John Kampfner: We need a head of state. And the Queen can't be bettered

Deference isn't my thing. But when I met the Queen I was smitten because, against my better nature, I wanted to be

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When I looked back at the video I winced. There I was on TV, hands clasped rigidly behind my back. Being in the presence of Her Majesty (first reference) and Ma'am (second reference), does things to people. At least it did to me.

I was hosting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Turner Contemporary, the new gallery in Margate, which has taken the UK arts world by storm. I say admittedly with a certain bias, as I am chair of the board. But it's not every day that the royal couple visits an art gallery. Indeed, when we inquired of Buck House, they couldn't recall a similar trip, at least not in recent years. They stayed, they toured and they conquered, although it must be said they had a captive audience. The crowds had gathered from early morning, the grannies, the school kids and the inquisitive office workers, on the streets and peering from the balconies – just as they show it on the news from elsewhere.

As the nation (and many an adoring foreign tourist) succumbs to monarchy mania over these four days of Diamond Jubilee festivities, why, I wonder, did I easily succumb on that one day last November? I fluctuate between being a mild sceptic and a mild supporter, but I have never gushed nor waved a flag.

My anecdotal, and entirely unempirical, case for the defence: having spent four hours (with only 20 minutes break in the middle) guiding the Queen around a gallery that at the time was showing a pretty in-yer-face exhibition of contemporary art, I still have no idea what she thought of the works on display. I suspect that, apart from the Turners and Sickerts, it was not quite in accordance with the taste of the royal collection; but still she managed the feat of asking interesting questions and appearing interested.

It was when we discussed the economic regeneration that the gallery has kick started, and when she was introduced to gallery attendants, many of whom had until recently been long-term unemployed, that the Queen's face lit up. Over lunch, after a conversation that managed to cover the gamut of local issues and global politics, I managed to fluff my lines, confusing the opening lines of two speeches I was supposed to make that day, Brezhnev-style. As I sat down, somewhat embarrassed, she joked, teasingly: "Wrong pocket, was it?"

Yes, I know: I was smitten, because, against my better nature, something inside me wanted to be. Deference is not my thing. The same suspension of logical thought processes probably occurs in all (or at least most) of those who meet the British Head of State. Perhaps such irrationality is more forgivable in the presence of leaders who manage the rare feat of being charismatic and elected, such as Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton (in his prime) or Aung San Suu Kyi. But a woman whose only claim is birthright and a succession of unlikely events?

 

The case for the prosecution is based in logic. The monarchy perpetuates hierarchy and inequality. For as long as it is perpetuated, Britain will not even get close to any form of meritocracy. Then there are the smaller concerns. Even if one indulges one's sentimentality and romanticism on Elizabeth II, what about the offspring and the minor royals? Whenever Wimbledon is on I find it barmy that the top players have to bow or curtsy to the royal box. One or two of them used to complain, but nowadays who wants to be a killjoy?

Then there are Prince Andrew's goings-on in those dodgy Stan countries. As for Prince Charles and Camilla, and the painfully slow succession, the jury – to put it mildly – is out. But it seems somewhere between probable and possible that the fairy tale would then resume, with fair Catherine and her Prince Charming, William, on the throne.

The love affair with the monarchy is not consistent. Nor is it enduring. The popularity of kings and queens has depended on the indulgence and forbearance of the populace, as the royal household saw for itself in its stilted response to the death of Diana. There is no reason to assume that any next generation of monarchs will be so respected or even tolerated.

The more far-sighted members of the royal entourage seem to understand the issues. When it comes to the big ones, changes are made, if at glacial pace, such as taxation, primogeniture and (surely only a matter of time) the renaming of honours. The great iniquities, such as landownership, go to the heart of the problem, but also extend far beyond the colour of blood.

The perennial question that draws me away from republicanism is, "If not them, then who?" Political and social popularity ebbs and flows. In the early 90s it could have been Richard Branson. In that fabled 1997 moment, it would have been Tony Blair, the man who on leaving office best personifies the politics-and-bling relationship. Perish therefore the idea of a US- or French-style president vested in real, as opposed to, ceremonial power. Or embrace it and change the constitution away from a parliamentary democracy. Which leaves us with figureheads. Betty Boothroyd would have done well. What about Sue Barker? Someone has mentioned Gary Lineker. Some star from The Archers? A former high court judge or university chancellor?

Germany and Italy have elected but largely symbolic heads of state, whose main purpose is to meet foreign heads of state and to bash heads during government crises. For sure they are democratically chosen and can be (as in the recent case of the German president) thrown out ahead of time if they do anything wrong. But is this system a whole lot better?

Would a visit by President Boothroyd (charming though she is) have brought the crowds out in Margate that day? Would hundreds of thousands have turned out yesterday along the banks of the Thames in the characteristically grim bank holiday weather to see the royal flotilla? Perhaps in time they might, but that will depend on how the next incumbents deal with this curious and anachronistic symbol of British public life.

 

John Kampfner is author of 'Blair's Wars' and 'Freedom For Sale'

 

Twitter: @johnkampfner

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