Thursday, April 14, 2005

Will Camilla save the royal family?

The reign of our present Queen falls neatly into two. Until 1979 or so, the royal family was idolised by many and ignored by the rest. With the exception of state occasions like the Coronation, it did not impinge greatly upon people’s everyday lives if they did not want it to.

All that changed after 1979. Whether it is all Mrs Thatcher’s fault I don’t know, but there is no doubt that this change took place around about the time she came to power, and it may well be that the economic policies she pursued played a part in it. For the royal family became part of celebrity culture. In part this move was forced upon them: in part it was eagerly embraced.

Whatever its causes, this development was a disaster for the royal family. The essence of monarchy is that it is – or more accurately appears – to be immutable. It must feel like a still point in a rapidly changing world.

By contrast, celebrity culture demands constant movement. Celebrities must be in the news every day and be constantly rising or falling in public esteem or they cease to exist. Equally, the media machine is voracious and knows no boundaries. Few can survive long in this world and maintain any trace of dignity.

The Princess of Wales was not killed by paparazzi photographers, but her death was the natural outcome of the celebrity process because it made the best possible story. One fears for Prince William’s future in this world and particularly for the woman he eventually marries.

What is the answer to this problem? There are two possible solutions: the first is to conclude that monarchy is impossible in the modern world and abolish it. The second is to attempt to change the nature of monarchy in order to make it less vulnerable to the excesses of the media.

The strongest case for a republic is that monarchy is an inherently ridiculous system. If one were designing a constitution on logical principles one would never come up with an hereditary head of state. But I am aware that many of the things I most value – test cricket, British Liberalism, rural Shropshire – are not just the result of planning from first principles. To a large extent they have just happened. So I am not sure how much force this argument has.

A better argument for a republic is that monarchy has failed in just the area where its advocates claim it is strongest. It has become supremely undignified. It is hard to imagine a senior politician – say Roy Hattersley or Geoffrey Howe or Shirley Williams – becoming involved in the sort of scandals that have dogged the royal family for the past 25 years.

However, those who favour a republic have a duty to come up with the means by which a British president would be elected or appointed. A popular idea on the left is to make the Commons speaker head of state. But that would put his or her fate in the hands of the majority party in the House, which would be extremely dangerous for the future of democracy. So there is more work to be done here by republicans.

The other approach is to change the nature of monarchy. The fashionable call used to be for a “bicycling” monarchy in line with the Dutch or Scandinavian model. In many ways, though, we used to have a more modest monarch than we do today – if not a bicycling one then at least a horse riding one.

George VI was at heart a dull country gentleman forced to become King by his glamorous brother’s abdication. Elizabeth II’s style – all those corgis and headscarves – has been equally uninspiring. It is only when the monarchy tried to become modern that it became controversial and unpopular.

So perhaps Camilla’s scruffy hair, green wellies and dislike of publicity represent the royal family’s best hope. The less the monarchy interests us, the more likely it is to survive.

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