A Queen on a bike? That's all we need

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The Independent Online
'If we do not have the guts to sweep the monarchy away, we shall mock them like the powerless critics we have become'

IT'S A lovely spring day and London is in bloom. Real Americans are heading for the changing of the guard, the crown jewels, and dreaming of summer visits to Buckingham Palace at pounds 8 a pop. I, however, am going to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Hall, a stone's throw from the Palace of Westminster, to participate in a debate on the future of the monarchy.

'Are you our token Yank?' someone inquires. 'A day without precedent' this is billed, as if it were the 1966 World Cup or Billy Joel in Moscow. People talk about kings and queens in a way that gives me the surreal feeling that I've landed in a Danny Kaye movie. I keep thinking: who cares? Or, as an Australian friend counselled, 'The only time the Queen should tour is when she has a new album.'

Still, 500 people have turned up, some at pounds 45 a head. In the opening session, Sue Townsend, author of The Queen and I, announces that as a child she gave up fairies, Santa, God and the Queen. Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, is a royalist, however. 'I regret this debate,' he says. 'If we were in the Adolf Hitler Hall, we wouldn't be free to debate if we wanted Adolf Hitler.' 'Welcome to Ruritania,' says a man whose badge declares he is Graham Allen, MP.

At first it does seem a little fantastic. I don't believe the monarchy will be wiped away by some Jeffersonian tide. Making Britain a republic won't make Britons republicans any more than Lenin made Russians socialist or Yeltsin will make them democrats. Most Britons probably want the Royal Family, in a grumpy sort of a way. As someone said, the monarchy is not so much something the British cherish as something they put up with, like the weather.

But what with the homeless in the gutters and crime on the rise, the debate, organised by Charter 88, seems a little irrelevant, as if we were on board the Titanic when everyone decided to discuss abolition of the captain's table.

At least the event is great British theatre, and like most Americans, I am awed as the characters turn up to play their parts with elan.

After the opening, everyone disperses to seminars with titles such as 'A Case for Disestablishment', known as the God session. In 'Media and the Royals', Claire Rayner, in stretch pants, recalls that the most successful magazine promotion in history was 'Knit your own Royal Family'.

In another room, a woman with white hair rises regally to her feet. 'Many wicked things flow from the monarchy,' she declares. An American woman in a red suit declares that we Yanks offer loyalty to a constitution, then tries to fend off irate panelists who accuse her of craven deference to a flag. Stricken, she sits. During lunch she says to me plaintively: 'Dear, do you think the British have a love-hate relationship with us?'

Attending 'Patronage and Heritage' (the session I am speaking in) is Brian Sewell, the art critic. Passionate, witty, in a voice so posh it would make Noel Coward sound like Ice T, he expresses outrage that the royal collections are so inaccessible. Richard Hoggart, the author, exudes learning and kindliness as he proposes tourists should abandon the beaten royal track for a few days in Hull.

At first, our group looks bespectacled and dun-coloured, except for a dead-eyed monarchist spoiling for a fight, a lurking American who seems to feel the monarchy alone kept the bolshies at bay, and an academic with pink hair. Suddenly they all come vividly to life, voicing concerns about art, education, the House of Lords. They even laugh at my jokes.

As the session ends, a big man with hardly any teeth, his belly busting from his shirt, rises and says with simple conviction: 'I am an Englishman of mongrel descent, but I am a Christian and the Queen is the head of the Church of England and this is a comfort to me.'

Anglo-Saxon fiction? Charade? Symbol of continuity?

Helena Kennedy, QC, opens the final session, rather like one of those Shakespearean heroines, Portia, say. The playwright David Hare follows. 'If we do not have the guts to sweep the monarchy away, we shall mock them like the powerless critics we have become until they wish they had never been born,' he says, Henry V exhorting the troops.

'Bastard,' I think I hear someone say.

Like a character in pantomime, here is Teresa Gorman, promoting herself for the role of 'Essex girl'. 'Nationalism is like sex, hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it,' she says. Yes, I think, just ask the Bosnian Muslims.

And then there is Christopher Hitchens, who thinks he is Mercutio: 'If you're on the left, as I am, you have to trust the common people.' In Brixton once, to his dismay, he discovered that the common people (he really does talk like this) have expressed propagandised responses about the monarchy. He says: 'It was terrible for me as someone on the left to find myself despising my fellow democrats.'

That was enough to make me welcome William Rees-Mogg. The court jester as pundit, Lord Rees-Mogg rises. 'I am a royalist,' he says, 'because the British people are royalists.'

'Hear, hear,' say some in the crowd.

'I am not one of those giggling behind their hands at the flowers being sent the Queen Mother.'

'Hear, hear.'

But the last word should perhaps come from the floor. A man with a pencil moustache rises. 'The British people will always be true to the monarchy,' he says and adds that, come the revolution, they will rise to its defence. The likes of David Hare and Tony Benn will put their heads over the parapet at their peril.

What do I feel? A little dejected that it should come to this. I was raised by a Canadian mother who claimed she cried when Edward VIII abdicated and a father whose motto might have been 'dress British think Yiddish'; and grew up believing that Britain and its monarchy were synonymous, the interior decoration and the politics. Brits were so systemically fair-minded that they didn't have to write the rules down. They could permit themselves the ceremonial pleasures of a monarchy without any chance of a King Tricky Dick Nixon, and all would be well in the best of all possible lands.

It hasn't quite turned out that way. Part of me thinks things are so bad, so flat, so unhappy that any gamble would be worth the candle. Still, from abroad at least, dumping the monarchy would make Britain look tinier and tinnier: a Queen on a bike will not do. What might work for the most self-confident, the best-educated, the chartering classes of today's debate might deliver a diminished sense of self for everyone else. In so far as I can engage with the subject as more than theatre, I think: keep the Royals.

The show is over. Outside the hall a few fans wait for autographs from . . . William Rees-Mogg. And from Kate Adie. In one session it has been decided she will marry Prince Charles and become a better class of queen.