Thursday 15 September 2022

Working Towards the Crown

Beeps on Morrison's checkouts turned down to show respect. Flights from Heathrow cancelled to show respect. Food banks shuttered to show respect. Cancer diagnosis and treatment services closed to show respect. A handful from a burgeoning catalogue of misguided, bizarre, and in some cases dangerous decisions taken to mark the passing of the dear departed.

What we've seen over the last week are examples of "working towards". This sort of thing happens around powerful people all the time, an attempt by minions at a remove from the sovereign personage to anticipate and meet their wishes. If their efforts are appreciated, that might be rewarded with promotion, favour, or they simply get to remain in a zone of non-punishment and avoiding being made an example of. At the risk of earning the ire of someone somewhere with a Hitler comparison, it is well known that he maintained a distance from his subordinates, which basically invited his lackeys to compete among themselves to catch the Fuhrer's favour. And, as the ultimate seat of authority and power in the Third Reich, the top Nazis did so with alacrity - which saw many of them convicted of war crimes charges at the Nuremberg Trials.

The Queen and the royals, however, are not dictators. They might be petty tyrants in their own households where courtiers and palace flunkies play the game of second guessing the royal wish, but ordinary folk gushing about the time they witnessed the Queen drive past or met her at the opening of a refurbished town hall aren't so motivated. There are no rewards for standing in the mother of all queues, apart from meeting the internal desires driving their ritualised devotion. Indeed, obsequiousness is its own reward for devoted, loyal subjects.

The reasons for enthusiasm for the royalty are at once complex and easily grasped, but what motivated the likes of Center Parcs, before the inevitable u-turn, to announce it was turfing out its guests for 24 hours as a mark of respect? Judging by the ludicrous nature of the proposition, this obviously came right from the top of the company because the plan wasn't killed until the backlash bit. Junior, public-facing layers of the firm would not have made such a stupid suggestion. They did roll back saying guests would be allowed to stay, but they would not be allowed outside. Truly a case study in a marketing meltdown to be studied in business classes for years to come. But again, why act so dumb in the first place?

It comes back to the aforementioned zone of non-punishment. In implicitly coercive situations, there are also powerful incentives to remain just so. At the risk of indulging a little rational choice, showing initiative runs the risk of failure and humiliation. Better to stay quietly competent, unnoticed, and going with the flow. And most of the time, it works a treat. Millions of people get through their careers dwelling entirely within its terms, and the more familiar one is with the setting the easier melting into the background becomes. But this is not available in competitive and/or uncertain environments. Businesses compete for market share, and it is received wisdom that PR faux pas costs customers. In politics, saying the wrong thing might invite press condemnation and the voters' wrath. Better be safe than sorry.

This is exacerbated even further when something abruptly changes and no one knows quite what to do. In these anomic situations, playing it safe might be the riskiest activity of all. Our Center Parcs friends, for instance, assumed that most people are either monarchists or have affection/respect for the institution and the late Queen in particular, wanted to be seen to be in tune with popular grief, and wanted to avoid attracting adverse coverage that could cost sales and profits. By making a series of seemingly rational calculations, turfing people out of their chalets to show respect for the Queen was the worst possible decision and has made them a national laughing stock. Matters get more serious when we're talking about food banks and medical services. Are food banks worried bands of enraged monarchists are going to demand their closure for helping feed the poor? That donations would dry up? Similarly for GP and hospital appointments, are practice and NHS managers afraid the press are going to splash on woke doctors and nurses who saw to their patients during the Queen's funeral service? That Tory ministers would find this another excuse to restrict funding? (Well, actually ...). In each situation, they were caught on the hop. They did not know what to do, and so the conservative strategy, of going along with official encouragement to observe the mourning, they abbreviated all common sense because common sense did not seem appropriate.

No one has to pull a lever to bring about perverse outcomes when the perception of pressure and sanction does the job more effectively. It's another occasion of where attempting to act rationally leads to irrational outcomes and invites the pain that was trying to be avoided. These are all examples of where working towards the Crown meant acting against the people. How appropriate.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Is it really so fragmented this enforced closure of things is more like a directive from some place or some one significant in power.

dermot said...

Yet another anglo-saxon mass hysteria.

