Black Spiders and a Different Web of Knowledge

By: Matthew Groves, BMS Blogger-in-Residence

Recently we have marked the invention of the worldwide web, something that has transformed all our lives. It is now possible to communicate instantaneously with people known and unknown across the globe and to find out facts or read great works of literature at the click of a button. This ‘blog itself of course depends on this web of communicating knowledge. No one should dismiss the benefits this new technology has brought – it has allowed people to free themselves with knowledge and contact and it has broken down boundaries. Gone are the days of trawling through libraries for reference books, a phrase is “googled” and reams of electronic volumes are accessed. Yet the sort of knowledge obtained through the web, by the very way it is obtained can sometimes be treated in a cursory manner – it’s very instantaneousness leads to the risk of a lack of in-depth investigation. The knowledge obtained is perhaps not emotionally absorbed, in the way reading a great book can also involve enjoyment of the object of the book itself. The knowledge acquired is not experienced only accessed.

A contrast with the worldwide web, is another sort of knowledge altogether – cultural knowledge. Cultural knowledge is a store of experiences that shape our values and are handed down to us. Often we may not know why a particular value is precious, yet because it is learnt at our mother’s knee and through our interaction with others it is trusted as true. That cultural knowledge can be found in folk customs, in the memories of communities, in the idioms and proverbs of a language. We attach value and trust in these things, without knowing where they originally came from. In so many ways this knowledge is so very precious because it has gathered together the lessons of centuries and the experience of a people. Of course these values can sometimes become redundant, but in the aggressively reductionist atmosphere of the modern West, the risk is more one of casting aside valuable customs and beliefs simply because we cannot verify them, rather than maintaining redundant ideas.

In politics, democracy and the adversarial holding-to-account of party politics must be healthy. It ensures those in power are scrutinised and accountable. Yet it is not the total picture. This country has at its pinnacle a monarchy and in its upper house of Parliament has preserved a number of Peers (the ninety-two hereditaries) who have inherited their titles. There must be a reason for this, so what is it? Well surely it is because ancient institutions, particularly those based upon a family, hold stores of precious cultural knowledge that would not come to the fore in the combat of adversarial politics.

Sadly public discourse on political power has today unquestioningly accepted the Marxist critique that institutions simply exist to keep power for their own class and the values they profess to promote are merely the cloak beneath which these interests are secretly furthered. Well, that is a view, but it is only one view. Another view must be that while power doe corrupt, the cultural values of institutions and nations are not fake, but genuinely held to. If this were the case, then institutions are actually there to perform the role that they claim to. Indeed, the hereditary peers are often the most assiduous and committed of the members of the Upper House, compared with the ostensibly more -democratic appointees (among whom are the donors to political parties and favourites of the prime minister of the day). The peers believe in the values and so quite who is furthering some dastardly class plot is not really apparent.

All these thoughts lead to the issue of the moment, which is the controversy over HRH Prince Charles’ letters to Ministers – nick-named the black spiders. In the aggressive and unthinking climate of modern media debate, the idea that matters of state should be discussed discreetly and carefully, outside the glare of the media is thought untenable. Open government is all, whether or not this leads to better government. Well it is the contention of this ‘blog that the Prince of Wales may belong to the dignified side of the constitution, but his role is not purely symbolic. In years to come, it will be His Royal Highness who provides the Royal Assent to Acts of Parliament. Prime Ministers will exercise His Royal Highness’s legal powers by convention. Most importantly however, is that the Prince is a store of knowledge. He is part of a family that has been at the heart of this nation for over a millennium, given that the Anglo-Norman Henry I married into the House of Wessex.

This aspect of our constitution – the store of knowledge provided by the dignified side of the constitution – should not be dealt with in accordance to the rules of adversarial politics and complete transparency. Thoughtful reflections put in writing would not be considered in the right way by the tabloid press, for example. To fully access the wealth of the store of knowledge it is for ministers to interact with our Royal Family in a personal way. This is about wisdom not political debate and it should be treated in a very different way. That is why it is right that Prince Charles takes such an interest in the affairs of his future realm and it is why it is also right that these thoughtful contributions should be made discreetly, otherwise they would be inhibited and ministers would not gain full benefit from them. Open access to knowledge is vital for a free society, but we should remember not all knowledge is just about basic facts, it is about emotional and cultural memory and that should be reflected on in a more thoughtful way. Scrutiny and media comment would not be the right way to handle that store of knowledge.