The case for nationalising the British monarchy

Reform of the monarchy may be possible, but not abolition, as I have learnt the hard way
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The Independent Online

An interesting idea for reforming the monarchy has come from Mark Bolland, a former deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales. He proposes, if I fully understand the mere sketch of his ideas he gave in an interview over the weekend, that the system of royal households and courtiers should be swept away and replaced by a proper "Department of the Head of State", presumably a government office like any other. To this Mr Bolland adds a more familiar recommendation: that the Royal Family should be shrunk to its essentials: the Queen, the heir to the throne and his children. Privatise the rest. Let them live in decent obscurity.

Reform of the monarchy may indeed be possible, but not abolition. I have learnt this the hard way. By chance, in recent years I and Bill Emmott, the editor of The Economist, have twice been asked to put the republican case to student debates, one in Oxford and the other in Durham. Hundreds of intelligent young people were present on both occasions. I think we spoke well and effectively, though better in Durham than in Oxford. Our opponents were nothing special. Yet each time we lost the motion by a significant margin. From that moment on I have believed that Britain will never become a republic.

I argued that I wished above all to respect my head of state. As the hereditary principle cannot by its very nature provide an uninterrupted flow of people one can admire, it is necessary to find some other method of selection. As do most countries around the world without any dire results. If neighbouring states such as Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy can manage it, why can't we? As for the British monarchy's few remaining constitutional powers, they can easily be absorbed by the other offices of state. All so reasonable, yet unacceptable to the great majority of British people. Why?

Because when asked to suggest who might be the first British President after, say, the present Queen's reign, there is no name one can put forward which does not invite sniggers of derision or sheer disgust. A former prime minister? Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher or John Major as head of state? Not on your life, is the immediate reply. OK. Rule out politicians. What about one of Britain's distinguished citizens, say a Nobel prizewinner, legal luminary, respected business person, or world-famous cultural figure? Response: you must be joking. Hardly anybody would know who they were, or care. I wonder. The Irish can have Mary Robinson as president (1990-97); is it really beyond us to locate someone of similar calibre?

Of course not. Our lack of interest bespeaks deeper considerations. At its best it is an instinctive revulsion at the notion of cutting away one of the deepest roots of the British state, a steadying influence for 1,000 years, not so ancient as Christianity in these islands but older than the establishment of Parliament by two centuries or so.

It is also fear of the unknown. A distinguished head of state might be, after all, somebody who said or did something significant. It is much safer to stick with the present Royal Family which, despite its occasional bouts of bizarre behaviour, remains a known quantity. We look through royalty's faults, remember our own and see our long history reflected back at us.

Reform, though, is surely necessary to make the best of the system we seem inclined to retain. Adding some flesh to the bones of Mr Bolland's brief analysis, the chief problem, he argues, is an inappropriate support system for the Queen, Prince Charles and the two young princes. This is because the old methods of running a large, wealthy aristocratic family and its estates have been retained. The royal offices are not called "households" for nothing. Not that the principle of some form of household supporting a public office is bad per se. Prime ministers, for instance, must come to see their staff at 10 Downing Street as forming their households. Likewise the archbishops of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. I have heard an archbishop speak admiringly of his staff in these terms.

Yet Mr Bolland states roundly that palace advisers are too old and too set in their ways to understand that the foundations of the deferential society are in terminal decay. The Queen and the Prince of Wales are surrounded by sycophants who still live in the 1950s. Most strive to keep the Queen "out of touch" because that is how they keep their perks and power. He describes the "apparatus" that advises the Royal Family as grisly and out-of-date.

I have once glimpsed the scene that Mr Bolland describes. I went to a dinner given by the Duke of Edinburgh to discuss a subject of the day. Undoubtedly the aristocratic courtiers did seem to think their prime duty was to echo the Duke's opinions by saying every time: "How right you are, sir." Equally though, when I was a City editor, I sometimes had lunches in company boardroom with chairmen, where the other directors were equally assiduous in their agreement with their boss's opinions.

Accepting, however, Mr Bolland's criticisms of the royal households, what has gone wrong is not the form - royal household or government department - but the quality of the appointments to key positions. How much difference would be made to that process by "creating a Head of State's department, manned with professionals and with the resources to get the best advice", as Mr Bolland advocates?

The picture he conjures up is of a government department, run by a Permanent Secretary or somebody of similar authority and competence, in which advice would be provided for the Queen, the heir to the throne and the princes in same way as advice is conveyed to ministers in their departments. At the same time, one presumes, this new department would organise royal activities and manage the Royal Family's assets in so far as they are public rather than private. No doubt this could be done more efficiently than the present arrangements.

Nonetheless there are several implications of this solution worth teasing out. For the first time, the Government would closely control the lives of the Royal Family. In constitutional matters the monarch has long had to accept the advice of ministers. But Mr Bolland's proposals would mean that the monarch's everyday life was, so to speak, nationalised. Furthermore, the Royal Family would lose the power of appointing its own staffs. This is not so strange as it seems, for government ministers are, for the most part, in precisely the same situation. Hence their liking for appointing special advisers from outside the civil service.

The reason why Mr Bolland proposes this dramatic change springs from impatience. He evidently does not believe that the present arrangements can be reformed from within. He is supported in this view by recent biographies of the Queen, which have made it plain that she wishes no change. She has always striven to maintain the monarchy in the form in which it was left by her father.

Yet I find I cannot go the whole way with Mr Bolland. I don't want to see any further extensions of Downing Street's power. Reform the method of making appointments by all means. But leave the rest away from the reach of the Prime Minister. If we are not going to be a republic, let the monarch retain some independence.