Kenneth Harris's book provides many ingredients for an explanation of this distracting phenomenon. As an observer from the Queen's own generation, he is good at conveying how much Elizabeth II is her father's daughter. She absorbed from him Bagehot's conception of the monarchy as the setter of a national moral tone based upon the 'interesting idea' of 'a family on the throne'. Like George VI, she is a Commonwealth person to her last fibre, the incarnation of that slice of national DNA which sees Britain's past as giving her a singular place in the world, and all beautifully wrapped in immense personal dignity. This fitted Britain like a glove when she succeeded her father in 1952, though it got a little out of hand with the 'new Elizabethanry' surrounding her coronation a year later.
In the Indian summer of her reign, these virtues cause queasiness. As the Prince of Wales told Roy Hattersley recently: 'The coronation was a long time ago and a different climate exists today.' Family values are the stuff of derisive political debate, thanks to 'back to basics', and the Royal Family's personal misfortunes have stimulated prurience in place of long-gone reassurance. As to Britain's place in the world, we cling to bargain-basement great powerdom while refusing to embrace our geopolitical resting place in Europe. Only the Queen seems to see life in the Commonwealth (although South Africa's re-entry will give it a brief flicker).
Bagehot warned almost 130 years ago that daylight should not be let in on the monarchy. It hasn't been. The arc-light of press intrusion has. But the serious constitutional functions of monarchy remain as misty and misunderstood as ever. Even as downy a journalistic bird as Mr Harris fails to realise that the Queen's 'reserve powers' (to dissolve parliament and appoint a PM) were not activated when Ted Heath clung on to No 10 for a weekend in March 1974 while he tried to do a deal with the Liberals. They are only activated when a premier resigns.
Harris packs information galore in this supermarket of a book (though the sudden leaps from one shelf to another can be disconcerting). But there is one line he could have stocked more plentifully, labelled 'documents'. If he had, some of his puzzles would have been answered. We know from Anthony Eden's papers that he was given a chance by the Queen to give a view on who should succeed him (Richard Butler was the answer). We can reconstruct, too, how much the Queen knew about the Suez 'collusion' with Israel and France from confidential annexes to the cabinet minutes (like the Cabinet, much more than we thought). Now that the Government has reduced its 100-year rule for royal-
related files to 30, much more is becoming available. As Nye Bevan once said: 'Why gaze in the crystal ball when you can read it in the book?'
Harris's 'life and times' is a bit like a Green Paper for the current British debate about the monarchy. In my case, it made me even more strongly monarchist and not just because I warmed to the Queen. Abolition would not address the fundamental problems that have left Britain a pre- modern society any more than the monarchy was reponsible for our superpowerdom in the 19th century.
Putting the royal prerogative on statute and inventing a presidential regime would paralyse Parliament for at least two years and split the country from top to bottom. It would finish with a run-off for the presidential palace between Margaret Thatcher and David Owen. Give me Elizabeth II (and Charles III) any time.
In the meantime, let's have some daylight on the remaining political and constitutional functions of the sovereign so that we all know, politicans included, where we stand, in case the 1996 election is as hung as a ripe piece of game.
Thomas Sutcliffe is away.
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