Kings' ransom

BOOKSm POLITICS: THE MONARCHY AND THE CONSTITUTION by Vernon Bogdanor, OUP pounds 19.99 UNITING THE KINGDOM?: The Making of British History ed Alexander Grant & Keith J Stringer, Routledge pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
LATELY, it has been easy to feel that Britain might be better off without a monarchy; in fact, to feel this so strongly that we might doubt whether we have really understood its true function. How could something so old and venerable suddenly seem so irrelevant? For anyone tired of royal scandal and looking for a thorough analysis of the constitutional role of the monarchy, Vernon Bogdanor, Reader in Government at Oxford, has written the perfect book. It gives us a vivid picture of how the crown works today as well as how it has evolved historically. There are chapters on the rules of succession, on how a sovereign appoints a Prime Minister in the case of a hung parliament, on the relation between the Crown and the Church, and the Crown and the Commonwealth. The implication throughout is that the Crown has a crucial role to play in modern British politics, and could not be replaced by anything better. However, somewhat ironically for the pro-monarchist Bogdanor, it is possible to leave the book not less of a republican but more, for as soon as one evaluates the worth of the monarchy in such a utilitarian way - as a means of efficiently running a political system - then one is likely to run into serious trouble, for it may just be that some, and perhaps finally the most decisive, arguments in favour of the monarchy are emotional rather than practical.

Bogdanor argues that a constitutional monarchy can offer the greatest degree of legitimacy available in a democratic nation. Because the head of the state has no political allegiance, he or she is able to unite parts of the nation that might be divided in their feelings towards Westminster politicians. In the case of a hung parliament, when the sovereign forms a government, people are more likely to trust a monarch, who has no past political involvement, than a president, who might once have belonged to a particular party. If Britain has avoided many of the upheavals of other countries in the last 200 years, Bogdanor suggests that it is in part because the Crown has been able to reconcile both sides of the political spectrum. The relative political instability of France since 1789 is attributed to the abolition of the monarchy, with the author darkly suggesting that trouble might follow if republicanism ever got out of hand here. Abolition might initially appeal to middle-of-the-road reformers, but he tells us that "it also has the potential to unleash political forces whose contours can at present be only dimly discerned".

Bogdanor's most intriguing but rather undeveloped thesis is that a nation has to have a public figure who will successfully embody its self-image. He argues that only the Crown "can represent the whole nation in an emotionally satisfying way; it alone is in a position to interpret the nation to itself". The danger in a republic is that people may be left emotionally unsatisfied by a president, with whom certain sections of the population will by definition not have agreed politically: as examples, Bogdanor points to the United States during Nixon's presidency, and France during Mitterand's period in office. When it comes to why the British monarch should be so good at interpreting a nation to itself, Bogdanor grows more hazy. However, he does remind us that Elizabeth II can trace her descent back to Egbert, King of Wessex in the ninth century, which may imply that this makes her a font of true "Britishness", someone who speaks for all her citizens.

Bogdanor is aware that the monarchy is going through a difficult period, which is why he spends much time looking at its often troubled history for evidence of resilience. Though it is salutary to remember that republican sentiments are not new, that monarchs have often been deeply unpopular (when George IV died, his obituary in The Times read, "There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King"), it is instructive that the Crown's unpopularity predated its relative loss of power in the 19th century. Queen Victoria became a popular monarch only after, or as a response to, her new political powerlessness from the 1870s. The cocktail of unpopularity and powerlessness is hence a new and intriguing development.

In case we remain unconvinced by his other arguments, Bogdanor informs us that the monarchy is not, in the end, very expensive. It only costs pounds 78.1 million a year to run, and if we feel that isn't nothing, we're told that the Vehicle and Driving Licensing Agency costs more than twice that amount, pounds 187 million - the choice of the example is presumably designed to impress on us the superior uses of the Queen beside the humdrum task of ensuring the efficient allocation of driving licences and number plates.

Even though not directly concerned with the monarchy, the excellent collection of essays entitled Uniting the Kingdom? provides more evidence for why the Crown may have increasing trouble "interpreting the nation to itself". A group of distinguished historians, including David Marquand, David Cannadine and Conrad Russell, introduce us to a new way of writing British history that reflects a growing sensitivity to the roles of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. In the past, British history usually meant English history, the very words England and Britain deemed interchangeable. David Cannadine points out that this confusion is today nowhere more evident and anachronistic than in John Major's view of history, for (like Vernon Bogdanor in a different context) he likes to tell us that the nation can trace its monarchy back to Egbert, King of Wessex without any sensitivity to the fact that he is talking about the history of only one part of the Kingdom. This collection, which brings together contributions from medievalists, early modernists and modern historians, illustrates that the contemporary debate about the relationship between the regions and the centre has a long history. The moral is best summed up by the collection's editors: "If this book has any lesson, it is that the Westminster-based state has at times found it difficult to give equal treatment to all the peoples who constitute it - and that the result has often been one of acute tensions."