Insane in the membrane

Felipe Fernández-Armesto can’t wait to flee the madness infecting the UK

May 12, 2011

The Duke of Dunstable, one of P.G. Wodehouse’s comic creations, thought everyone was potty except himself. The delusion that one is uniquely sane in a mad world is a common form of madness. I am not quite that far gone yet, but as my annual semester in the UK draws to a close for 2011, I have a strong sensation that I am about to leave a land of collective insanity.

First, the royal wedding baffles me. Many wise and learned men and women in the royal household and among the top brass of the Civil Service and government are so far alienated from reality that they think this absurd farce was worth the expenditure of vast amounts of effort and treasure.

I can hardly think of a crueller wedding to inflict on an innocuous petite bourgeoise like the Duchess of Cambridge than to make a meretricious spectacle of her. What little chance the couple have of happiness seems to have been sacrificed to showmanship and an unconvincing display of morally dodgy pomp.

The princess has become a project - reshaped by Procrustean dieting into a simulacrum of consumer aesthetics, reclad in the laughable motley of the royals, recast in a role that does not come naturally to her and could destroy her future as surely as it destroyed that of the Princess of Wales. It would have been kinder and wiser to allow the couple to exchange vows in a normal wedding on a modest scale, and save the inevitable paparazzi frenzy for some less easily polluted moment.

Most of the problems of the Royal Family in recent years have arisen from the forfeiture of dignity. Corruption by the world of trash celebrity has turned the royals into bit-part players in a vulgar soap opera. The Duchess of Cornwall’s appearance on Radio 4’s The Archers earlier this year - complete with product placement for Duchy comestibles, cringe-makingly evoking the royals’ immersion in consumer culture - was symbolic.

Prince Andrew’s antics show what happens when the monarchy’s hedging of divinity gets clipped. The only hope for the future of the institution is for the Royal Family to be decently inconspicuous.

Instead, Kate Middleton has had to play a role in a media circus, along with all the freaks and mountebanks Westminster Abbey could accommodate: Victoria Beckham, the queen of consumerism, and Sir Elton John, the voice of superficial sentiment, were on the bill.

The justification we repeatedly hear for mounting a clown show in the Abbey is that it’s good for tourism. If true, this makes the wedding a wicked travesty - sullying solemnity and selling a sacrament. The presence of Sir Elton in the congregation and the photo ops seems to betray the event’s real commercial agenda: his previous contribution to the happiness of the Royal Family was to rehash, for Prince William’s mother, a song he composed for a notoriously shallow, fickle and troubled Tinseltown glamour girl. This implied, I suppose, that Diana Spencer had the same deficiencies of character and roughly the same thespian talents as Marilyn Monroe.

If the royal wedding was the last stroke of April folly, the Alternative Vote referendum was an act of May madness. With ironic aptness, AV was almost nobody’s first choice in the struggle for fair elections. It would have condemned us to be represented by legislators whom no one really wanted and who were sometimes the second choice of people who vote for the British National Party. If voters had backed the change, it would hardly have improved the composition of the House of Commons and would have set back the cause of real electoral reform by at least a decade.

I will never understand how an apparently intelligent leader such as Nick Clegg settled for such an abominable compromise - unless he was secretly hoping for defeat and the chance to fight the next general election on a programme clearly distinct from that of his coalition partners.

As if this silliness were not enough to make anyone glad to escape from the UK, other idiocies combine to ease my exit and nip potential nostalgia in the bud. In the last great bastion of grammar schools in the UK - Northern Ireland - the minister of education wants to subvert them. Having failed to put her ban on academic testing into effect, Caitriona Ruane is trying to use her power over funding to force schools into compliance.

Ideology apart, whether one favours selection or not, it is crazy to subvert good schools without having the means or plans to make other schools better. It is bad as well as mad to prevent schools from giving children an avenue of escape from the slums while insisting on local recruitment - which, in effect, sinks pupils in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the mire of the bog-standard comprehensive.

A similarly destructive spirit seems rampant in higher education, where madness multiplies, as the government’s irrational policies over student fees and research funding continue to corrode the sector.

Meanwhile, many ordinary British people seem hardly more sane than the politicians and the royals’ advisers: they include sectarian bombers in Scotland, rioters in a Bristol Tesco and - more benign but hardly more sensible - people who threw street parties for the royal wedding. Where will it all end? Excuse me while I book my flight …

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