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Johann Hari: Frenzy around Britain’s Royal Wedding “Should Embarrass Us All”

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Up to two billion people around the world tuned in to watch the British royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, a story which has dominated TV news for weeks. The wedding buzz offers a chance to look at the monarchy, Britain’s domestic policy, and how its colonial legacy around the world affects foreign affairs today. While all eyes were on the wedding procession and the first kiss, Democracy Now! spoke with Johann Hari, a columnist at The Independent of London, who says the royal wedding frenzy should be an embarrassment to us all. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of London today hoping to get a glimpse of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Up to two billion people around the world are believed to have watched the festivities, a story which has dominated TV news for weeks. Eight thousand journalists are covering the event.

British police launched a massive security operation around the event. The Guardian newspaper reports Scotland Yard raided five apartments in London on Thursday, preemptively arresting 14 people. Some of those arrested were reportedly involved in the large street protests on March 26th against budget cuts in Britain.

AMY GOODMAN: Controversy has also arisen this week over the royal wedding guest list. Syrian ambassador Sami Khiyami was disinvited amidst reports of Syria’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. But the former head of Bahrain’s National Security Agency is in attendance despite allegations he oversaw the torturing of prisoners with electric shocks. Sheikh Khalifa Bin Ali al-Khalifa is the current Bahraini ambassador to Britain. Human rights groups have also criticized the royal family for inviting representatives from Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Burma, Morocco, Equatorial Guinea, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Joining us here in New York is a British journalist who has openly criticized the wedding hoopla. Johann Hari is a columnist at The Independent of London. One of his most recent columns is titled “This Royal Frenzy Should Embarrass Us All.” He’s also the presenter of the Johann Hari podcast.

Johann, welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHANN HARI: It’s great to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about your country. Talk about this royal wedding, all the attention. And most importantly, let’s discuss empire.

JOHANN HARI: Well, I’m here as a refugee from the royal wedding, in New York, so — although it seems you can’t escape it anywhere. But, you know, nobody objects to two people who love each other getting married. You know, that’s a nice thing. It’s nice for anyone to see it. You know, got no problem with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, depending on their sexual orientation, some countries do.

JOHANN HARI: Well, that’s a good point, but the — indeed, Elton John was there, and he wouldn’t be allowed to get married. He’s not allowed to get married in Britain.

But the thing we really object to is the institution of monarchy and the fact this has turned into the celebration of the idea that my country’s head of state is selected not by voting but by squelching out of a particular aristocratic womb in a particular golden palace, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very sensible way to select these things. And it causes very serious problems. For all the other flaws of the American political system, your head of state grew up on food stamps. My head of state grew up on the postage stamps. You know, you can tell your kids in most democracies, “If you work really hard, if you appeal to enough people, you can grow up to be the symbol of our country.” The fact that the symbol of our country is selected solely through the most snobbish criteria of all, bloodlines, who their parent was, has a disfiguring effect on the whole of British society. It creates a kind of snobbery that emanates out and emanates down. When you’re a British kid, you grow up seeing that people instinctively bow and grovel before someone, just because they happen to have been born in a palace. And I think that does have a deforming effect.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And to what degree — by the reports that we see, the sense is that all of the British public is enthralled with the event. But what’s the reality in terms of public opinion within Britain?

JOHANN HARI: No, that’s not true. Most British people will have any excuse to get very drunk and have a party, and were glad for a public holiday. But no, most people are benignly indifferent. They’ll watch it on the television for 10 minutes and get on with something else.

Around 20 percent of the British people, which is a disappointingly low figure, but it’s still a lot, believe that we should be a republic. The figures — the polling suggests that it’s going to be much higher when the current queen passes away. When you get to that point, you have considerably higher figures for having a republic and people wanting a say in who should be our next head of state.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the movement against royalty in Britain.

JOHANN HARI: Well, we have to deal with some really weird arguments, republicans. So, for example, the monarchists always say, “Oh, it’s really good for tourism.” Actually, of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain, only one of them, number 17, is related to the royal family: Windsor Castle. Ten points ahead of it is Windsor Legoland. So using that logic, we should have a Lego man as our head of state instead of these people.

