Blair backs plan to reform monarchy

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The Independent Online
A battle over reforming the monarchy is expected to become a central issue in the next election after Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, last night stood by proposals to slim down the Royal Family to a ''Scandinavian'' style court.

His comments were immediately attacked by Michael Heseltine and Cabinet colleagues who believe Labour's plans will be a vote-loser. The President of the Board of Trade accused Labour of ''undermining the very fabric of our political constitution.''

But Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has backed the reforms that Mr Straw will raise tonight during a BBC Panorama programme about the Royal Family.

Labour's changes would reduce the Royal Family from the present 40 people entitled to be called His or Her Royal Highness to about 20, with just five or six performing official duties. The Queen already reimburses the taxpayer for the royals on the civil list apart from the Queen Mother and the Duke of Edinburgh. Labour would not change that.

Mr Straw says in the programme, Long to Reign Over Us?, that a Blair government would very swiftly remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. That would make a ''big difference'' to the public's perception of the monarchy. ''I think it will hasten the process towards a more Scandanavian monarchy, a monarchy symbolising a much more classless society, someone who's above the political battle,'' Mr Straw says.

Mr Blair, as Shadow Home Secretary under John Smith, was responsible for drawing up Labour's comprehensive package of constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the Royal Prerogative, such as the power to wage war. It was adopted as party policy at the 1993 annual conference.

Labour leaders were nervous about the way leaks of Mr Straw's remarks had been reported over the weekend, and were quick to point out that Labour had no secret agenda for a republic.

''We are not suggesting getting rid of the monarchy or drastically descaling it and Jack Straw hasn't departed from party policy,'' said a Blair aide.

Mr Blair's office said the party was happy to see constitutional reform become an election issue, which was threatened on Friday by John Major over Labour's plans for Welsh and Scottish assemblies. Taxing the Queen had happened under the Tories, said Mr Blair's office.

Constitutional reform was were ''the dividing line'' between Labour and the Tories which Labour would not avoid, said one Labour source. ''Major sees nothing wrong in the constitution. We do and we are quite happy to fight him on constitutional reform,'' he said.

Mr Straw, a long-term critic of the Royal Family - last year he described the monarchy as ''deeply decadent'' - said yesterday his remarks were in tune with public opinion.

''What we are observing is in tune with what the public are thinking, that the monarchy will inevitably have a role which will mean its survival but its redefinition,'' he said on BBC radio.

''The changes we are talking about do not necessarily spell the end of the monarchy, not for a second, but it does mean the monarchy's role will end up being redefined.''

He said that the changes to the monarchy and the Royal Prerogative were part of a larger package of reforms including a bill of rights and increased accountability for councils and other public bodies.

(Photograph omitted)

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