The most popular royal story of the past five years in Labour circles concerns Clare Short arriving slightly late and flustered at a Privy Council meeting with her mobile telephone ringing in her bag. As it stopped, the Queen is said to have remarked: "Oh, dear, I hope it wasn't anyone important."
This incident, which has something in it for both republicans and monarchists, testifies, no doubt, to the royal sense of humour. Whether intentionally or not, it also goes to the heart of the Queen's almost unalloyed success, over 50 years, in seeing her role as belonging to the dignified rather than the efficient part of the constitution. Of which more in a moment.
The Queen is on a roll. Lucky with both the weather and a sense that the country is a good deal more at ease with itself than it was at the time of the silver jubilee, when Britain was limping from the IMF crisis towards the winter of discontent, she shows every sign of relishing the prospect of the tour which started in Falmouth yesterday. Her enjoyment of her dinner with her surviving prime ministers on Monday night was patent, accounting both for her seraphic smile in the picture, and her remark, as she and her guests were gathering to pose for it, that it was nice for a change to be somewhere where you didn't have to be introduced to anybody. And her jubilee tour speech in Westminster Hall on Tuesday night clearly went down a treat.
After 10 years of pretty chronic difficulties, it looks as though the tide has at last turned for the monarchy. There are several reasons for this, only one being that its public relations has suddenly got spectacularly better. Whoever thought of playing The Star-spangled Banner at the Changing of the Guard after 11 September should certainly get a high honour. Her fest for medialand at Windsor last week – in which I don't have to declare an interest, not having been invited – appears to have rebounded almost wholly to her credit as my colleagues, left and right, pretty well unanimously rolled over.
The choice of the distinguished journalist William Shawcross to make four semi-authorised documentaries about the royal family, the first of which goes out tonight, is intelligent. And her home-drafted speech on Tuesday fused the ideas of continuity and reform with a skill that puts in the shade New Labour's tired mantra about traditional values in a modern setting.
Another factor is the Queen Mother's death, which along with that of Princess Margaret, was obviously a cruel personal blow to the Queen. But in the more public realm, the death of the Queen Mother was also important. Yes, it reminded people of the royal family's unifying abilities in war-time, albeit in a rather exaggerated way which eclipsed, say, Churchill and Ernie Bevin. And it was the excuse for some unbridled pageantry which did a lot to eclipse nearly a decade of tabloid obsession with the more dysfunctional aspects of the lesser royals' private lives. A senior courtier predicted correctly some years ago that the death would help the royal family to concentrate more fully on "the core business". But it was also in some ways a liberation. Maybe the story that the Queen couldn't bring herself to tell her mother personally that she had decided to pay tax is apocryphal. But the Queen Mother was hardly a reformer, clinging resolutely to an Edwardian and frankly long outdated view of the monarchy.
The only surprise in the Queen's scarcely veiled announcement that she would not be abdicating, thanks very much, was – or should have been – the unexpected robustness with which she made it. Those who know her attest to the seriousness of her religion, and the solemnity with which she recalls the Coronation vow to reign whether her life was short or long. Abdication was never on the cards. Nor should it have been. The increasingly strident advocates of an early takeover by the Prince of Wales miss the contrast between the Queen's impeccable non-intervention in politics and the Prince's tendency to, well, meddle. The frequently public airing of his seemingly harmless obsessions ranging from architecture to organics do bring him into concrete areas of public policy. The prominent Labour peer, Lord Haskins, was recently summoned to see the Prince to discuss the latter's trenchant views on the future of agriculture. When Haskins suggested that these views, if pressed to their logical conclusion, might require Britain to withdraw from the EU, the Prince is supposed to have replied: "So?" This use of the royal bully pulpit may – just – be appropriate to the heir to the throne. It would hardly do for a monarch.
Which brings us to her enigmatic reference on Tuesday to reform. This is not a good year for republicans – not only for the above reasons but because the emergence of Le Pen as a serious candidate to be the French head of state isn't exactly a good advertisement for republics. But the radical reform agenda on the left will shortly be given new impetus by the appointment of a new Fabian Society commission on the future of the monarchy, under the chairmanship of the historian Kenneth Morgan.
The terms and composition of the commission haven't been finalised. But Michael Jacobs, the society's general secretary, recently called in The Independent on Sunday for changes which went significantly further than the well travelled agenda of more cuts in the civil list, fewer palaces and more bicycles. Arguing that republicans should accept that abolition is off the agenda (as it obviously is) Jacobs suggested that modernisation would mean a written constitution in which the right to adjudicate in hung parliaments would pass to the Speaker, and the Royal Prerogative which allows Prime Ministers to by-pass Parliament, for example in times of war, would be abolished. But the monarch would remain head of state.
This sounds reasonable in a modern democratic state. It would no doubt be accompanied by an end to the prohibition of Catholics on the throne and disestablishment of the Church of England – something in the interests of both Church and state. The sensible sub-text is that the present monarch is uniquely brilliant at staying out of politics. But a future one might not be.
Maybe most of this won't happen. Except, quite probably, an overdue end to primogeniture which would mean that the monarchy passed to the eldest child, male or female. This would be the ideal time to do it, since the available candidates at present are male. And the Palace would certainly be comfortable with it. But here's the point. If it doesn't, it won't be because of the Queen. Even though it's very much a second order issue, there is a strong case for more modernisation. But if successive Prime Ministers stop at reforming the monarchy itself, that's their decision, not hers. It isn't she who stops social change of any sort – including those changes which might be introduced by a much more left-wing government than this one. If anything, she serves to keep to keep the establishment off an elected government's back. Vivat Regina.Reuse content