Steve Richards: A crazed zeal for inheritance and fame

The last Labour government probably contained more closet republicans than any previous administration

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How different it might have been, this week's announcement of a royal wedding with trumpets blaring and with so much more deafening deferential noise to come. Usually I am wary of the "if only" political column. Most alternative scenarios did not happen because they could not have happened. A popular one at the moment is "If only Peter Mandelson had removed Gordon Brown and replaced him with David Miliband, Labour would have won more seats at the election".

This is a fantasy, as Mandelson makes overwhelmingly clear in his recent memoir. Even seemingly mighty politicians function in tiny amounts of space with little room for manoeuvre. Another common hypothetical is "If only Tony Blair had opposed the war", but we will not go there this time, beyond noting the fact that Blair's opposition would not have prevented the conflict from taking place.

So I write as an "if only" sceptic when I raise an alternative scenario to the latest eruption of royal hysteria. There was an extraordinary chance a few years ago to reform the monarchy, to move away from the crazed celebration of inherited wealth and talentless fame. Fleetingly, Britain might have moved more towards a Scandinavian style monarchy, subdued, restrained and symbolising a society less in awe with the glitter of easy wealth. It was even possible that Britain might have followed the logic of its own obsessive focus on political leaders and moved at some point towards a presidential system.

The conjunction of events that made such a possibility real was more potent than it seemed at the time. The first was political. The last Labour government almost certainly contained more closet republicans than any other previous administration. One of Gordon Brown's closest aides once told me Brown was a republican by instinct, although I never discussed the issue with Brown. At any given time between 1997 to the last election there was a significant proportion of the Cabinet that was either instinctively republican or would have happily settled for a far more restrained and constrained monarchy.

Before the 1997 election two senior shadow cabinet members, Mo Mowlam and Jack Straw, argued publicly for a more limited monarchy, with Mowlam focusing on the ceremonial glitz and Straw on the monarch's constitutional powers. This was a profound shift compared with the previous unquestioning deference of both Labour and Conservative administrations.

At least as important were Labour's constitutional reforms that coincidentally accompanied the shift. Its plans to abolish hereditary peers left the monarch deeply exposed. As the Queen opened parliament each year she was the only figure in the House of Lords that the government was not proposing to abolish on grounds of the hereditary principle. When Gladstone was contemplating a similar constitutional change in the 1880s Queen Victoria wrote to him warning that the policy "threatened the very existence of the monarchy". The letter is published in Roy Jenkins' biography. Gladstone did not go ahead with his plans.

More than a hundred years later, while a less deferential government embarked on its reforms the royal family was falling apart for entirely separate reasons, with various princes and princesses getting divorced as often as Zsa Zsa Gabor. Diana was the great humanising force. Her Panorama interview is still a shocking stunner whenever it is repeated. Merely giving the interview was a revolutionary act, ending the mystique that near media silence bestows on the famous.

In the mid-1990s an important cultural shift followed these events. After the Dunblane massacre in 1996, the ceremonial visitors were the Prime Minister, John Major and Tony Blair. They played the role thatt royals used to perform alone. Later the Blair family, while the leader still walked on water, replaced the collapsing royal alternative as the one photographed together on their summer holidays. Briefly Britain appeared to be moving on from antiquated, irrational deference.

The moment passed. As the coverage of this week's announcement demonstrates, the country has returned to primitive hysteria with endless celebratory, banal media coverage and senior politicians having to pretend how thrilled they are (although in David Cameron's case his excitement seems to be genuine). Let us hope there is no equivalent to Drumcree in the next few years, but if there is the survivors will yearn for a visit from Prince William and his new wife rather than that other more worn double act, Cameron and Clegg. The Royal Family is back and elected political leaders are out of fashion.

Why did the moment pass and does it matter? The death of Diana was a key moment. The car crash was an accident, but her demise removed an explosive bundle of charismatic energy. The subsequent build up to her funeral was portrayed at the time as a threat to the Royal Family, who spent much of the week in Balmoral away from the growing hysteria. This was a misreading. The mad mourners in London wanted their Queen to be with them.

Her absence was the sole cause of anger. They were not republicans, but ardent royalists reasserting control after a dodgy period. Another pivotal event was the Queen Mother's death. At first the BBC reported the death of a very old woman with a dignified sense of proportion. The Daily Mail went bonkers with anger and the BBC responded timidly by broadcasting wall to wall coverage for days.

Now politicians do not dare to discuss whether or not the monarchy should be modernised, let alone scrapped. With a bullying swagger, Conservative Central Office tweeted yesterday in relation to Harriet Harman and her husband: "Will Harriet and Jack be celebrating? For Charles and Di's wedding they went on 'Republican awayday' in France." Their intimidating message was clear. Celebration is compulsory, or watch out.

I have no idea, but I cannot believe that Ed Miliband is remotely excited about this wedding. He will have to pretend to be so. I was pleased that at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday Harman spent only a single sentence on the wedding, rather than affect an excitement that she is too intelligent to feel. Still her sentence was required.

This is one of the reasons why the lost moment does matter. There is something inherently wrong about the need for elected politicians to act against their instincts. Of course politicians cannot speak their mind on a range of issues, but the issue of the monarchy is almost unique in compelling declarations of dutiful worship that are at odds with private indifference, doubt or opposition. Nuance is not allowed.

There is also the concern expressed by Victoria more than a century ago. On what basis are inherited power and wealth celebrated when even Lords have to be selected and might, at some point, be elected? Next summer will be curious. It will begin with a referendum on electoral reform, arguably an attempt to modernise Britain's political arrangements. Then, soon afterwards, and with a much greater sense of eager anticipation, there will be a wedding of two non-elected people that will show how slowly Britain changes.

Symbolism is not as powerful as policies that change people's lives, but the message will be clear and damaging. A non-elected family is back in business, ready to reign over us and enough of 'us' are so ecstatic that even contemplating an alternative is taboo. If only...;

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