Readers of this blog will be aware that I have a long-standing and reasonably frequent exchange of communications with my elected Member of Parliament. My most recent letter to my MP concerned the subject of “democracy” and the governance of the UK, as well as the role of the monarchy in all of this.
Much has been made recently by politicians about democracy. From the opinions voiced it is obvious that various ideas about democracy exist in the UK. However, even the politicians themselves show frailty and confusion about the subject.
It is often stated that the UK is a parliamentary democracy. This is, unfortunately, fallacious, as we are not a constitutional parliamentary democracy after all. The system of government in the UK is that of a constitutional monarchy.
There are distinctive and crucial differences between these two forms of governing and these differences are not generally known by the British electorate. However, it is a personal conviction that there are many amongst those who wish to remove the UK from the EU who are aware of these distinctions and who, whilst normally remaining subtly quiet about it, can be identified as those who voice such slogans as “let us take back control”.
Had this distinction between parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy been known at the time of the EU Referendum it may well have resulted in a different referendum outcome and a change in the subsequent shape of the political and constitutional malaise that the result has caused. This could also be said of other “unknowns” at the time of the EU Referendum.
The reaction by the so-called “right wing” element within the Conservative Party to parliament’s recent actions in the House of Commons suggests to this writer that the group strongly favours the institution of the monarchy, as well as a nationalist form of government for England. It further suggests to me that this element has an extremely biased and false view of the nature of democracy.
There are many in the UK, and not only those involved in politics, who are of the view that the UK’s political system is in urgent need of reform. This reform would include setting clear boundaries between the powers of the government, parliament, judiciary and the head of state. So too, there is a substantial body of opinion who are of the view that the British Constitution should now be put into written form, so that it is available to all and not just to the chosen few who wish to “take back control”!
Further, and consistent with what is expressed in the above, the British Head of State should be elected by the people. This is, surely, a fundamental aspect of what democracy should mean in the UK. In a genuine democracy this office should not be the prerogative of an unelected citizen of the UK and, more specifically, should not reside in any member of a hereditary monarchy who might regard the British people as her/his “subjects” rather than “citizens” of the nation.
The above follows recent reports that the present Conservative government could tell the present Head of State, the unelected Elizabeth Windsor, to block the passage of any Brexit bill of which the Prime Minister doesn’t approve. At this point I am mindful of the fact that it was only some fifty years ago that the British monarch’s representative in Australia, an unelected Australian Governor General, forced the removal of a duly elected Federal Labour government.
Another slogan during the debate on the first EU Referendum was that the people of the UK should return “sovereignty” to these isles. What does it mean to be a sovereign power? The Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore is most apposite in stating:
“In our case, it means having a monarch that legitimates hereditary privilege, the Lords and owning half of Scotland. It means that power is an accident of birth, but God help anyone who disses the Queen. We not only enact our serfdom; we embrace it by accepting that the monarchy is above ordinary politics.”
Whatever the processes and outcomes of the Brexit business, resort to an interference in whatever democratic principles and practices are extant in the Brexit process by an unelected Head of State, who is also a hereditary monarch, is a complete insult to any description of democracy that may have been bandied about by any politician. What, then, of being “a vassal state of Europe”?
It seems ludicrous to vote for a representative in the House of Commons only for decisions of that House to be overridden by a constitutional appeal to the reigning monarch to interfere in its judgements and rulings. That is not the same as the Commons exercising parliamentary sovereignty. I would vote for an MP pursuing the latter, but not the former!
Following the above, let me briefly address those MPs who, in the face of a Brexit that is proving altogether more difficult than it was perceived at the time of the EU Referendum, now insist on leaving the EU with or without a suitable deal. Not only this but also the fact they do so in consequence of a single referendum vote that was divisively narrow in its decision to leave the EU.
Despite a lapse of three years, such MPs continue to believe that they “must respect the will of the people” in pursuing a final Brexit outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum.
Was the will of the people respected in 1975 when the decision was taken for the UK to enter the Common European Market? Since 1975, a group of Conservative MPs, who today nestle under the banner of the European Research Group (ERG), have constantly advocated and agitated for the UK to leave the EU.
The British system of government insists that the will of the people is heard in national elections that are held no more than five years from the previous election. This process recognizes that people can, and often do, change their minds – in politics as with other aspects of life. In the situation where the result of a referendum proves difficult, if not impossible, to institute, then surely it is entirely consistent with the principles of democracy that the people should have the opportunity to change their collective mind – confirming or otherwise a suggested outcome?
When elected, do MPs always follow their party’s manifesto – do they always hold to the promises of a manifesto? From one election to another, do they constantly adhere to the will of the people they represent? Why do so many MP’s now insist on respecting the result of the EU Referendum when it is counter to what they campaigned for, a result they obviously regret and one that, it is generally considered, will be damaging to the national well-being?
What place has their obligation, as elected representatives, to represent to their electors what they and their chosen political party stands for – even where this may be unpopular? Are MPs teachers as well as preachers?
What factors cause them to change their minds in the face of opposition from their electorates? To what extent, in the face of challenge and adversity, do they have the integrity to remain true to the cause they originally campaigned and fought for?