You know, then they say, “Oh, the monarchy is a great defender of democracy,” which, in itself, seems logically absurd. You know, let’s not democratically elect our head of state in order to preserve democracy. It’s also, for people who talk a lot about British history, incredibly historically illiterate. The last British monarch but one, Edward VIII, literally conspired with Adolf Hitler to run Britain as a Nazi colony. He urged the Nazis to bomb Britain more during the Second World War. So the idea that heredity throws up people who defend democracy is bizarre.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this issue of empire that rarely gets talked about, that the Queen was not only the Queen of England, but also of the commonwealth of nations of the British Commonwealth that all came out of the colonial empire?

JOHANN HARI: Well, Britain is a country that really hasn’t come to terms with its imperial past, if you compare it to a lot of other places like Germany and the awareness they have of the crimes that were committed there. Most British people, for example, just don’t know about, for example, the famines that happened in India in the 1870s and 1890s that were caused by the British. There was a natural crop failure, and Lord Lytton, who was the British governor, ordered that the grain be forcibly requisitioned and shipped to London. Twenty-nine million people died in those famines. You know, if you look at these — he banned the idea of relief efforts; he said it would make the Indians weak. The very good and honorable British people — and there were some in India — who tried to feed the poor were punished and imprisoned and deported. You know, instead, he built labor camps for the starving Indians, where the calorie — the daily calorie count was lower than at Buchenwald at the height of the Nazi atrocities. You know, who knows about that? You know, there’s a fantastic book called Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis that really details them.

But instead, pro-imperial historians, this guy called Andrew Roberts, who was invited to the White House under President Bush, gave a great speech — big defender of the behavior of the British Empire and apologist for the Amritsar massacre, where they openly massacred, you know, peaceful protesters. But that’s all we really hear about the Empire.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Kenya for a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: The British government is facing a lawsuit over the repression of the Kenyan struggle for independence against colonial rule. A group of veterans of Kenya’s resistance movement have filed a suit in British court seeking compensation for human rights abuses during the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952 and 1960. More than 100,000 Kenyans are believed to have been killed in the British crackdown. Gitu wa Kahengeri is a Mau Mau veteran and spokesperson for the case.

GITU WA KAHENGERI: The colonial regime in Kenya at that time had robbed all our lands, had broken almost every human right against us, and we were living at that time in our country like slaves. And therefore, we rose up and say we must see that Kenya recovers its freedom and native land.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, talk about Kenya and its relation to the current U.S. president.

JOHANN HARI: Well, these are ghosts that are really returning at the moment in the form of this case. The British invaded Kenya in the 1880s because they wanted more land, and they seized the most fertile land in Kenya. They banned the local people from growing their cash crops, like coffee, and began to commit terrible atrocities against the people there in order to steal their land. Eventually, in the 1950s, there was a mass uprising against this. And the British reacted by forcibly removing all of the Kikuyu, all the people who lived in that area, all the population. Anyone who objected was moved into a massive concentration camp network. They were detained there. There was mass torture, pouring boiling wax into people’s ears, raping people with bottles. This has all been extensively documented. One of the people who was detained in those camps was Barack Obama’s grandfather, who was basically broken in those camps, never recovered. And —

AMY GOODMAN: What was his involvement in the resistance?

JOHANN HARI: Well, they basically swept up all the Kikuyu men, as far as we know. His family claimed that he didn’t do anything. Of course, it would have been perfectly legitimate to resist violent imperial occupation of your country. But as far as we know, he didn’t do anything. They were just mass punishing any man of that age. It was a huge crackdown.

And, you know, a lot of these lessons of British imperialism, the places that continue now, there’s a great irony. The British Empire was the first place to aerially bombard Pakistan in 1924. President Obama is now aerially bombarding Pakistan. You know, this guy whose grandfather was put in British concentration camps is now following the script that was laid out by British imperialism.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, the British role in Asia, as well, in the Opium War, in the colonization of Hong Kong for so long, until only recently, until only about a decade ago — the role there?

