God Save the Queen…But Not the Monarchy

The Queen Visits BrightonThe Royal Family has rarely been the focus of my attention. To me, they’re rather like the colour of paint in some public buildings: the unconvincing shades of green or beige may be distantly unpleasant, but at the same, they’re not glaring enough to make me grab a can of white Dulux and a brush. Perhaps we should thank the Duchess of York for being so outrageous that she has made the Monarchy a topic worthy of scrutiny once more.

There is little one can say about the “cash for access” scandal that hasn’t already been vomited forth by the tabloids. Fergie is in dire financial straits, a situation which is likely due to a combination of her own mismanagement and her perception of what a “royal” lifestyle entails. Her grasping for cash was both sad and ridiculous at the same time. No doubt some sort of sanction will be applied, the cracks will be papered over by a combination of discreet absence and charitable works, and life, such as it is, will go on much as it did before.

However, a fundamental question is being lost in the mix: why do we need to have the Royal clique at all? I have no doubt that the Queen is doing a good job: it would be bizarre if her vast array of experiences didn’t give her some valuable insights and a sense of moderation. However, what comes after her are the “media generation” Royals, the ones who have had to fully adapt to the world of 24 hour news. Already, this change has been nothing if not awkward: we’ve discovered things about Prince Charles’ private life, e.g., his longing to be Camilla’s personal sanitary item while he was still married to Diana, which pass the “too much information” threshold. We’ve seen the emergence of “celebrity icon” Royals too, as exemplified by the lower end of the media’s continuing obsession with Princess Diana. What many seem to lose in the pop of flashbulbs is the following thought: these aren’t a bunch of film stars, these are people with an automatic place in government. They didn’t run for office, they had no manifesto to set out, no debates to endure: they are just there and put in place by an accident of birth. Charles has tried to carve out a role as an environmental spokesman; Andrew is a spokesman for British business. While I do not doubt their sincerity in either case, the fact remains that they hold these positions because of their surname, and ultimately because the public doesn’t find them sufficiently irritating to do anything about it.

I’ve read that a secretary to the Royal Family once refered to Fergie as “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar”: but perhaps her cruder qualities are useful in raising our awareness of aristocracy’s fundamental obscenity, given we live in an age which largely eschews unearned merit. The public nods its approval when Nick Clegg says that the House of Lords will become an elected chamber: for too long it has become a place to stick politicians who are too awkward to put before the voters such as Peter Mandelson, or worse, those figures whose careers are so faded that their sole contribution to present politics is the writing of cranky diatribes. Making the chamber elected is correctly perceived as reinvigorating it, providing it with fresh legitimacy. Why is it so difficult to make the same connection and draw the same conclusions about the wellspring of the order from whence the Lords arose?

There is no reason to accept the contention that the monarchy provides some natural beacon for stability; even countries as historically quarrelsome and chaotic as Italy have been held together by mere Presidents. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the Queen herself would want to say she is any more venerable than the long-serving former German President, Richard von Weizsäcker. Indeed, Herr von Weizsäcker was able to capitalise upon his political legitimacy to talk about important national issues, such as tolerance and social responsibility; given the political constraints on the Monarchy, Britain’s Royals find it more difficult to engage in such discussions.

It is also not particularly logical to assert that the Monarchy is a natural beacon for tourism; for example, no Royal lives in the Tower of London, yet the last time I went there it was overwhelmed with visitors. We perhaps need to accept that it is the Monarchy’s past, as well as the country’s, which make the tourists come rather than some obsession with our present political arrangements. No doubt, there would be a falling off of some tourists to see the “Changing of the Guard” if the ceremony was republican rather than royal in nature: however this could be more than offset by opening more of the Royal Palaces to visitors. The National Trust and English Heritage certainly know how to make the most of such opportunities.

Additionally, it need not be destabilising to abolish the monarchy. Indeed, it can and should be orderly: I would suggest that nothing changes until after the present Queen passes away. The Civil List can be wound up, a final settlement arranged with the remainder of the family, and eventually, the noble titles abolished. I suggest Buckingham Palace should remain as the official residence of the President of the British Republic. Continuity can go hand in hand with change.

Finally, there is reason to doubt the contention that the role of President would attract politicians who were more interested in pomp than circumstance: while there is the possibility that the likes of Jeffrey Archer could run for office, it is difficult to see how he would gain a direct mandate from the nation. Time and again, British democracy has indicated that the public has generally good taste: yes, ridiculous figures like Boris Johnson do get elected. However the hung parliament was an eloquent verdict on all three major parties’ failure to convince. The 1945 and 1997 elections were a stunning indication of the nation’s appetite for change. To cling to monarchy given the evidence of such resilient common sense is an act of bad faith lacking any reasonable justification.

Nick Clegg has promised that his political reforms will be the most wide ranging since 1832; this statement has been rightly dismissed as hyperbole. However, it is likely that at least some of what he proposes will be significant, and portions of it may even be worthwhile. Perhaps monarchy will be eroded still further as a result, and the wounds it receives from the likes of Fergie may indeed one day strike the final blow. We need not fear this: the nation should be confident that its vast and storied history is sufficiently understood and respected to no longer require a superfluous reminder. We rightly aspire towards self-governance, meritocracy, and equality. These ambitions should mean that as we continue to say “God save the Queen” in the meantime, we realise that eventually we will not want to indulge in the same exclamation for the Monarchy.

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