Royalty in Crisis: We abolished it once. Should we do it again?: 'We have no clear sense of national identity without the monarchy'

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THE monarchy? What do I think about it? Karl Kraus, when asked what he thought of Hitler, replied, 'I try not to.'

Feelings about it I have none, only utilitarian thoughts. I suppose I am a republican minimalist monarchist, in other words, a Dutchman.

Most political scientists would agree with Walter Bagehot that there is an 'incalculable advantage' in separating the dignified from the efficient capacity of government. Certainly our British anachronism saves us from having David Owen, Jim Callaghan, Rees-Mogg or Ted Heath as president, though David Steel and, way back, old Mac would be dignified and fun. Think how Theodor Heuss radiated a quiet, paternal guidance, a sad-wise, ironic dignity over the rebuilding of shattered western Germany. But such men are rare. If it came to a popular vote, we could get Richard Branson or perhaps Barbara Cartland.

Do we still need a dignified part? If 'light is let in upon mystery', to quote Bagehot, 'mystery' and authority is dead. The Queen has done well, but the rest of her pack have blown it. That is a purely practical, contingent, political consideration; but a very strong one. Few politicians want a republic, but they may soon find that the monarchy has withered away. Be prepared.

A Dutch solution falls on two counts: the personalities involved and the nature of British society. We are, alas, not a citizen culture, not one in which active citizenship is the essence of nationalism. Dutch society allows the monarch to be a symbol of democratic manners and simplicity. British society is far too hierarchical. The Queen, her father and grandfather tried to move into personifying family values without giving up being head of Society in the aristocratic, Tatler, horsey, creepy, crawly, snobby sense. Family virtues are always a high-risk business, even without the 'light' of the tabloids. Provincial Methodists were quite right to suspect that the upper classes are seldom as moral as the bourgeois and the respectable poor.

Is such a symbol of unity needed at all? The Americans somehow survive by making the Constitution itself 'America'. Aristotle said: 'Athens is its laws and customs.' Strong feelings of national identity are enough elsewhere. But we need such a symbol precisely because we have no clear sense of national identity: there are, I hear, four nations in the United Kingdom. This explains the almost atavistic royalism-loyalism in Northern Ireland (and the Falklands). To identify with 'British' is not the same as identifying with the warmth and width of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. 'British' is a limited, utilitarian allegiance simply to those political and legal institutions which still hold this multi-national state together. Here the monarchy is very important.

I don't believe that the monarchy could be dispensed with unless there were a deep determination to democratise British society and devolve British government. To institute a presidency would need rules equivalent to part at least of a real constitution, not an imagined one. We could have a constitution without getting rid of the monarchy (by defining its powers); but we couldn't see the withering away of the monarchy without a constitution.

Are you still searching for a real republican? A curate once wrote recommending a tutor to a radical Earl of Leicester: 'My Lord, she is such a good Whig as to be almost a republican.'

The writer is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of London.

(Photograph omitted)