Long to reign over us, God save Tony Blair

`This is the first British government containing senior ministers who are not instinctive monarchists'

HERE IS a scene from Tony Blair's famous visit to Australia in July 1995, when he paid homage to Rupert Murdoch. The scene has not been reported before, as it occurred before Blair flew on to Murdoch's island to conduct some fruitful business. It took place on the afternoon of his arrival at Australia's prime-ministerial residence in Sydney, a spectacular house overlooking the harbour.

Journalists gathered in the large garden of the house. There had been no security checks. Anyone could have wandered in. Late in the afternoon Blair and the Australian Prime Minister of the day, Paul Keating, emerged from the house to give a press conference. As the conference ended Blair and his press adviser, Alastair Campbell, turned around immediately to head back into the house. Before they had time to move more than an inch, Keating said to the journalists and any passers-by who had joined the gathering: "I'm going to show Tony around the garden. If you would like to join us for the next hour or so, you're welcome".

A flicker of horror passed across Blair's jet-lagged face. This was not how we did things in the United Kingdom. Once a press conference was over, it was over. The star politician disappeared from view. How can one develop a prime ministerial aura if one is so accessible and available?

It may not carry quite the same cachet as being the first journalist into Port Stanley, but I was the only correspondent to travel with the Blair entourage on that controversial trip. Even then, with Blair still two years away from power, access had to be carefully negotiated. Yet the Australian Prime Minister was available to anyone who wanted to join him for a picnic in his garden. In other words, the political culture in Australia is very different.

Political journalists tell me it is not uncommon to bump into senior ministers in a local supermarket. There are virtually no security barriers impeding contact between leader and voters. National politicians have the same aura as a big council's leader in Britain.

Every country needs a whiff of enigmatic mystique in its rulers, and you do not get that if you know you can bump into them choosing some frozen peas in a supermarket. Although, in my view, Australia was mistaken to vote for the monarchy, I am not surprised that it did so. A relatively young country, with an earthy political culture, was clinging to some mystique.

But what about the very different political culture in Britain, which is drowning in ritual and mystique? By the time of that Australian visit, Blair, as leader of the Opposition, was already acquiring a distinct aura. Power was about to descend, and he was becoming a more distant, elevated figure as a result. Already he was performing a dual role, as political leader developing policies and as the nation's leader-in-waiting.

After the Dunblane shootings Blair, though still in opposition, visited the school and the hospital with John Major. Both were on the scene before the Royal Family. As Prime Minister he's articulated the nation's feelings at times of "crisis" even when the crisis has involved the royals, as in the death or Diana, Princess of Wales. His family is photographed on holiday in Italy, the perfect role model for a modern Britain, compared with the royal version scattered neurotically around Britain's castles.

Nor is Blair the first PM to become a near-monarchical figure. Margaret Thatcher acquired a regal presence, albeit one that was closer to Dame Edna Everage than to the more discreet Windsor version. John Major, even, when he still had some prime ministerial dignity, became a leader with a ceremonial, ritualistic role. His visit in the immediate aftermath of Dunblane is only one of several examples.

A number of unrelated factors have created a much more deeply felt prime- ministerial aura. The threat of terrorism has inevitably had a distancing impact, cocooning our political leaders in a world removed from ours. The insatiable demands of the media have forced them to focus much more closely on image and presentation. Prime ministers have become simultaneously ubiquitous and elusive, an enigmatic combination. More importantly, and worth investigating further, the decline of political parties has enabled their leaders to rise above them.

Although we vote for parties and not prime ministers as individuals, the occupants of Downing Street are becoming more presidential.

Into this potent pot the Government has thrown its constitutional reforms.

On yesterday's Breakfast with Frost, the Leader of the Lords, Baroness Jay, argued that the removal of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords in no way undermined the monarchy. I cannot reveal whether the current Queen agrees with her, but I do know what that sharp reader of the political scene, Queen Victoria, would have thought. And, thanks to Roy Jenkins's biography, we also know Gladstone's view.

More than a hundred years ago, leading Liberals in Gladstone's government wanted the hereditary peers abolished. Queen Victoria was horrified, writing to the Prime Minister that the hereditaries often represented the "true feelings of the country". Gladstone concurred, adding: "Organic change of this kind in the House of Lords may strip and lay bare, and in laying bare may weaken, the foundations even of the Throne." Gladstone and Victoria were being more candid than Baroness Jay. It will not be long before the Queen, when she opens new sessions of Parliament, will be the only one sitting there on the basis of the hereditary principle. She will be exposed and consequently more vulnerable.

There is another factor to give some hope to British republicanism, which is harder to quantify. This is the first government containing senior ministers who are not instinctive monarchists.

In opposition several of them suggested fairly radical reforms to the monarchy. I would estimate that two-thirds of the current Cabinet would not shed any tears if Britain became a republic. The Government is far too cautious to raise the issue (look how scared it is of the fox-hunters ) but, if a sequence of events turned public opinion against the monarchy, ministers would not be the most reliable allies of the Queen. With Rupert Murdoch's newspapers starting to preach the republicans' cause, anything is possible. Ministers are always more relaxed when marching side by side with The Sun.

The Government is threatening to kill off the remaining few hereditary peers if it is defeated tonight in the Lords over welfare reform. I doubt if it will carry out such a threat, but the prospect has unnerved the Tory leaders in the Upper House. Once the hereditary peers came and went from Westminster whenever they wished. Now a few cling on desperately. In such a context, the monarchy appears increasingly anachronistic. But more dangerous for its confused and bewildered members is its irrelevance, even as a series of performing puppets at times of national crisis. Australia may still have a monarch when Britain has abolished its monarchy.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit