Mary Ann Sieghart: Long live the king – if he's harmless

If Charles doesn't wind his neck in, the public won't put up with him. The institution is only there by public consent

Share
Related Topics

Forget Hello! magazine and Hollywood starlets. This is the kind of bling we really love: crimson and gold, prancing horses, diamond tiaras, glass carriages. So much classier than an Oscar ceremony. It stirs feelings of pride and patriotism, not least because royal pageantry is one of the few things that Britain still does best. And it brings a brilliant flash of colour into a Northern European country that can often look grey.

Although in politics I am a moderniser, I am still at heart a monarchist. And there is no reason why the two should be incompatible. You can support the Alternative Vote, gay marriage and reform of the drug laws while still thrilling at the pomp and spectacle of a parade of stagecoaches down the Mall. For, as long as the institution of monarchy does no harm, and quietly modernises as it goes along, we can safely appreciate all the virtues it brings.

An elected president in a grey suit wouldn't have set our hearts aflutter. He wouldn't have brought streets and villages together to enjoy a bunting-bedecked party at which neighbours could make new friends. He wouldn't have caused millions of people around the world to turn on their TVs and marvel at Britain's ability to spin real-life fairy tales. But, you may reply, presidents are at least elected. If they are bad, we can chuck them out. That's true, but the downside of democracy, in this case, is legitimacy. Presidents feel they have earned the right to exert power and influence. The great thing about our monarchy is that it has no power and very little influence. It is our elected politicians who run the country, not our head of state.

There was a time when our kings and queens had real power. They had enormous egos, believed they had the divine right to rule, and were worshipped as semi-deities. As the power of the monarch has dwindled, so by necessity have the egos of the monarchs. And this is a good thing.

The Queen's father, George VI, was a modest man who struggled simply to do his duty, stammer out a speech and raise the spirits of a nation at war. The Queen has continued his tradition. She seems almost devoid of ego, happy to eat her breakfast cereal out of Tupperware and to do her job with the utmost blandness, subsuming her own character in the interests of her calling. There must be days when she groans at the prospect of yet another dull ceremony, but she gets on with it, as impassive as ever, rarely betraying impatience or boredom. She must know how much pleasure her presence brings to hundreds of thousands of people who will never forget the day she visited their school or charity or community centre.

Kate Middleton seems to have the same understated, almost ego-free, approach to the job. Unlike Princess Diana, she is not remotely attention-seeking. Yes, we were transfixed by her dress and her dignity, but not because she was inwardly shrieking, "Look at me!" If she manages to continue the cipher-like tradition that the Queen has so successfully followed, then the British public will be able to project whatever fantasies they like on to her without fear that a real, complicated persona will get in the way.

Let's hope William is the same. So far, he seems to be remarkably grounded and unspoilt – particularly surprising given his mother's neuroses, the rancour between his parents and his traumatic bereavement. He also seems healthily aware of the need to bring the monarchy up to date.

If the throne were to pass directly from the Queen to Prince William, which is what more than half the public wants, its continuity would be assured. One popular monarch would be replaced by another. There is, however, a little obstacle to this smooth transition. It is pretty much unthinkable that the Royal Family would agree to throw over tradition and skip a generation.

Prince Charles has many virtues. He cared about the environment long before it was fashionable. But despite being well-meaning, he can hardly be described as ego-free. On the contrary, he often comes across as spoilt, petulant and demanding.

If that were all, it would be unfortunate but not disastrous. The biggest threat Charles poses to the monarchy is his determination to get involved in politics. It is emphatically not the job of the heir to the throne to be a political campaigner. Yet he has criticised government policies in health, education, foreign policy and human rights. He has even recently published a book, Harmony, in which he sets out a personal political manifesto and describes it as a "call to revolution".

This is dangerous territory, and if Charles isn't careful, he might find himself at the wrong end of a quite different revolution. For the monarch simply must not have strong political opinions. As the great chronicler of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, wrote: "The Crown ... is commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant, but in neither case is it contentious. The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party."

So will King Charles put aside his own views and shrug off his ego when he reaches the throne? Somewhat ominously, he told Vanity Fair last year: "I think people don't quite understand how much it requires to put your head above the parapet ... but I just feel deeply. I always have done. So I can only assume that it's something that's sort of inherent."

If Charles doesn't wind his neck in, though, the public won't put up with him. For however undemocratic the monarchy looks, the institution is only there by public consent. While we want it to continue, it will. If we decide we have had enough, we can vote it out. One bad monarch, who fails to respect the traditional neutrality of the post, could be enough to finish off a thousand years of history. And that would be tragic.

The failure to invite Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to the royal wedding was a bad portent. Rumour has it that Charles and Camilla blackballed them. This would have been a disgracefully small-minded gesture: all families have to put up with the maddening uncle or the nightmare cousin at a wedding. But, worse than that, it looked nakedly partisan. The monarchy can't afford to make such a mistake.

Nearly 60 years on, we still have no idea what the Queen thinks about anything. Her aloofness has served the country well. Yet Prince Charles, if he were a commoner, would probably have launched his own political party by now. As someone who wishes the monarchy well, I devoutly hope he can shrug off his activist mantle and assume the studiedly non-partisan position of his mother. Then we can carry on enjoying – with a touch of playfulness and irony – the colourful spectacle of the Royal Family, without any fear of their becoming embroiled in our democratic politics. Charles needs to re-read Bagehot: "A royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events." Not, please note, by taking political sides.



m.sieghart@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/MASieghart

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Dear Nick: a personal letter to my wonderful husband

Rebecca Armstrong
Because measles spreads so easily, 95 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated  

Measles outbreak: Andrew Wakefield didn’t cause the MMR panic without the help of journalists

Will Gore
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?