Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Atheists are welcome in the modern Girl Guides, but anti-monarchists are not

So God is no longer part of the Girl Guides. Following following a consultation exercise, the Girlguiding Association has dropped the traditional commitment to "love God" from the Guides' Promise. Henceforth, humanists and atheists will be welcome to join. Presumably though they will need to believe in something. New recruits will now promise to "be true to myself and develop my beliefs", a feelgood phrase that might cover anything from evangelical Christianity to environmentalism to belief in alien abduction. Belief is belief and therefore a Good Thing.

Cristina Odone is predictably outraged; it's as bad, she thinks, as according Druids equal rights in the workplace. But it's a big win for the British Humanist Association. "We wholeheartedly welcome the progressive step that Girlguiding have taken today of making their movement genuinely open to all," says BHA chief exectutive Andrew Copson in a press release. It's their biggest triumph since the Atheist Bus Campaign. Certainly, the new promise no longer requires any *religious* belief. But another contentious phrase is still there. Girl guides must still promise to "serve the Queen." So atheists may be welcome in the Association, but republicans apparently are not.

I tackled Andrew Copson about this. He admitted to being conflicted: "I'm republican but recognise current constitution is a monarchy and so Queen does embody state." But why on earth should joining the Girl Guides entail swearing allegiance to the state? As spokesman for humanists rather than for republicans, he doesn't have to take a formal position about such things.

Up to now, Guides have promised to serve Queen and country, a time-honoured, almost unconscious formulation. But "country" is now to be replaced by "my community". The GGA explains that in the consultation "members understood and could relate to serving the community more easily than the country." Community, though, is a slippery word. It can be both inclusive and exclusive - is "my community" everyone who lives in my area (the local community) or just the particular sub-group to which I happen to belong or into which I happen to have been born? The word has the potential to divide as well as to unite.

"Country and community" would have been stronger, more inclusive and avoided alienating girls with doubts about the continuance of an hereditary monarchy. So why stick with the Queen? The organisation says that the consultation demonstrated a "clear commitment" to retain this part of the promise and that "Girlguiding is very proud and honoured to have Her Majesty the Queen as our patron." But it also suggests that the Queen is a symbol for service to country - something we're told was dropped because it's supposedly too hard to understand. If the real meaning of the promise is indeed a pledge to serve the country, to remove the word "country" is a recipe for confusion.

The monarch is much more a symbol of the state than a symbol of the country. Indeed, the language of the British state is suffused with the fiction that it is the personal plaything of Elizabeth Windsor. Judges, MPs, police officers and anyone wishing to adopt British citizenship must swear a personal oath of loyalty to the Queen, whether they agree with her constitutional position or not. Her Majesty's Government (elected by the people, but pledged only to serve the Crown) oversees Her Majesty's prisons (some of which are now run for profit by contractors) even as it discusses privatising (but not renaming) the Royal Mail.

So it's true that service to the state is often disguised as service to the Queen. On the other hand, it's most unusual to have to swear allegiance to the sovereign on joining a private club, even one that enjoys royal patronage. The Scouts and Guides may be almost unique in this. "Country" is broader and more inclusive than the state. One can be loyal to one's country without having a particular fondness for the state's constitutional arrangements: just ask a Scottish nationalist.

To "serve the Queen" is a particularly nebulous concept. Fighting in the army might be considered "serving the Queen", but few if any Girl Guides are called upon to do that. Perhaps a fortunate Girl Guide will find herself on the fish counter when the Queen makes a rare foray into a supermarket as part of a royal visit. In general, though, the notion of public service as service to the monarch is at best confusing, at worst downright pernicious. The Crown may be a metonym for the state but the Queen is clearly not a synonym for the country as a whole. Rather, Crown and country exist in opposition or dialogue. Such rights we possess as citizens have historically be wrested from monarchs or, at best, graciously conceded by them.  I believe there was once a civil war fought on the distinction between King and nation.

Keeping the Queen while ditching God sends a message that religious scepticism is acceptable in a diverse society but questioning the constitutional status quo is not. As an awestruck nation awaits the miracle of a royal birth, as nostalgists drool over memories of the Ruritanian pageantry of the last coronation and Prince Philip's bowel becomes the subject of anguished public debate, it's easy to imagine that the monarchy has replaced Christianity as the wellspring of social cohesion and morality in 21st century Britain. Is that an altogether healthy mindset to inculcate in young girls?