Although the monarchy may take up more column inches of newspapers than any other single institution, it is an astonishingly - indeed, excessively - sheltered, secluded and secretive organisation. Access to the royal archives is, for 20th-century historians, extremely difficult to obtain. Royal wills are not published. The Queen has steadfastly refused to reveal the true extent of her private fortune. The Royal Family, and the royal palaces, are exempt from much parliamentary legislation. There is constant uncertainty as to whether the Queen or the nation owns the palaces, the pictures and the jewels.
In theory, Britain is supposed to be a late 20th-century democracy. But it is not easy to see how this fiction can be politely or plausibly maintained when at the apex of British society and its constitution is an institution that is, literally, irresponsible and unaccountable.
The Queen's advisers may believe that matters should be kept this way: to that extent they may tolerate the media's obsession with the private lives and public misdemeanours of the royals to distract attention from these more substantial issues. How convenient that the public should have the illusion of knowledge, but not the substance.
Consider the lesson to be learnt from the story of the Queen and her income tax. Without Phillip Hall's painstaking research, we would never have known about the shabby and clandestine dealings that were conducted between the monarch's advisers and politicians during the first half of this century, and which were deliberately kept from parliament and the public. Does anyone seriously suppose that, if this information had not been forthcoming, the Queen would have volunteered to pay her taxes? The moral of this story is: we need much more detailed information about the history and the workings of the monarchy.
How can this be accomplished? Ideally, Parliament should set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the functioning and organisation of the royal establishment and to which courtiers should be compelled to give evidence under oath. We need facts and figures about the history and extent of the private royal fortune. We need to know chapter and verse about employment practices in the royal administration. We need to establish who, exactly, owns the palaces, pictures and jewels. We need, in short, a monarchy that is less secretive and more accountable. Only then will it be possible to conduct the well-informed debate about its functions and future that is so urgently needed.
The writer is Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University, New York.