wallender, and the like. “Masterpiece Classic” features works either taken from literature or set in an historic period, while “Masterpiece Contemporary” deals with works set in the present-day. While the divisions make some sense from a programming aspect – and this writer for one has no complaints whatsoever with seeing introductions from the always-charming Laura Linney on the “Classic” showings – it does seem to lend something of a schizophrenic nature to the brand.

In any case, “Downton Abbey” is not in fact a classic work of literature, but rather a period piece developed and written by Julian Fellowes, of “Gosford Park” and “The Young Victoria” writing fame. It follows the inner workings of life at an English country house in the lead-up to World War I, with the Earl of Grantham and his family at the top of the pecking order and the household staff at bottom. The series is beautifully shot, the costumes and attention to detail are wonderful, and there is a golden light that often suffuses the film and gives us a sense of a world unaware that it is about to pass away.

As to the story itself, “Downton Abbey” is little more than a re-hash of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, with more sex and less believability. Fellowes has charted this territory before, in the intensely boring murder-mystery “Gosford Park” which, despite some few, electric moments, was doomed to Yawnsville from the start in being made by the late Robert Altman. In “Downtown Abbey”, the great Dame Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has little more to do than play a variation on her twittering like a perturbed canary as she did in “Gosford Park”, “Tea with Mussolini”, etc.; one of the guests and the servants carry on a clandestine same-sex affair (“Gosford Park” again); the inevitable maxim that it is tacky to talk about money, but then of course everyone does so, incessantly (natch); and the requisite younger bluestocking playing the Bolly Bolshevik (ditto.)

One of the more “icky” aspects of the script arises through the interactions between staff and family: moments which this reviewer found rather eye-rolling at times. It is very difficult to believe the amount of physical touching, embracing, back-talking with no consequences, and general familiarity on display between the Earl’s family and their household staff. At least “Gosford Park” had, in its one spectacular on-screen moment, a scene in which a servant dares to speak out of turn at dinner – Kristin Scott-Thomas’ face is simply astounding – and knows without having to be told that she is sacked. “Downton Abbey”, by contrast, gives us a closing scene of the butler embracing the eldest daughter of the Earl, out on the grounds in the middle of her parents’ garden party, after her engagement fails to come off. Someone please pass the smelling salts.

There is a tendency in contemporary British film to reduce the blue-blooded to some sort of emotional, tender heap of feelings, presumably in an effort to make them more comprehensible to the masses. One of the writers at The Daily Telegraph, in reviewing “The King’s Speech”, has referred to this as the “Dianafication” of the British monarchy: let’s forget that these people are different and knock them down a few pegs to make them seem somewhat cuddly underneath those forbidding exteriors. Yet in doing so filmmakers and indeed the public forget that is precisely what puts an Earl, a Countess, or a King at a distance from the common people which preserves the system by which they remain where they are, and not merely Louis and Marie Capet from down the street. There is a magic in monarchy that is lost when we know too much, or when the lofty become too familiar.

As a decidedly middle-class, middle-brow entertainment there are worse things than “Downton Abbey”: the work of Robert Rauschenberg comes to mind. We were informed – perhaps the more choice word is “warned” – at the conclusion of last evening’s episode that a second series of “Downton Abbey” is in the works. Oh dear.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, used as the set for “Downton Abbey”

>The Invisible Infanta

>The Spanish press is laughing at Mr. Obama this morning – and not for the many reasons I could come up with. Last evening at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual black tie gala, Mr. Obama (not in proper black tie, natch) gave an oddly-worded thanks to HRH the Infanta Cristina, Duchess of Palma, for attending the event. As regular readers of this blog know, the Duke and Duchess of Palma recently moved to D.C. from Barcelona, along with their four children.

The only problem is, the Duke and Duchess had declined the invitation and were not in attendance. The gaffe is appearing all over the Spanish press this morning, from the national broadsheets to gossip rags. A quick search of Google News in English shows that the American press has not yet picked up on it.

What the American press has picked up on however, is a comment that came immediately after Mr. Obama’s acknowledgement of the invisible Infanta:

“Our own royalty, somebody who we have become so extraordinarily proud of, somebody who I’ve just come to adore, and who is somebody who’s going to make us proud for many, many years to come, because she’s not term-limited, the newest justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor,” Obama said, bringing the room to its feet to applaud Sotomayor, who attended the dinner.

This is, simply put, a stupid comment, the remark of someone kissing up to his high school student government moderator. For the time being, we are still citizens of a Republic, and we do not have either royalty or nobility in this country. To raise a Supreme Court Justice, whether it be a long-serving Chief Justice or a new Associate Justice who as of yet has done absolutely nothing, to the level of monarchy is not only antithetical to the fundamental principles of American democracy, it is idiotic and in poor taste.

Liberals had their field day over the past eight years with diplomatic errors and public misstatements by the previous administration. So far in this administration, we have had Mr. Obama bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia, returning a bust of Sir Winston Churchill to the British and presenting them with a diplomatic gift of unusable DVD’s, Secretary Clinton asking who painted the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe while touring her basilica, and Mrs. Obama putting her arm around the Queen of England, among other things. One cannot help but wonder what faux pas we will get to see or hear next.