We suffer from a national inability to think clearly about monarchy. The disagreement between the Queen and the American photographer Annie Leibovitz last month over the appropriate headgear for a photoshoot stayed in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
It is scarcely remarkable that Elizabeth Windsor, who was reared to believe herself part of a line appointed by God to reign over this nation and its dependencies, was offended by the wild colonial woman’s suggestion that she remove her tiara in order to look “less dressy”. None the less, the nation experienced a frisson of pleasure at this naïve piece of lèse-majesté and the irritable response it provoked. That this trivial spat should so grab the public attention illustrates the odd nature of the relationship between hereditary monarchy and a society ambivalent about that strange institution.
Writing on the British constitution in 1867, Walter Bagehot famously said of monarchy, “Its mystery is its life. We must not let daylight upon magic.” The idea is accurate and unsustainable. The Windsors have been turned into a soap opera by a celebrity-obsessed culture — think of the media frenzy as the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death approaches. This is a culture determined to demand both daylight and magic.
The outcome is a contradictory belief that royalty are semi-sacred creatures who yet deserve censure when they manifest huffy behaviour. This inconsistency and lack of clarity is the source of the ad hominem arguments that frequently disfigure the republican case. It may be tempting to point to the petulance of the Prince of Wales, to the immature excesses of his sons, or to the extravagance of his late grandmother, but such lines of argument are neither fruitful nor just.
Members of the royal family are reared in luxury; they do not have equals; they are rarely required to defend their opinions; and they mix only with people screened for acceptability. If we dislike the outcome, we should ask why we have permitted this unhealthy state of affairs to persist for so long rather than criticising individuals for acting in accordance with their experience and upbringing.
At its best, royalty manifests the virtues of noblesse oblige. Elizabeth II embodies all that is greatest in a constitutional monarch. Her devotion to what she believes to be her duty has been unswerving — probably at considerable cost to her personal happiness — and she has refrained from interfering in the workings of our parliamentary democracy. It is open to question whether Charles III will display similar qualities of obligation and restraint. The public knows this, and is beginning to tinker with ideas that undermine the hereditary principle.
Ever alert to the possibilities of turning their readers’ prejudices to profit, the tabloids have played on the heir apparent’s unpopularity to make the case that the crown should skip a generation. (The Daily Mail commissioned a poll from ICM, and published the results on Monday. It said that 53 per cent of those questioned wanted the crown to pass directly to William.) William, good-looking and youthful, has not been in the public eye long enough to make himself an object of criticism.
If the popular confusion over the nature of monarchy is to go unchallenged, he is certainly a more attractive choice than his father. Voting on the succession has even been raised. How this would differ from electing a president has not yet been explored in circles where the idea is popular.
Before too long, we must have a national debate about the monarchy. A hereditary right to rule, and all the deference that goes with it, is either acceptable or it is not. If the nation decides in favour of monarchy, it must forgo its sentimental and selective attachment to those members and aspects of the institution that it likes. It should accept that the next in line — whatever his appeal to popular taste — is the rightful head of state.
If it believes that to be undesirable, then alternatives must be examined. The current trend is for a tawdry populism that offers a comfortable substitute for the more demanding pursuit of true egalitarianism. We cannot continue with the illusion that majesty can co-exist with a self-congratulatory exaltation of all that has the most facile appeal.
Nor does it make sense to fantasise about a Scandinavian-style bicycling monarchy: we must make up our minds about hereditary privilege and its attendant flummery. Bagehot explained it thus: “There are arguments for not having a Court, and there are arguments for having a splendid Court; but there are no arguments for having a mean Court.”
Aware of the growing aggression of facile populism, the Windsors have nodded to the idea of a meaner Court, in the hope of preserving their status. But paying income tax and reducing the number of flunkies on the payroll is meaningless: the protocol and elaborate costumes look the same as they did in the early years of the past century. It can be no other way: the tradition is designed to appeal to sentiment and to enforce servility.
The British character tends towards compromise. That is both its strength and its weakness. The present attitude to monarchy displays only the weaknesses of ambiguity. When the United Kingdom eventually decides to turn itself into the Republic of Great Britain, the more endearing side of our national liking for the via media is likely to be in evidence. As George Orwell once predicted, the new republic will probably retain the Royal Arms on the soldier’s cap badge.
Jill Segger is a freelance writer who contributes to Tribune, The Catholic Herald, The Friend, and other publications.