The royal show that none of us can bear to switch off

Ian Jack's notebook
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I SHALL be watching the Princess of Wales tomorrow along with everybody else, not because I'm a fan of hers (it will be interesting to see if she is as dim, vain and manipulative as the evidence suggests) but because she has become the largest single agent in the republican cause; and also, of course, out of vulgar curiosity.

The monarchy, or rather our idea of its permanence, is collapsing with amazing speed. Fourteen years ago I went as a reporter to the marriage of Prince to Princess in St Paul's. There were the crowned heads of Europe (advertised as such in the programme) processing down the aisle, and there, in the pew behind me, was the late Jean Rook ("the First Lady of Fleet Street") singing her way lustily through the hymn sheet. Outside, in brilliant sunshine, the crowds stretched all the way up Fleet Street, along the Strand, down the Mall to the Palace. The night before there had been fireworks and crushes of people in Hyde Park, trampling over picnic baskets in the dark and cheering when the couple lit up the sky as a flickering tableau of roman candles. It was, or seemed like, a great outburst of loyalty; impossible to witness and not believe that Britain would have a monarchy for the next thousand years, and difficult, such is the effect of crowds, weddings, bands and flags, not to be moved by it.

Where was republicanism then? Sitting at home and nursing its wrath to keep it warm, perhaps. The only public display that I could find was an anti-wedding festival, a bleak little do in a public park in, predictably, Stoke Newington, north London. For prescience and wisdom you had to scan the letters column of the Times, to read a quiet letter from the writer Jan (formerly James) Morris at her Welsh address. The chronicler of the British Empire wondered if the spectacle had reminded anyone else, as it had reminded her, of the last of the Romanovs?Nostalgia is often taken to be Jan Morris's thing (Oh, those balls in Simla!), but here she may have been singularly prophetic.

THEN again, where is republicanism now? It has become much more common as a private sentiment. Its public posture is still elusive. No national newspaper, for example, has come out in favour of it, though many of them will happily dicker around with the idea of reform - less spent on the Civil List, disestablishment of the Church, the scrapping of the royal yacht, the shooting of the Duchess of York. But where is the editorial in an allegedly left-of-centre newspaper that will urge outright abolition? It's not yet to be found in the Guardian, or the Observer, or the daily Independent, or this one. There are plenty of people on their staffs who say they are republicans, but editorial writers, while promising to bear the thoughts of their colleagues in mind, usually manage to muddy and massage them into the agnostic, let's-spend-less-on-Windsor-Castle position.

It's probably safe here to speak of myself. The temptation to declare this newspaper republican in the years I edited it - the years when the Royal Family began to fall dramatically apart - was curbed by two feelings (reasons would be too fine a word). One was a commercial suspicion: monarchist readers might never buy the paper again, and their number might not be made up by a refreshing supply of republicans. The other was personal confusion: I simply didn't dislike the institution enough; there are too many pieces of it embedded in my own memory (daft things - newsreel of the conquest of Everest, coronation mugs) for me to imagine, let alone strongly desire, the country cleansed of its greatest absurdity. Successful republicanism, in other words, would convert our memory into history. I see the attractions. A large brake on social progress is removed, Britain undergoes the overdue process of re-inventing itself. But my - and, I suspect, your - enthusiastic participation in this movement is somehow prevented by the fond junk (item: new hip for Queen Mother) which takes up so much space in our mental attics, and which reminds us of who, individually and collectively, we used to be.

Successful revolutionaries need to have hateful memories or no memories. Usually that means they are young. Removing the Windsors from their palaces, separating them from their wealth and land, humbling them - this is revolutionary work, and I can't think of any public figure, not even Dennis Skinner (perhaps especially not Dennis Skinner, given his age of 63), who has the stomach for it.

THESE are dodgy days to be earning your money as a journalist. The tabloid Today closed on Friday and threw around 200 out of work; editors elsewhere suddenly resign or get fired. The causes are stiff rises in the price of newsprint, static or falling circulations, losses caused by price-cutting, and proprietorial whim.

Conrad Black, especially, seems to be a whimsical man, with the endearing habit of causing letters from himself to be published in his own publications. The current Spectator has a typical example, in which he regrets the "offensive and tasteless reflections" of Alan Clark on the Spectator's former editor, Dominic Lawson, which were commissioned by its new editor, Frank Johnson, and published in, yes, the Spectator, owned by Conrad Black. You will remember, if you can be bothered, that Clark described Lawson's "loathsome sneering features" which now "peer slit-eyedly" out of the Sunday Telegraph, whence Black had removed Lawson to be that paper's new editor.

All very incestuous and confusing, but there is more. Black probably went further on the telephone to Johnson than he did in his letter. Consequently, when Johnson received a diary piece from Peregrine Worsthorne, in which Worsthorne took Black to task for trying to hire Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail to edit the Daily Telegraph (implying that the proprietor did not understand the up-market quality of his own newspaper), Johnson took the precaution of faxing the piece to Black, as anyone would who had not gone, as they say, Dagenham (the stop after Barking).

Black then telephoned Worsthorne to say he had got it all wrong. He, Black, would never dream of taking the Telegraph downmarket. As an example of his commitment to quality, he quoted the Sunday Telegraph's new magazine in which he had invested pounds 3m and of which he was very proud, though "one or two wrinkles" still needed to be smoothed out. The next day the editor of this splendid new magazine got the sack: Alexander "Wrinkle" Chancellor. This is what Black calls doing the ironing.

What would you ask Diana? page 8

Leading article, page 20

Comments