Final days of the monarchy: Who needs Charles III? Stephen Haseler urges us to ditch the whole royal shebang

Click to follow
THE IDEA that the House of Windsor may come to an end and Britain become a republic, was, until recently, fantastic. Yet, how quickly the public mood has changed. Last week there were reports that the state would cease to fund certain royal stalwarts, even the popular Princess Royal. The Queen herself may pay tax. There is clearly a consensus in favour of reform, of slimming down the overblown royal show to Scandinavian proportions.

John Major's appeasement may be seen as too little too late, only raising the question: why not do away with the monarchy altogether? The problem for the royals is that there is little they (or their apologists) can do to reverse a strong anti-monarchist trend.

The British are simply less deferential than they used to be. Magic no longer rules, tradition ('it's always been there') and Ruritanian pomp are no longer sufficient. People want to know the rationale for institutions, particularly those they fund and to which they supposedly owe loyalty.

More ominous still for the Royal Family are the changing attitudes of Britain's commercial and media elites. They reflect a growing sensibility that the monarchy, with its antique social habits and its indifference to merit, sets the wrong values for a country trying to compete in the modern world.

The British are, in a sense, schizophrenic about the monarchy. We live a double constitutional life, officially as loyal subjects owing fealty to a medieval institution, unofficially as a modern people in a republic. We proclaim all the republican values: we believe in 'government by the people' while possessing no entrenched rights against the state and being owned by the crown; we talk incessantly of that most republican of ideas, 'citizenship', yet remain subjects of Her Majesty; we believe in the separation of church and state while continuing with an established church.

So why do we stop short of a clean break with the royal state? Why are even progressive opinion-makers reluctant to embrace republicanism? Politicians are aware that a crucial (though diminishing) voting bloc of older people see the Royal Family as a familiar landmark, and associate the Queen with their own lives: they would be offended by republicanism, and consider it unpatriotic. But this sentiment may be weaker than we think. After all, this section of the population was encouraged to see the Royal Family as moral exemplars.

Many of the Ruritanian pageants of modern royalty, such as the trooping the colour, are not 'traditional' but were part of its attempted reinvention dating all the way back to the late 19th century. Nor are they as 'English' as many of our great republicans such as Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, William Thackeray, and Oliver Cromwell.

At the heart of resistance to republicanism is a deep cultural provincialism. It takes two forms. First there is the 'England is England and nothing can possibly change in it' school. It argues that the English, unlike everyone else, possess what amounts to a DNA structure that makes them pathologically resistant to change. Then there's the 'best in the world' school, which believes that British institutions (all of them, believe it or not, including the courts) are superior to those on the mainly republican Continent.

Yet cultural provincialism is being eroded even as I write. On the grand level, Europe's republican institutions are at our shores and global communication and information systems erode our sense of being special. More Britons travel to republics - France, Germany, the United States - where it is clear that the sky does not cave in without hereditary heads of state.

The monarchy, of course, will be defended to the last by a series of national elites. The number of public figures who have taken an oath to the Queen is staggering. MPs, judges, officers in the armed forces, and a host of other public office holders have, at one time or another, pledged 'loyalty' to the Queen. Thus, they are all, in one sense, frozen in an earlier act of obeisance.

Also, a number of our elected politicians hope to spend their twilight years in the House of Lords and are aware that dismantling the monarchy would have a knock-on, or a 'knock-down', effect on the upper house. With so much potential patronage, status and income at stake it is hardly surprising that the House of Commons is largely silent on matters royal - and has colluded in the outrageous situation in which the parliamentary auditor is unable to survey, let alone criticise, the royal finances, although reports last week suggested this could change.

Yet more and more people, in parliament and outside, acknowledge that our constitution is outdated, but cannot think how a modern democratic republic would come about. Certainly there is no provision for amending Britain's unwritten constitution; so precedent would carry the day. All it would take is a Bill passed by the House of Commons. Lords and monarch would be challenged to sign it.

How realistic a future is this? It seems unlikely that in the early years of the 21st century there will be much of a national consensus in favour of a new 'reign' of Charles III. Over the next few years we should outline a written republican constitution to be implemented when the reign of Elizabeth II comes to an end.

It will be a liberating experience to be a citizen of the republic of Britain. In Walter Bagehot's great phrase we can walk 'by the light of our own eyes'. Such a cultural revolution may even help the economy. Little else does.

The author's book, 'Britain: A European Republic', will be published next year.

(Photograph omitted)