openDemocracyUK

It should be Citizens Wootton Bassett

An English country town gets the royal treatment. But does it deserve it?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
16 March 2011

So Wootton Bassett is to be given the "Royal" handle. David Cameron announced it in the House of Commons today. The BBC's radio news described it as a moment of consensus in the course of a day marked by stormy scenes over the future of the NHS.

Well I want to disrupt the consensus with my pin-prick. It is a sad development and a form of cover-up.

Since the bodies of killed servicemen started to come back regularly from Iraq and Afghanistan they have been flown into RAF Lyneham. From there the bodies are driven to the morgue at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital before being taken to their resting place. The route goes through Wootton Bassett.

Like many I have found myself moved by the local people's at first spontaneous salute to the regular cortege, as they lined the main street as a mark of respect.

I also think that it was in a subtle way political. The two wars have never been popular, to put it mildly. Patriotism was abused by Blair and the misuse of force was also actively embraced by Britain's ruling elite as a whole, to conduct an illegal, counter-productive invasion of Iraq and allow what the public were told would be a police support operation in Afghanistan to turn, in 2006, into a disasterous occupation with over 300 dead in a war whose aims, character and purpose have never been fully debated in parliament.

It is profoundly important to understand that opposition to this use of British force is not confined to the left. On the contrary, many from conservative and military backgrounds are if anything more aghast at what they feel has been an abuse of their patriotism and loyalty. The kind of people who live in Wootton Bassett are not gung-ho Blairite and 'third way' imperialists. On the contrary. As the bodies of those they regard as their fallen go past, they stood as much in protest at the corruption of power and waste of lives as they did in honour of the sacrifice and heroism of their compatriots. They were saying that whatever Blair and company may have done to currupt the UK's military tradition, they still believed it retained honour and integrity amongst its soldiers and serving men and women.

I have no doubt that most of those who saluted the fallen will not oppose and may even welcome their town's new accolade as 'Royal'. But they won't want to boast about it or let it be thought that they acted to game fame and recognition - and they will be uneasy if it is used to justify and legitimise the two wars, as in fact it will be.

For as with the Chilcott Iraq Inquiry, the British establishment is trying to recover the idea that it is wise and right and understands the country's larger interest, even when this was disasterously not the case and we the public were wiser than our rulers. 

What has happened is in a way similar to the reaction after Diana was killed in her Paris car crash. Stephen Frears caught it well in his film The Queen. The public showed the elite how to behave.  Despite themselves, our rulers then bent to public wisdom - and got away with the benefit.

This also happens because the people let it be so, even desire it. Suzanne Moore set out how annoying this process is in a column last week when she contemplated a royal marriage being loudly cheered despite the revolting behaviour of Uncle Andrew cuddling tyrants and (I had better leave it there). 

As RAF Lyneham ceases to be the arrival point for British military dead, we should salute the citizens of Wootton Bassett for the quiet, commanding reprimand they delivered to our rulers' wrecklessness. But they acted like citizens and deserve better than to be tagged as monarchists.

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