JOHANN HARI: The stand-up comedian Chris Addison, the British stand-up comedian, said one of the great things about being British is you can look at every part of the world and say, “Yeah, we screwed that one up.” But it’s worth remembering, there were always great British people who were anti-imperialist, who argued against this. At every stage, there were people who said, “This is an atrocity, and we shouldn’t be doing this,” just like, you know, Democracy Now! is part of the great American tradition of resisting the crimes of the American state. There have always been British people who fought back and argued against this and sided with the peoples in those countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about today. The guest list for the royal wedding includes not only dignitaries and celebrities, but also practitioners of torture and other human rights violations. One invited guest, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Ali al-Khalifa, is the current Bahraini ambassador to London and the former head of Bahrain’s National Security Agency, an agency that’s accused of electric shocks and beatings. Bahrain has in recent months been wracked by protest. Its government has been accused of unleashing a violent crackdown on political dissenters. Bahrain’s Crown Prince was also originally invited to attend the wedding but declined.

Yesterday, we reached Nabeel Rajab of the Center for Human Rights in Bahrain for comment. This is what he had to say.

Sorry, we don’t have that clip. But can you talk about the Bahraini guest?

JOHANN HARI: Well, at a time when our governments claim they’re bombing Libya to protect the Libyan population and because they’re opposed to human rights abuses, some of the worst human rights abusers in the world have been invited to be fawned over in London today. You know, you had the Saudi royal family, who horsewhip women if they have the temerity to sit behind the wheel of a car, who horsewhip the victims of rape. You know, you had the King of Swaziland, who murders trade unionists, murders democrats, murders dissidents. You know, you had, as you mentioned, Bahraini torturers.

You know, and it’s worth seeing the contrast between Libya and Bahrain. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague, our equivalent to Hillary Clinton, said — admitted in an interview recently that a motive for the bombing of Libya was to lower the price of oil. Contrast that with Bahrain. You know, Bahrain is a place where the oil flows just — you know, just past Bahrain. It’s where the American bases are. The contrast is very clear: if you’re essential to our oil supplies, we’ll fawn over you; if you mess with our oil supplies, if you’re disobedient in supplying your oil, you get what happens in Libya.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s try to go to that clip of Nabeel Rajab of the Center for Human Rights in Bahrain.

NABEEL RAJAB: Disappointing to see the invitation for the wedding is being extended to our ambassador to London, especially taking into consideration his bloody role as the head of the national security apparatus, which is responsible for gross human rights violations since he was in power. Unfortunately, this has not been taken into consideration by the people who invited him. I think this is a sad message to the people of Bahrain and to the victims of torture. I myself was attacked by the forces that belonged to the same institution. I was attacked severely, and I was admitted to hospital. And I was approximately two weeks in hospital getting treated for my — the problem I had because of the attack, which I still have the same problem ’til now.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nabeel Rajab of the Center for Human Rights in Bahrain. Johann Hari?

JOHANN HARI: It’s worth bearing in mind what’s actually happened in Bahrain. We’ve heard a lot about the heroic uprising in Tahrir Square. There was a similar uprising in Bahrain in a place called Pearl Square. The Bahraini government have physically demolished Pearl Square. They’ve knocked the whole thing down, so demonstrators can’t even gather. Massive repression of the Shia population there, who are a majority being viciously suppressed by a Sunni dictatorship. You know? And what do we do? We welcome them, and we fawn over them. It shows that our language about, you know, respect to human rights is tragically deceptive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to go back to the wedding for a second. What is this costing? Who’s paying for it? And also, what does the maintenance of the royal family cost the English public every year?

JOHANN HARI: Sorry, when you said you wanted to go back to the wedding, I suddenly had an image of you in a large hat, a large furry hat, which is delightful.

The wedding is costing about $100 million. They claim it’s being paid for by the royal family’s budget, by their private wealth. And you say, well, where do you think they got their money from? They haven’t been out, you know, doing anything productive lately.

