Sunday, 9 January 2011

Off with her head

So the Queen will not lose her head. New legislation will "safeguard" the monarchical visage, ensuring that it remains on British stamps after the Royal Mail is privatised. Thus is the symbol of the national unity and essence - no doubt appropriately - reduced to a branding design and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Far from being a victory for Tradition, this decision is fundamentally tacky and dishonest.

What does the Queen's head on the stamps signify? The same, surely, as her head on the coinage - that the Royal Mail is not a private company but in some way an expression of the State: that its stamps are official. Like passports and Acts of Parliament, stamps are issued in the Queen's name, just as in more constitutionally transparent countries they are issued in the name of the people. It is not Mrs Elizabeth Windsor who appears on stamps, coins and banknotes, but the symbol and expression of national sovereignty. The royal silhouette does the job that elsewhere in the world is performed by the name of the country of origin. Significantly, Scottish banknotes - which are issued by private companies rather than in the name of the official Bank of England - do not feature the Queen. Her image does not appear even on notes issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was founded by Royal Charter and is currently 84% owned by the taxpayer. Admittedly, there are some pubs that call themselves The Queen's Head without anyone suspecting that what goes on inside enjoys royal approbation. But they tend to carry images of dead queens: Victoria, the first Elizabeth, or (most appropriately) Anne Boleyn. The profile of the reigning monarch implies the imprimatur of the State.

If the Royal Mail becomes privatised, it will cease to be by the Queen's authority that the post is delivered and the postal service will cease to be the prerogative of the State. It may not even be British: "German and Dutch operators are expected to be leading bidders in the sell-off." That may be well and good. Margaret Thatcher once said - a long time ago - that by its very nature the Royal Mail could never be privatised. But that statement merely demonstrated how unchangeable some aspects of the status quo can appear even to a natural radical. Indeed it is largely a matter of historical accident that the postal service developed as a state concern. And it's a strange idea, if a pervasive one, that national identity should somehow reside in a small square of adhesive paper. So long as letters and parcels are efficiently delivered, it doesn't matter who owns the rights of distribution. But if they are no longer the Queen's stamps, why must - or should - they continue to bear her image? To feature an official emblem of the British state on what is basically a payment receipt of a private enterprise cheapens the one and disguises the other.

The whole "debate" is, of course, irrelevant to the real issue, which is whether or not it is a good idea to privatise the mail service. But its very irrelevance is the point. By such specious debates the true point of principle is deliberately obscured. When the possibility of Britain joining the Euro was being considered, proponents were anxious to reassure the public that a space would be found on the coins (if not the notes) for Her Maj, squeezed into the space between a circle of twelve EU stars. Thus they hoped to disarm patriotic opposition. Here, the privatisers seek to persuade sceptics that the postal service will still somehow be Hers, and therefore Ours, even when it isn't.

Off with her head, I say.