The stereotype about the English have a stiff upper lip is just that, and could not be more false. Particularly galling, after these same anglo-saxons accusing the Irish and every other ethnic group of being irrational and driven by emotions.

Christ, the English need to get a grip. How spot on was Irish Twitter on the day of the death, to trend with "HERE WE GO".

Graham said...

Never underestimate the stupidity of some of the ruling class and how out of touch they can be.

I was working for one of the biggest accountancy companies when Nelson Mandela visited London.

I was joined in the lift by two of the firm’s partners, both dressed in Dick Whittington costumes having attended a City of London event. Ignoring me (they tend to not see the staff unless they want something) one of them boomed “Of course the only reason he is here is because nobody wants him over there”. I am sure he believed this, still supported the old apartheid regime and was completely out of touch with the level of support of Mandela in both South Africa and the UK.

Those closing shops, postponing hospital appointments, and telling us not to ride our bikes are the same as those two idiots. The monarchy is the figurehead of the structures of power and wealth that guarantee their place in society. They cannot conceive that large sections of the population are opposed to or indifferent to the crown.

SimonB said...

The closure of schools has a knock-on effect on parents. The NHS already has huge staffing problems so there was bound to be an impact from a bank holiday under short notice.

The overall response to the death of the Queen has been mental. Your point is well made.

Phil said...

Hitler "maintained a distance from his subordinates, which basically invited his lackeys to compete among themselves to catch the Fuhrer's favour."

True enough, but it should be said that Hitler didn't do this because he was a master of bureaucratic gameplaying; he did it because he was a lazy sod.

"Hitler normally appeared shortly before lunch, quickly read through Reich Press Chief Dietrich's press cuttings, and then went into lunch. So it became more and more difficult for Lammers [head of the Reich Chancellory] and Meissner [head of the Presidial Chancellory] to get him to make decisions which he alone could make as head of state. ... When Hitler stayed at Obersalzberg it was even worse. There, he never left his room before 2.00 p.m. Then, he went to lunch. He spent most afternoons taking a walk, in the evening straight after dinner, there were films ... He disliked the study of documents. I have sometimes secured decisions from him, even ones about important matters, without his ever asking to see the relevant files. He took the view that many things sorted themselves out on their own if one did not interfere."

And here's the source of the 'working towards' image - from 1934, which is considerably earlier than I'd thought.

"Everyone who has the opportunity to observe it knows that the Führer can hardly dictate from above everything which he intends to realise sooner or later. On the contrary, up till now everyone with a post in the new Germany has worked best when he has, so to speak, worked towards the Führer. Very often and in many spheres it has been the case - in previous years as well - that individuals have simply waited for orders and instructions. Unfortunnately, the same will be true in the future; but in fact it is the duty of everybody to try to work towards the Führer along the lines he would wish. Anyone who makes mistakes will notice it soon enough. But anyone who really works towards the Führer along his lines and towards his goal will certainly both now and in the future one day have the finest reward in the form of the sudden legal confirmation of his work."

Both passages quoted in Ian Kershaw's 1993 paper "Working Towards the Führer".

What we're seeing is another manifestation of charismatic authority, albeit in a slightly phantasmal - and hence confused - form, given that there's no actual person in authority here. Perhaps on the 20th Charlie can get up on his hind legs and tell us all we can go home, like his namesake did 25 years ago.

mikenotts said...

This is all right and fitting. As the pound tanks ,as the average family income drops below East European levels, fracking resumes (all the "green crap" forgotten), as we reach the "When you can't borrow another buck from the bank or buy another case of booze, you bust the joint out. You light a match" stage, we have a Johnson, truss or Starmer as PM and 73 year old idiot boy as king. Its all perfect in its way.

Longford said...

The photo you used is from CenterParcs Longford Forest which won’t be closed on the day as it’s located in Ireland.

Ben G said...

I agree with the main thrust of this, but may I add a small degree of counterpoint. The day of the funeral, for good or ill, was declared a bank holiday, as has probably been planned for decades. Therefore, it should serve as a bank holiday for those who usually have one, to use as they see fit. GP and non urgent hospital appointments don't usually happen on bank holidays, and a great many shops and other retail outlets close on bank holidays too, so why should that not happen in this case too? I agree of course, that food banks closing, hotels turfing out guests etc. which would never happen on a normal bank holiday is ridiculous.

- Ben G