Overall, the official figure is the royal family costs about $260 million a year. Actually, that’s a deceptive figure, because there’s loads of things that aren’t included. So, for example, whenever the royal family go and visit a foreign country, they charge their clothes bill to the local embassy, for example. So it costs a lot of money, at a time when Britain is going through really extreme austerity.

You know, Charles Windsor, the heir to the throne, has over 60 personal staff. He has someone who puts his toothpaste on his toothbrush every morning. He’s never done that. You know, we’re talking about real opulence. He has three personal chauffeurs. What do they do when they need to transport him? Cut him into three pieces, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of them choosing Cambridge, that that’s now who they represent, the new couple, Kate Middleton and Prince William.

JOHANN HARI: Well, I think it’s just part of a broader —- I mean, you know, Cambridge is just one part of Britain. So I don’t think there’s a great deal of symbolism in that. But, you know, there’s been this attempt to present Kate Middleton as, you know, infusing a kind of working-class ethic into the Windsor family. It’s worth bearing in mind, she went to one of the most expensive schools in Britain and has never had a job. It’s a very revealing sign of the snobbery that somehow someone like that is treated as if they’re some kind of Dickensian street urchin. Just because somewhere down the line someone in her family was a coal miner generations ago -—

AMY GOODMAN: I think she worked after college, though.

JOHANN HARI: Well, she only worked for six months. She’s never had a paid job.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the attention — I mean, you couldn’t turn on a news program today to watch news.


AMY GOODMAN: Everyone, starting early, early in the morning — this in the United States — is showing right now the wedding and all that is happening, live since something like 4:00 this morning.

JOHANN HARI: It’s absolutely bizarre. It’s bizarre. And I don’t understand why Americans are so into this. I mean, I understand it’s part of a celebrity culture. Charlie Sheen goes crazy. Kate and William get married. It’s part of that frenzy. I don’t think it suggests some kind of latent monarchical sympathies here in America — or I hope not, anyway. You know, I mean, I don’t think — is the coverage so much greater than, say, Chelsea Clinton’s wedding? I suppose it is, but I think it’s part of the same phenomenon of just kind of empty celebrity sugar.

AMY GOODMAN: The biggest moment now, as we are broadcasting, is the first kiss that is being broadcast.

JOHANN HARI: You know, it’s very nice, but my idea was, look, if we’re going to spend $100 million on this, we have to spend a comparable amount of money distributing anti-nausea tablets across the world on the people who can’t bear to see all this. You know —

AMY GOODMAN: And the interest in Britain?

JOHANN HARI: — it’s not like I begrudge a young couple kissing each other. It’s nice, you know, but — God. You know, I’m not going to get this when I get married. You know, I’m not going to get all this attention. And nor is anyone else in Britain. You know, it’s not a sensible way to do this.

AMY GOODMAN: The interest in Britain?

JOHANN HARI: You know, there’s some — there’s a small minority who are really passionately monarchist. There’s a broader majority who don’t really think about these issues except once every five years, and then, you know, they smile on the idea of people getting married. And then there’s about 20 percent who don’t. Although interestingly, the polling suggests that big majorities want William to succeed the current queen, rather than his father Charles. OK, I say to people, “So, what you want to do is you want to skip the hereditary principle and choose our head of state.” That’s fine. That’s called democracy. If he wants to run in an election, I’ve got no problem with that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I think, as soon as we finish this interview, we will pass the anti-nausea pills around.

AMY GOODMAN: But I want to ask —

JOHANN HARI: I may vomit live on air now if you keep showing those clips.

AMY GOODMAN: We last talked to you about the whole issue of the Uncut movement.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain that and what’s happening right now, as we look at the images of the royal wedding and the amount of money that has been spent. Talk about what’s happening in Britain.

JOHANN HARI: There’s a similar thing going on here in the U.S. Democracy Now! viewers will know General Electric, one of the biggest corporations in America, not only paid no taxes last year, but was given $3 billion by the exchequer, which means that everyone watching this who pays taxes, whether a fireman or a teacher or a cab driver, their money was taken and given to GE and its shareholders, who already have more money than they could ever possibly spend. Similar protests were going on in Britain. Companies like Vodafone, one of our biggest cell phone companies, a man called Philip Green, the sixth richest man in Britain, paid no tax. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Vodafone, which complied with the Egyptian despot —


AMY GOODMAN: — Mubarak in shutting down the entire system of Egypt during the protests.

