When the then Princess Elizabeth was pregnant with Prince Charles in 1948, her parents were taxed with a ticklish question: was it time to end the bizarrely Ruritanian practice of summoning the Home Secretary – often in the middle of the night – to attend a royal birth? Sir Alan Lascelles, the King's private secretary, thought the custom "out of date and ridiculous". By Lascelles' own account, the King was inclined to agree. But the future Queen Mother thought differently, "seeing in this innovation a threat to the dignity of the throne".
In the end the question was resolved, as Ben Pimlott recounts in his splendid biography of the present Queen, when it was realised that at a time of great sensitivity over the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, if the Home Secretary was going to be there, the representatives of the Dominions would have to be too. When Lascelles pointed out to a horrified George VI that this meant "no less than seven ministers sitting in the passage" while the birth took place, the King's resistance to ending the hallowed practice immediately crumbled.
Trivial as it seems, this incident rather neatly illuminates an Edwardian view of the monarchy that has finally disappeared with the death of the Queen Mother. Quite a lot of silly things have been said about her in the past 72 hours, none more so than the remark by Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, that she was "the last of a generation that really understood the meaning of duty".
It doesn't really matter whether you prefer to contradict him with the example of the Queen herself – whose stoical endurance of obligations and afflictions over the past 50 years is hardly wanting in the duty department; or with the legions of anonymous 21st century volunteers and public servants, from soldiers to firemen, from nurses to – yes – teachers, who daily demonstrate the meaning of the word without ever having to use it. Either way it is so much sentimental, reactionary gobbledegook.
But she was certainly the last of a generation in another sense. Professor Vernon Bogdanor may have been right to say in these pages yesterday that by inventing the walkabout, by her charitable works, by staying in England and visiting the East End during the Blitz, she helped to "modernise" the monarchy. But in another, equally important sense she was surely the final survivor of an era in which every "innovation" in the sacred ritual and magnificence surrounding royalty – home secretaries at princely births included – was seen as a threat to its "dignity".
Her instincts –markedly right-wing on almost every subject – were against change in the monarchy as an institution; her consistent popularity helped to ensure it didn't happen.
This doesn't mean that Britain is now on the slipway to a republic. Yes, the percentage of those seeking one has grown from 13 per cent in 1987 to 34 per cent. But those who purport to see republicanism as some panacea for solving the class divisions that so scar Britain choose to ignore a great deal – beside the existence of a majority in favour of retaining the monarchy.
For a start, it turns reality on its head. It is not only that monarchies such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are more egalitarian, not only than the UK, but also arguably than republics such as France and Italy. Or that the republican project, because of its divisiveness and huge constitutional complexity, would consume political energy at the expense of almost everything that affects the ordinary lives of the British masses; a grand gesture that would be an alibi for neglecting real reform. It is also that a royal, but politically powerless, head of state provides the stability needed for protecting the capacity of democratically elected governments to enact radical change without – say – the threat of a coup d'état.
The Attlee administration understood that. So did the 1923 annual Labour conference – a somewhat more left-wing body than its present-day equivalent – when it overturned an abolitionist motion by a majority of nearly 10 to one. It is very easy to criticise the present government for not being radical enough; wholly perverse to blame the existence of the monarch.
This is underpinned by the conduct of the present Queen herself. Her only political intervention in 50 years on the throne – the misjudged decision to send for Lord Home instead of Rab Butler in 1963 – came about mainly because she was shamelessly bamboozled into it by the outgoing Harold Macmillan and his "magic circle" of old Etonians. Since then, her self-denial in matters of party politics has been – literally – exemplary. It is true that the Prince of Wales has sometimes strayed – occasionally wildly – across the line supposed to separate the Royal Family from issues of public policy, especially in relation to agriculture. But the template laid down over half a century by the Queen for future monarchs is as inescapable as it is unimpeachable; she knows everything and intervenes in nothing.
But while that is a case against abolition, it isn't one against radical modernisation, also favoured by a majority in the polls. Indeed it makes it all the more urgent. The Queen deserves deep sympathy not only because she approaches the Jubilee having lost her sister and mother within weeks; but also because of the extent to which esteem for the monarchy now rests almost exclusively with her own patent wisdom and sense of duty.
It isn't clear, frankly, that it will survive her without real change to the institution. That means further cuts in the numbers of junior royals and their dependents paid for by the public purse; and perhaps an even tougher line against those who use their royal connections to further their commercial interests. It almost certainly means a reduction in the obsoletely wide range of palaces between which the Royal Family commutes.
It means, by the time of the succession at least, a change in style from the now outdated habits of the old aristocracy to something more akin with the times; more bicycling Scandinavian unobtrusiveness than polo-playing, deer-stalking, yachting ostentation. It probably means at least a modification of the pomp surrounding some of the more arcane royal flummery, such as the Privy Council. And it will surely mean, in time, disestablishment and the removal of the monarch from the archaic headship of the Church.
Now that the old mystique has gone, some of it with the Queen Mother herself, such a cultural change would strengthen rather than weaken the monarchy after several years in which the manifold weaknesses of some of the younger royals have been relentlessly paraded across the mass circulation press.
"Modernise or die" has, of course, become the political cliché of the times. But it isn't meaningless. Pace the late Queen Mother's worries back in 1948, it is change, and not the lack of it, which will in the long run help to protect the dignity – and usefulness – of the British monarchy.Reuse content