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'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits