A modern monarchy, in seven easy stages

Andreas Whittam Smith on royalty
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The Independent Online
Step one: The Queen retires at the end of this year. I write "retires" rather than "abdicates" to mark how natural such a decision would be. The Queen has passed 70. She has done the job for 45 years. Fresh decisions have to be taken about the future of the monarchy as an institution; decisions that would be handled more appropriately by the next generation. If the matter is discussed as abdication, we unfortunately leave in play vestiges of the antique notion of a divine right to rule.

Step two: Prince Charles succeeds as king. We all think we "know" Prince Charles pretty well, in the same sense that we "knew" Princess Diana. We see an intelligent, sensitive man who has long prepared for the task. The real Charles is the Charles of the Prince's Trust. No precedent has been available to guide him in setting up one of the most imaginative and successful charitable enterprises in the country. That is his work, and his impressive achievement; it is a good clue to what sort of king he would be.

We must accept, though, that Charles cannot now escape his upbringing. If you are brought up in the Royal Family, you live outside normal society. You are at once pampered and disfigured. Having an imaginative understanding of ordinary people is difficult. Compare President Mary Robinson of Ireland with any royal person.

Step two means that the Crown would not pass, as some would like, from the present Queen over Charles and on to Prince William. Even in a few years' time, William, with his father and perhaps his grandmother still alive, would too easily appear a sort of proxy king. He would be implausibly young. Of course the Queen herself was in her twenties when she began her reign, and Churchill delighted in being the courtly, grandfatherly Prime Minister. But that is history, not contemporary life. You can be too young as well as too old to be an effective monarch.

Step three: This is crucial. The Royal Family becomes a small Royal family. It comprises simply King Charles, William as heir to the throne and his brother Harry, as next in line. As well as the Queen, the rest of the Royal Family, including the Queen Mother, also retire. Or, to put it more bluntly, they leave public life and become private citizens, with their titles if they wish, and they feed, water and house themselves at their own expense.

The larger the group of Royals, the more vulnerable it has been to attack. The Royals are ordinary people, compelled to carry out formal duties, which they mostly do by going through the motions. For example, a princess comes to the Royal Opera House for some charitable performance. In the interval she joins other guests of the chairman of the Opera House. Who shall be brought up to speak to her? Knowing her reputation for haughtiness, many refuse to be conscripted. The interlude has become embarrassing.

Step four: If Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles wish to marry, they should do so. The more normal Charles's life, the more effective he would be as monarch. Why leave any important issue unresolved?

I do not mean by this that Mrs Parker Bowles should become Queen: that does not feel right. We must start using titles with more care (which means no more Duchesses of York). Nor should Mrs Parker Bowles be given any lesser courtesy title. No: we would read sometimes in news reports that, say, "The King and Mrs Parker Bowles (or Mrs Windsor) visited Liverpool today ..."

Step five: There is a coronation ceremony designed clearly to re-state the role of the monarchy. In planning this, the book of precedent should remain firmly closed. The aristocracy, the hereditary office-holders, the heralds, the pages, all should be forgotten. There should be less pomp at the state opening of Parliament, which itself should be considerably revised. Likewise, the form of the ancient religious service should be disregarded. The one useful example for the coronation planners is very recent: Princess Diana's funeral. The Court, 10 Downing Street, and the Church of England working together quickly devised a ceremony and religious service which was appropriate, dignified, essentially simple and satisfying. I have heard no criticism of it.

In a 1998 coronation, continuity with the past could be secured by using Westminster Abbey and by the actual crowning. The religious element, which I assume is still felt important by a sufficient proportion of the population, should encompass the nation's main faiths, non-Christian as well as Christian. Charles has indicated that he wishes to be defender of all faiths. Invitations to the ceremony should reflect national life in all its diversity. But let us avoid calling it a "people's" coronation; this acronym will soon begin to grate.

Step six: The privacy of the small Royal Family is protected by law. Countries everywhere, whether monarchies or republics, have conventions, rules, regulations or legislation which guard the standing of the head of state. In our present circumstances, and with a small Royal family as I have described, a Royal Privacy Law would be essential.

Step seven: The small Royal family is funded by the state without stint. It has an exceedingly important job to do. Nobody can begrudge the means. This need not be onerous, because the whole operation would fit into one palace, Buckingham Palace. There would be one Royal Household, one private office, one press relations unit.

By these steps the monarchy could remake itself, and perhaps enjoy another long lease of life. The issue is not whether it might evolve into something similar to the Dutch and Scandinavian monarchies. Under the above plan it could become, in its way, as quintessentially British as the old system. There is no serious obstacle. The Crown has been at the disposal of Parliament since the 17th century. A country which has just restored a proper assembly to Scotland after a gap of nearly 300 years could surely now move on to reform and re-invigorate its monarchy.

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