HER Majesty the Queen is 95 years old and suffering with Covid. I am sure we all wish her a full and speedy recovery. She has enjoyed not only an extraordinarily long but also a remarkably successful reign. And yet, as she prepares for her platinum jubilee, she finds herself presiding over both a family and an institution – the monarchy – in trouble. Jubilees are occasions for celebration but, at the same time, reflection. Do we still need the monarchy and, if so, why? What do we want it to do?
The worst argument for the monarchy is that it is better than the alternatives. Tropes or memes that, if it were not the Queen living in Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, it would be Boris Johnson, may make for cute social media posts, but they are hardly an argument to take seriously. Plenty of countries combine the roles of head of government and head of state – and there is no reason why the United Kingdom could not do likewise if it wished.
Similarly, the idea that, if it were not for the monarchy, we would have Tony Blair or Paul McCartney or Adele or Emma Thompson (or any number of ghastly celebs) as our president is monumentally wide of the mark, appalling though these thoughts are. The monarchy would not need replaced by some cod presidency were it to be abolished.
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Rather, such meagre formal powers as remain in the Queen’s hands could be passed either to the prime minister or to the other great offices of state that exist to undertake ceremonial duties (the Speaker of the House of Commons, for example, or the once-great office of Lord Chancellor, which Mr Blair’s constitutional butchery should never have been allowed to decimate).
That the monarchy could be abolished without it needing to be replaced throws into the starkest relief the question of why we would want to persevere with it. This is not a cry for its abolition: rather, it is a call for those who would preserve it to wake up to the idea that, if the monarchy is to endure after the reign of the present Queen, its supporters are going to have to explain why.
For – as is all too painfully obvious – the royal family are about the worst advert for the ongoing monarchy we could have. The charge sheet is ominously familiar. We have a 62-year old Duke of York who is confined to barracks, in permanent disgrace. We have Harry and Meghan who have quit the family, preferring a life of vain celebrity in North America to one of service and duty to the United Kingdom. And we have an heir to the throne whose courtiers are under formal police investigation for selling honours for cash – a sleaze allegation that makes Boris Johnson’s brushes with the Metropolitan Police look like chicken feed.
The monarchy without the Queen is a grim prospect. Its future rests on the shoulders of two men: Prince Charles and Prince William. I have come to the view that the former is much misunderstood – and has been much maligned (including, in the past, by me).
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He has been an interventionist prince. A purist would take the view that his interferences in aspects of public life have been not merely unbecoming but inappropriate. Monarchy can be sustained in a democracy only if the monarch, her heirs and successors, stay out of politics. This Prince Charles has refused to do. He has intervened, both publicly and privately, on a broad array of issues, from farming to town planning and from medicine to the environment.
If his public utterances on these matters raised eyebrows, his private exchanges with government ministers on issues of policy raised a lengthy court case, in which the Guardian newspaper – in the end successfully – sued under freedom of information legislation for access to Charles’ voluminous correspondence with ministers.
I gave evidence in the court hearings on behalf of the paper, and against the Prince, on the constitutional implications of publishing the correspondence (there are not many Conservatives who have spent three hours on the stand, being cross-examined by lawyers to the royal household, but there we are).
The Palace was nuts to resist disclosure. By doing so they succeeded only in drawing far more attention to what Charles had been getting up to than was in his best interests. For, when his letters to ministers were eventually published, they proved to be the dampest of squibs. There was no inappropriate lobbying – only the expression of concern from a man passionate about policy, who felt that sitting idly on his hands and saying nothing would be an abnegation of duty.
Charles has sought to make a difference – to use his unrivalled position in the kingdom to do good. Yes, he has sometimes been badly advised. Yes, he has sometimes been rather cackhanded. But he has acted out of a conviction that modern monarchy must be seen and heard to make a difference and cannot afford to rest, mute and inactive, behind ancient palace walls.
This, I would suggest, is the lesson the Duke of Cambridge now needs to learn. Prince William has been invisible too long. His late grandfather’s legacy was the brilliant Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme. His father founded a series of ground-breaking charities, most notably the Prince’s Trust. But what is William’s contribution to the greater wellbeing of the United Kingdom? He needs a USP, and fast.
The monarchy has a future, one which we can all benefit from. The foundations are there for William (and Kate) to build on – the lifetime of dedication and duty that the Queen has given her country, combined with the keen interest in the betterment of the kingdom that Prince Charles has sought (and sometimes strained) to articulate. But monarchy is an inter-generational thing or it is nothing, and already the burden for the future falls to Prince William. When will he start rising to the challenge?
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