Beatrix Campbell: Why this story does matter

'A cultural controversy of the greatest importance is deemed by ministers not to matter. They simply don't understand that this was a gaffe too far'
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The Independent Online

For days the world's mass media, politicians and public have expressed outrage at the sight of Prince Harry wearing Nazi gear at a fancy dress party. The image of the arm that brings a fag to the royal mouth branded with a swastika will lodge in the global consciousness for a very long time to come.

For days the world's mass media, politicians and public have expressed outrage at the sight of Prince Harry wearing Nazi gear at a fancy dress party. The image of the arm that brings a fag to the royal mouth branded with a swastika will lodge in the global consciousness for a very long time to come.

And yet in Britain the Government offers scarcely a comment. A cultural controversy of the greatest importance is deemed by ministers not to matter. It has fallen to the leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, to pose a direct demand that the Prince come out of hiding and make a personal and public apology.

The comparison is arresting. Michael Howard has stepped sure-footed where New Labour fears to tread. He is demanding a reciprocity from the royals. If they want to live like George III, they must do so by public consent. Howard's demand also touches the collective sensibility that nothing Nazi can be amusing. New Labour's silence shows how far the Government is estranged from the zeitgeist. It simply doesn't understand why this is a gaffe too far.

We have been here before. The latest fiasco is up there with the stories about servants and royal willies, cheating husbands and heirs, and aristocratic wasters poncing off the public purse.

But how dangerous is it really for the royals? Just how bad do they have to be before Parliament says, enough?

This incident has little chance of provoking an immediate constitutional crisis, but it reignites the slow-burning republican fuse ignited by the Diana effect.

Howard's confident demand is a sign of the new times: it will test royal tolerance for the polity that pays its wages and over which it presides; it will also test Parliament's historic compromise with an aristocracy about which it has been privately cynical. There have been precedents: that radical moment in the aftermath of Diana's death, when majesty had to bow to public opinion.

Harry's Calvary is that his disastrous judgement has provided an appalling insight into aristocratic charades and given us ghastly revelations about their japes and how much they like dressing up as a way of playing what they're no longer allowed to be. How they long for the world we've taken from them.

It is also renews scrutiny of Prince Charles as a parent. There are households all over Britain with young people taking a gap year between school and before leaving the nest, often a time of intense and relatively relaxed engagement between parents and children in transition. The ghastly gaffe has exposed Charles again as an absent dad, an aristocratic Andy Capp, wrapped up in his own eccentricities and rarely at home.

The danger for the royals is that their personal performance as people continues to undermine their public power: the Royal Family was never so vulnerable to the feminist proposition that the personal is political.

But although the great conversation about royalism and the republican alternative raves in civil society, it has found no echo in the parliamentary arena. Smuggies among both royalists and republicans alike mocked the exposure of the royals' primitive, patriarchal sexual politics as mere soap opera.

Herein lies a conundrum: the monarchy is destabilised by these revelations of its bad manners, bad taste and bad politics. Dissent rustles around civil society, but political society recoils from that conversation.

The more estranged the parliamentary parties are, the more they encourage pessimism about politics itself, the more they incite the complaint: would an elected president be any better than a Blair regency?

A kind of melancholy shrouds our political culture. It is demoralised and depressed, and in its helplessness our capacity for critique fades into cynicism. This defeatism invests its hopes in the royal succession doing for royalism what we can't do.

Rather like the Brown-Blair succession, we are reduced to spectatorship, as if it really had nothing to do with us. The hope is that the shakedown will be delivered without bloodshed when the Queen dies.

No one really believes that the son and heir will be welcomed as the monarch, no one believes that when a bushy-eyebrowed old archbishop lowers the bejewelled headdress towards the royal bald patch that a sacred transaction between God, king and people will be taking place. So, when Charles's day comes, even the royals themselves will know that their time is up.

But a feeling is not a movement, it is not a programme: it it the task of politics to translate feeling into a purpose, to take it into that collective place where it becomes spoken, known, palpable and do-able. It is the task of politics to translate a feeling into an institutional idiom, to give it the shape of a public ambition.

Yet while New Labour runs to ground, it has taken a Tory to throw down the gauntlet.

Michael Howard knew not to wallow in excuses about the lad not knowing why the war mattered: all young people who have been in a British school during the past two decades know the causes of the Second World War. They may not have done quantum mechanics, but they have done Hitler.

Howard's boldness came not only from the anti-establishment elements released by Thatcherism, but from his quest for political space.

We don't know whether New Labourism is philosophically, or just tactically, royalist. But its omertà quells debate. It has not been emboldened by its constitutional reforms. Of course, they weren't really its thing, and between them Brown and Blair cauterised the new assemblies in Wales and Scotland.

Challenged by an uppity House of Lords, New Labour still could not bring itself to do the democratic thing: design an elected Second Chamber. And so it has not learned how to mobilise popular power against the establishment's power.

We have to wonder just how many cultural atrocities this appalling family have to commit before the parliamentary system can move itself out of neutral and engage. What would the royals have to do before any parliamentary party declared: that's it!

The irony is that republicanism is the only thing that can rescue the Royal Family from endless embarrassment, and redeem the young princes for a normal, useful, hopefully humane - and private - life.

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