Steve Richards: Our republican conspiracy of silence

No public figure that governs, or hopes to govern can go near the issue. It would be the end of their careers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A common device of right-wing comedians is to open their shows by berating so-called political correctness. What has it come to, they ask, when they cannot make jokes about gay people, ethnic minorities and the disabled? For the rest of their performance they make jokes about all three, punctuating their unfunny monologues with further protestations about the censorship enforced on them by mighty, intolerant, sinister progressive forces. It is political correctness gone mad, they proclaim, the great crusaders of having the right to make the vulnerable feel even more picked on.

Like so much misplaced anger in Britain, the dynamics of cultural and political power are very different from how the comedians would have it. While the jokers with their bovver boots hold sway, the frail, precarious progressive forces huddle nervously and weakly. And there will be no more vivid example of censorship than the event that will dominate the long Easter recess.

Next week the frenzy over the royal wedding will be unstoppable, a force that is as intimidating as a juggernaut on an empty motorway. The anachronistic absurdity of Britain's royal family, with its vast inherited wealth and theoretical power cannot be touched. No public figure who governs or hopes to govern can go near the issue, whatever their personal views.

Instead they must pay homage, bow or curtsy when the time comes, and never question why it is that inherited peerages are abolished but the Queen opens Parliament every year and appoints a prime minister after an election on the basis of the hereditary principle, or why inherited wealth is viewed with a degree of wariness, at least in relation to most other people but not to those born into this particular family.

Next week's wedding will mark the latest episode of enforced ostentatious political orthodoxy. Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband will be there with their wives, or wives-to-be, smartened up and in some cases struggling to convey a stately joyfulness.

I would guess that neither Miliband nor Clegg are entirely comfortable with this weird national celebration. Clegg comes from a European tradition where royal families have lower profiles and are not subjected to compulsory adulation.

Miliband's political ideas and background are unlikely to have embraced enthusiasm for royalty. But they will be there, and if they are asked they will say how thrilled they are to attend and how delighted they are for the young couple. They will not be allowed to state any reservations. It would be the end of their careers.

Soon after the 1997 election, a minister suggested to me that the Cabinet contained more republicans, or critics of an overblown monarchy, than any previous administration.

One of Gordon Brown's aides told me once that privately he was a republican. I have no idea whether or not this was the case. Brown gave no public hint of disquiet and referred occasionally to "her Majesty" in reverential terms as he desperately sought to assure Middle England that he was one of them. But given his wider politics and fascination with the US, I would not be surprised if his adviser was correct.

Harriet Harman famously left the country for the royal wedding of Charles and Diana. I doubt if her instincts have changed, and yet, as acting leader of the Labour Party, she expressed delight at the prospect of next week's over-the-top madness.

Before the 1997 election, two senior Labour figures, Jack Straw and Mo Mowlam, put different cases for a modernised monarchy, closer to some of those in Europe. They were quickly silenced, although what they were suggesting was sensible and modest. Even at the top of the Conservative Party there may be the occasional sceptical beat in an otherwise monarchical heart.

Apparently Steve Hilton, David Cameron's most senior adviser, does not share the Prime Minister's excitement about the royal wedding. Again I have never discussed the issue with Hilton so have no idea whether this is the case, but you can bet every penny of the deficit that this is one policy area where Hilton will hold no sway if he is a critic of the fuss and flam and all that it implies.

There has never been a moment when senior politicians who wanted to win elections could come out. Roy Hattersley did so after his aspirations to lead had long gone. Tony Benn is a publicly declared republican but his views are only accepted because he will never rule as an elected politician. There is a myth that in the late summer of 1997 the royal family was under pressure when people gathered in London after the death of Diana while the Queen was absent in Balmoral. The demonstration was spurred by the precise opposite of republicanism. The people were demanding that their Queen came to be with them. When she returned they were content.

That is why the political leaders who are intelligent enough to see through the nonsense and the dangerous political message the family inadvertently carries about the legitimacy of inherited wealth and talentless fame have no choice but to keep quiet. Voters would turn on them, along with most newspapers. What political leader would challenge the frenzy? Imagine the headlines that Red Ed would generate if he expressed what he probably thinks. Clegg would be bashed around in some quarters in ways that make the onslaught against the tripling of student fees seem like a tea party.

Everyone has to play the game. The BBC used to hold special days over a weekend when it rehearsed what it would do when the Queen Mother died. Later I found out that one of the editors of these ridiculous days of pretend broadcasts was something of a republican himself.

Probably some of the royals have their doubts. Prince William conveyed a sad yearning for normality in photos published during his time as a student. He is not allowed to express such a desire if it exists. His mother spoke with mesmeric force in her famous Panorama interview. She was not a republican but she would have been up for modernisation and might have been an instrument to bring it about.

The brouhaha over next week's wedding is silly, at best. Some politicians know this to be the case. They will not say so and I do not blame them. It is political correctness gone mad.;