Jeremy Paxman: Once I would've done away with the lot of them. Not any more

The royal show has survived because it is what people want

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Like many products of the post-war educational system, I emerged from university clutching a set of pretty ingrained prejudices. A mild republicanism was one of them. The idea that the most eminent person in the land should be there simply by accident of birth offended any sense of meritocracy, rebuked the franchise, insulted the intelligence and ensured that the country marched into the future with its head turned backwards.

For most of us, it was a matter of convention, a shared assumption. Although we could not quite put our finger on what exactly it was that the Queen did that was so damaging, we were mildly offended.

But, given the well-established political practice of discovering what people would like, and then offering it to them, we can be confident that if republicanism had a devoted public following, the parties would be singing a different tune. Looking back over decades of evidence the pollster Bob Worcester remarks: "The level of support for Britain becoming a republic is as constant a trend line as I have ever seen - anywhere in the world."

Once upon a time I should have agreed with those who wanted to do away with the royals. But four years of inquiring into how monarchies work made me change my mind. Of course, there is plenty in the reported utterances of 20th-century royalty to which a democrat can take exception. George V's engineering of the National Government of 1931 ensured that Ramsay MacDonald remains a hate figure for much of the Left to this day. For all his easy, populist comments that "something must be done" to relieve the effects of the Depression in South Wales, Edward VIII's letters reveal a weak, vain and selfish man. George VI could no more understand why people should be entitled to expect free false teeth from the new National Health Service than that they should be given free pairs of shoes.

But when it comes to it, what political power does the Queen have? As far as I could discover, it boils down to an obligation to invite the leader of one party or another to form a government. This could only possibly be controversial in the event of a very hung Parliament. But who would you rather do the job?

But having no political power does not, of course, mean that Queen Elizabeth - or, one day, King Charles - has no power at all. It is something much more subtle, which comes from unearned eminence in the state ceremonials, the Church of England, the military, the notion that diplomats going abroad do so to represent her, rather than the Prime Minister (much though Tony Blair might wish it otherwise).

This is "soft power", influence more than any capacity for executive action. But it is still sufficient to incite anger. "Look no further [than the Crown]," wrote the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee in 2000, "for the reason why this country breeds small-minded bigotry, Eurosceptic xenophobia, Union flag-painted brutes rampaging at foreign football matches." Poor Queen Elizabeth. It is an awful lot to have on her conscience.

Perhaps it would be better if the armed forces swore an oath of allegiance to Tony Blair or Dave Cameron. But would it even be preferable if they pledged loyalty to the flag or some vainglorious notion of the The Fatherland? I think not. ("Germany has shown us," wrote the one-time editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, that "if we drop the trappings of monarchy in the gutter... some guttersnipe may pick them up.")

The trick, then, would be to create a presidency that had no real power. Perhaps anyone who sought election to the greatest eminence in the land would be content with a life that consisted merely of chores such as opening hospital wings and bypasses, although it is hard to imagine where such an ambition might be nurtured. It would, though, mean that the role was sought for - and occupied by - someone whose aim in life was mere celebrity, different only in degree, but not in kind, from the motivation of those vacuous attention-seekers who line up to appear on Love Island.

Perhaps we could screen such people out. In my republican days I had an easy answer to the royalists' predictable question, "Well, I suppose you'd prefer a President Thatcher or Blair would you, eh?" No, I said, it could just be a prize in the national lottery. You might win £10m. You might be president for a week.

But having seen some of the royal life close up, I don't think it much of a reward. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Of course, royalty lead lives of immense privilege and want for nothing much. But it comes at the price of endless public events at which they are required to read out speeches either designed to dignify their politicians or else of such staggering banality that it must be hard enough not to fall asleep mid-sentence.

The key to the survival of the royal show is not so much to do with any conspiracy by powerful vested interests, but because it is clearly what the people want. It is a long-running saga not so much because of the behaviour of the performers but because of the devotion of the audience. One man is king because everyone else thinks of themselves as subjects. Of course, hair-shirted reformers would like to dispense with the whole pantomime, from the crown jewels to the strips of silk being pinned on the chests of the people being awarded medals. What, precisely, is its offence?

The dispensing of rewards could, equally well, be carried out by someone who had achieved their eminence by a process we could all understand, like election. But would it be the same? Common sense tells us that the little old lady who has entered the room is just another human being, like the rest of us. But there is only one of her and the arrangement which put her on the throne connects us to our history and keeps the position out of the hands of others who might want it for other reasons.

One of the many events I witnessed was an investiture. Much of the system is an arrangement for seeing that to those whom much hath been given much more will be given. But there is also an award for a woman who has a medal pinned to her bosom for "services to road safety", someone else for "services to young people and to the community in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire", another for "services to the welfare of dogs". On and on the roll call goes. For dedication to the arts. To education. To this or that charity. Now, as each recipient comes forward, the ever attentive equerry major whispers a brief reminder in her ear: "Wife died of cancer - now raises money for Cancer Research; founded a centre for drug addicts; runs a cats' home in Banffshire."

The ceremony has been performed a thousand times, and it passes off efficiently and effectively. After an hour it is over, the Queen departs and the crowds pour out, past the Household Cavalry troopers stationed on the stairs and you hear one person after another saying to those who have been honoured: "I'm so proud of you." There has been something especially English about the occasion (not least the fact that no one has been offered even so much as a cup of tea) teetering on the brink of irony, its dignity almost undermined by its Gilbert and Sullivan qualities. Many who had not seen the event at first hand would find it easy to sneer. But the system has rewarded those whose efforts generally make the country a better place in which to live, and who can object to that?

Jeremy Paxman's book 'On Royalty' is published by Viking

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