Away with them and their overweening power: The republican

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The Independent Online
EVEN FOUR decades ago, with Everest ascended and the Archbishop of Canterbury poised to anoint, there were probably a few Britons who suspected that monarchy was masking the symptoms of decline. There were probably many more who did not so much think it as fear it, and who therefore joined in the celebration with extra gusto, as if to keep the unwelcome tidings away.

'If not for your crown, you would be like an Eastern European country' - so said my American editor (actually a genial Canadian loyalist) last month. Not so, I replied. The House of Windsor has achieved the near-impossible by way of its own negation. Its misery and frustration, which are inseparable from the hereditary principle of random selection - the same principle that undid the Cromwells and will undo Kim Il Sung - are such as to make Britain look more like a banana republic, not less.

Who would now propose a 'royal visit' as a way of making this country look good to other nations?

The Koreans and Nepalese are only the most recent victims of the agonised embarrassment this can cause, and if John Major were to seek to annul the rotten impression he made on President Clinton by despatching a senior Windsor, we would get nothing out of it but another version of American death by showbiz-and-scandal. And it would be the Windsors' fault.

Unless I have missed something essential, this completes the case for a republic. Review the list of last-ditch monarchist arguments. No one defends the hereditary principle as a means of selection for any major office. The power of prerogative is rightly seen as a fetter upon lawful and democratic procedure in Parliament. The power of patronage is an open byword for corruption. The class system is sharp enough to gash the Tory party, between Norman Fowler and Lord Rees-Mogg, without the aid of a pointed apex.

The overdue adjustment to Europe on the one hand, and to nationalist and constitutional demands at home, pulls the residual power of the Crown in absurdly opposed directions. The headship of the Church of England - a church founded on the family values of Henry VIII and more or less consecrated to divorce and caprice - would be a bit of a laugh even if it still were what it most conspicuously is not: a national church.

What does this leave? It leaves the tourist trade; itself the symptomatic industry of a country without pride and with nothing on the currency but the head-shot of some mythical 'leader'. To be a republican is not at all - not any more, anyway - to be a mere anti-royalist. It is to propose republican ideas and republican virtues, not against this royal house only, but against all man-made conceptions of supernatural and overweening power. As the arguments for monarchy dissolve of their own accord, one can begin to advance a case that is assertive and even optimistic.

I have the honour, in Washington, to serve as a board member of the Fund for Constitutional Government. This body exists to protect and defend the United States Constitution against usurpers and opportunists. We are continually instructed that a written constitution is no guarantee of liberty in itself. Well, I have never met anyone who said that it was.

However, the ground of political dispute in the US is about the nature and extent of the Constitution, a carefully wrought form of words devised by Englishmen in revolt against the Crown and amended by their successor generations. The ideas contained within it can be reverenced and disputed at the same time. That is why it has outlasted several improvised British dynasties and will outlast this one.

Lately, the monarchists have abandoned even their last ditch and started to protest about the cruel humiliation of their old totem. Neither I nor anyone else asked the Windsors to become a human sacrifice to the advertisement of their own failure, mediocrity and unhappiness, and I would gladly drop the undemocratic demand that we immolate a human family in this way. In doing so, we would emancipate not just the Windsors but also ourselves, and conceivably start to mature.

Across the road from the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, recent site of a Charter 88 conference, is Westminster Abbey. Amid the mouldering remains of monarchs and viceroys can be found, when the stewards permit, a thing patronisingly called 'Poet's Corner'. Our language and literature, much of it vigorously and humorously republican before and since Milton, Burns, Shelley and others, is all we have left - and is better than we believed. Those who rightly want history, tradition and splendour need only imagine an abbey dedicated to letters and reflection, with a 'monarch's corner' to enclose the rich dust of all that we have at last, with regret and remembrance, decided to leave behind us as history continues.

The author is critic-at-large for Vanity Fair. His latest collection of essays, 'For the Sake of Argument', is published this month by Verso, pounds 19.95.

(Photograph omitted)