A right royal fuss about nothing

Mo Mowlam's attack on the Windsors was mild. She could have added that they are rather mean and far from bright
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The Independent Online

It's a free country, isn't it? So people used to claim before advancing a contentious opinion, whether it was not believing in God or preferring Led Zeppelin IV to their first two albums. It occurred to me the other day that I haven't heard anyone say it for ages, not because of the so-called tyranny of political correctness, which merely requires reactionaries to learn some manners, but because the claim itself rings rather hollow. A junior minister in the present government once told me privately that he was a republican, an opinion so off-message that he all but whispered it, as though confessing to owning a choice collection of pornography. He said he couldn't possibly admit it in public, no matter how strongly he felt, and his caution was vindicated last week by the preposterous affair of Mo Mowlam and Saga magazine.

It's a free country, isn't it? So people used to claim before advancing a contentious opinion, whether it was not believing in God or preferring Led Zeppelin IV to their first two albums. It occurred to me the other day that I haven't heard anyone say it for ages, not because of the so-called tyranny of political correctness, which merely requires reactionaries to learn some manners, but because the claim itself rings rather hollow. A junior minister in the present government once told me privately that he was a republican, an opinion so off-message that he all but whispered it, as though confessing to owning a choice collection of pornography. He said he couldn't possibly admit it in public, no matter how strongly he felt, and his caution was vindicated last week by the preposterous affair of Mo Mowlam and Saga magazine.

I have often thought that the case against retaining the monarchy, which I usually construct in terms of the way it institutionalises deference, can be expressed much more simply: it rots the brain. What Ms Mowlam told Saga, and her view has not changed since she first articulated it six years ago, is that she is not a great fan of the monarchy. She added almost as an afterthought that if people want a modern monarch, perhaps the royal family should move out of Buckingham Palace into something more in line with contemporary architecture. These are perfectly proper questions for a politician to bring up, but within days the Prime Minister had got involved, letting it be known how much he admires the Royal Family. Even more bizarrely, Ms Mowlam was forced to apologise for any hurt she had caused to their feelings.

Their feelings? Their wallets, more like. It is inconceivable these days that the Government would pay for a new royal palace, whether it was in the pseudo-Georgian style favoured by the Prince of Wales or something as modern as Frank Gehry's brand new museum of pop music in Seattle (cost approximately £150m). It is equally inconceivable that the Windsors would dip into their private fortunes for it, given their little-remarked but well-deserved reputation for parsimony. Kitty Kelley's revealing book The Royals, which has not been published in our free country, has these entries in its index: Elizabeth II, Queen, cost-cutting, pages 439-40, 455; frugality 115-6, 236-7; Charles, Prince of Wales, frugality, 235, 342. Frank accounts of the Windsors' behaviour are our samizdat literature, smuggled into the country and shared among friends who do not subscribe to the orthodoxy that the Queen Mother is a saint and her family beyond even the mildest of criticism.

The impulse to create idols, icons, totems, whatever you want to call them, is as strong as it is problematic. It requires the believer to inflate the qualities of the object of veneration, whether that happens to be a human being or a supernatural deity. The Queen Mother's 100th birthday next month will be the occasion for a parade of saccharine fantasies about a woman who is interesting only in terms of the undemocratic values she has embodied for so long. Meanwhile, some rather dull snaps of an 18-year-old boy in school uniform were described last month as "sensational", a word which implies nudity and unusual props at the very least, and the row surrounding their publication led to a royal aide losing her job. It was all the more pleasing to discover that shoals of readers realised they were a swizz; the tabloids which placed the birthday pictures of Prince William on their front pages actually lost circulation as a result.

Opinion polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that a growing number of people regard the monarchy as an irrelevance, which is the first step towards a long-overdue public debate about its continued existence. But how can it take place when ministers are afraid of being slapped down if they offer even the mildest criticism of royalty? Some estimates of the number of closet republicans in the Cabinet put the figure as high as 50 per cent. Their silence demonstrates both the malign effect of monarchy and of Mr Blair's presidential style of government; while he is the one member of the Cabinet I do not suspect of harbouring republican sympathies, his refusal to allow a discussion to take place suggests he is out of touch - as he increasingly seems to be on more than just this issue - and afraid of losing the argument.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the republican case is pretty much unassailable on all levels except that of sentiment. The Windsors are not, by all accounts other than those written by ardent royalists, an interesting family; they are certainly not great intellects, as Prince Charles's embarrassing forays into the GM foods debate amply demonstrates. But monarchists are perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, including the notion that the plodding interventions of the heir to the throne are a major contribution to Western philosophy. By the same token they are preternaturally sensitive to slights, over-reacting on a grand scale to the slightest provocation. Last week's fuss might have been justified if Ms Mowlam had accused the royals of white slavery or paedophilia. It was not always easy to remember, as pundits earnestly debated whether her remarks had caused permanent damage to her political career, that what she had actually said was they might like to consider moving house.

Both my arms have been covered in unsightly bumps for several days as I update my vaccinations for a trip to Central America. Typhoid, tetanus, two types of hepatitis, two strains of meningitis, polio - I'm almost grateful that I've left it too late for a rabies jab. I thought we'd covered everything until the nurse asked what I intended to do about contraception. I explained I was only going to be away for 10 days, whereupon she said she could supply me with six free condoms. Seeing my expression of astonishment, she pointed to the wall above her desk which was covered with posters featuring photographs of these very objects, and urging everyone to take them on holiday.

This offer has been causing much hilarity among my friends. Although they are a widely-travelled bunch, none of them has even been offered contraceptive advice before a foreign trip, let alone prophylactics. They have been looking at me in a new light, speculating about the particular combination of personal attributes and destination which inspired this. A special offer for blondes? Something we don't know about social customs in Central America? Some of them are envious, fearing they might only have been offered three, while others optimistically believe they would have come away with at least a dozen. I haven't discovered the answer but it certainly throws new light on NHS rationing.

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