JOHANN HARI: There’s a whole catalog of horror about Vodafone. We could do a whole show about them. But the —

AMY GOODMAN: And they own something like 45 percent of Verizon Wireless in the United States.

JOHANN HARI: Yeah. And their tax bill was effectively canceled by the last government. They were refusing to pay their taxes for years and — by the current British government, sorry, Conservative government, who then immediately took them on a taxpayer-funded trip of India to promote their business.

A lot of people in Britain were watching this, ordinary citizens, like I’m sure a lot of your ordinary citizens are watching this and just being horrified but feeling powerless. And they said, “You know what?” A group of ordinary people — they were teachers and doctors, firefighters. They said, “Why don’t we just go to our local Vodafone store one day and shut it down? Why don’t we just hold up signs saying, 'You want to operate on our streets? Pay our taxes.'” They went and they did it one Saturday — it got a little bit of media attention — about a hundred people.

But then something really interesting happened. Three days later, in a completely different city quite far away from London, also in Britain, another group of people went and shut down their Vodafone store. They were so enraged by it. Then another group of people did it. And it spread. Within a few weeks, in almost every city in Britain, including some of the most conservative parts of Britain, Vodafone stores were shut down. The UK Uncut movement became a huge thing. It’s really captured the public imagination.

And it’s shown the lie that we need this austerity. Even if you bought the idea that we need cuts — in fact, we need a Keynesian stimulus — but even if you bought that, 120 billion pounds every year is being avoided and evaded by the richest people in Britain, a huge amount of any saving that has to be made. They’re the people who caused this crisis. They’re the people who can most afford to pay. And they’re the people who should pay.

There’s been a brilliant, bright imitation group here in the United States called US Uncut, that people can find. They’re doing the same thing here. Bank of America, they physically shut down lots of their branches, saying, “You can’t do this to us.” It’s ordinary citizens acting in their own self-defense, saying, “You can’t just take our money. We won’t allow this to happen. You can’t do this to us anymore.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: I have one last question, and on a completely different topic, since we rarely get you on the show here live. You’ve been writing a lot about Libya and your concerns about the international campaign now, the bombing campaign in support of the rebels against Gaddafi. Could you talk — tell us — give us a summary of your concerns about this?

JOHANN HARI: Well, Colonel Gaddafi is an absolutely disgusting dictator, and no one should be in any doubt about that. But my concern is, the motives of our governments very plainly are not humanitarian. Indeed they’re very plainly to do with oil. And although there may be a temporary — there very clearly is a temporary overlap between the wishes of the rebels, who are overwhelming good people, and the whims of the American imperial power, the British imperial power, French imperial power. That overlap will be very brief. And when there is a divergence between those interests, the American and British governments will be very strongly in favor of repressing the will of the Libyan people. If the Libyan people can free themselves, one of the most basic things we know is they will want to control their oil supply, and that means they will be immediately punished and turned on.

So, there will be an attempt to — I think what’s happened is, for the first time in 60 years, the area that has the largest pot of oil in the world has begun to show some independence. It’s begun to break free. And I think this is — what this is in reality, tragically, is a way of reasserting Western — raw Western power in the middle of a chaotic situation. They don’t want to allow the oil supply to run out of control. If they were really interested in human rights, they would not be allying with the worst human rights abusers in the whole region — the Saudi Arabian tyranny — who, you know, as we were saying, don’t even allow women to drive, horsewhip rape victims. You know, if they’re your best friends, your claims to be defending human rights are preposterous.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, I want to thank you very much for being with us, British journalist who writes a twice weekly column for The Independent newspaper, and he’s the presenter of the Johann Hari podcast.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. And as this broadcast took place, the couple that got married today, Kate and William, the kiss happened, and then there was a military flyover — to seal it, I suppose.

JOHANN HARI: Right, undermining all the points we just made.

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