The cries of the Brexiteers to “take back control” and “return sovereignty to these isles” would have more substance if they were accompanied by a determination to reform our political and social institutions and refuse to bow to a feudal system. Again, the words of Suzanne Moore are most apposite: “Yet even sensible people fall for the circus of honours, touches of ermine and empire, while young working-class men get their legs blown off to ‘serve Queen and country’”.
Have we in the UK become, or are in the process of becoming, the authors of our own demise?
Growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, during the 1950-60’s, several of my closest friends were fellow immigrants from the UK – in their case from Northern Ireland, with myself a Scot. My friends were non-denominational Protestants, so naturally, one may assume, they had strong views on the situation that was extant in Northern Ireland – as it was in those pre-Belfast Agreement days.
We would often spend a lazy Sunday afternoon listening to various forms of music – from pop and rock n’ roll, to country and western and popular religious. Being Irish, the friends would occasionally listen to and sing-along with that seemingly evergreen Irish-linked ballad “Danny Boy”. I say “seemingly” because, in my mind, there are now some issues surrounding the origins and development of this ballad.
Further interest in this questionable aspect of the origins of “Danny Boy” was incited by my recent purchase of an album by a long-time favourite singer of mine, the late and lamented American singer Roy Orbison. The album contains many of Orbison’s best known and most played songs. What was different in the presentation of these songs was the fact that they were given the full orchestral backing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
The effects were revelatory and entirely consistent with the album’s title, “Unchained Melodies” (also the title of one of the songs on the album and which, incidentally, came from the 1950’s and was one of the songs that, as rendered by the black American singer Al Hibler, took up the lazy Sunday afternoons enjoyed by my friends and me).
For me, and with the above circumstances in mind, the most important of the songs on this album was “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s arrangement of the song was quite superb, along with the backing of the RPO, and added to the poignancy and beauty of the song’s words and music.
Orbison took the well-known first two verses of the song and made them the central focus of the musical presentation. However, he took the less well known third and fourth verses of “Danny Boy” and used a repetition, reorganization and recapitulation of the words to frame the central section (verses 1 and 2) with two verses each on either side of the central section (the “chorus”. The result was the presentation of a genuine, even classical, ballad. “Danny Boy” has never sounded so good nor spoken so emotionally to the listener. A gem!
With Orbison’s rendition of “Danny Boy” reverberating in my mind and senses, I decided that it was time to do a little research on the song. The results of this research were to prove instructive.
The words of “Danny Boy” were written by the English lawyer and lyricist, Frederic Weatherly in Bath, Somerset (England) in 1910. It is believed that initially the tune with which Weatherly accompanied the words was composed by a Scottish piper. In 1913, Weatherly’s Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret (known as Jess), who was at the time living in the USA, sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” (an alternative version of the story has her singing the air to him in 1912 with different lyrics).
Weatherly is said to have then modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air” (the melody of which was collected by Jane Ross of the Irish town of Limavady in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered). Weatherly then gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin who made it one of the most popular songs in the new 20th century.
In 1915, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s version of the song with the RPO is the latest version of this much-recorded ballad.
Wikipedia informs that “The 1918 version of the sheet music included alternative lyrics (“Eily Dear”), with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes “Eily Dear”, so that “Danny Boy” is only to be sung by a lady”. In spite of this, it is unclear whether this was Weatherly’s intent “. Whatever the intention, and not surprisingly, the song has been covered by a diverse range of male singers – from Mario Lanza to Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley to Harry Belafonte, as well as Tom Jones, and now most recently, Roy Orbison.
It would seem that, prior to Orbison’s rendition, all others used the original lyrics and traditional structure. It could be claimed, therefore, that Roy Orbison’s version of “Danny Boy” is unique.
The actual interpretation of the words of “Danny Boy” are also open to some serious speculation.
Various suggestions exist as to the true meaning of the song’s words. Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising (as suggested by the reference to “pipes calling glen to glen”) or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
From what has been stated in the foregoing, it seems to me to be as likely as anything, that the actual derivation of the song owes not a little to Scottish influences. The words of “Danny Boy” are more illustrative of a Scottish geography and the original tune belonged to a Scottish piper.
The meaning could satisfactorily be associated with a Scottish boy (Danny?) who left Scotland as part of the migration of both lowland and highland Scots, Protestant and Catholic, to the Province of Ulster during the 17th century – only to be lamented by his mother or, more probably, his father, and with the hope that, one day, he might return to the meadows, mountains and glens of his native land. Poignantly, Danny’s father, or mother, do not expect to live to see that day.
It is to the credit of the Irish (to the north and south of the island) that they have made “Danny Boy” the anthem that today it is.
Notwithstanding, as this essay has argued, I have my doubts as to its suitability to be the national anthem of Northern Ireland (the British Province of Ulster). Nevertheless, listening to the song still elicits, and will in the future, the necessary patriotic evocations – as it did in the lives of several Irish boys on a lazy Sunday afternoon in far-away Melbourne in the middle of the 20th century.
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Tagged anthem, Danny Boy, family, Frederic Weatherly, history, lament, memories, parents, patriotism, poignancy, return, Roy Orbison, tradition