Has the Queen lost interest?

If we can sell off the royal train, we can lease the monarchy. Anthony Barnett on the end of an affair
Click to follow
The Queen has lived out her biblical span of three score years and ten. But we are in post-biblical times. No major illness, it seems, affected Elizabeth II through those 70 years. Her mother recently enjoyed a 95th birthday. Queen Victoria survived until she was 81. Elizabeth II could well live to be 100. So today, perhaps, we should be looking forward, not back.

It will be 2026 when the Queen ponders whether to send herself a telegram of congratulations. Charles will be 77, Diana, 64, William, 43. If Diana has re-married, even her glamorous daughter could be in her mid-twenties, born at the turn of the century. It is all too likely that William will have followed the pattern of his parents and will himself be divorced or separated. But will the media then really be concerned as to whether his ex-wife has cellulite? Is the obsession with the royals to be continued even unto the third and fourth generations, or can we expect some relief from biblical fate in this respect as well?

Not according to our republicans. Even the stoutest of them, Professor Stephen Haseler, the chair of the pressure group Republic, argues that no attempt to storm the monarchy should take place while Elizabeth lives. Instead, he argues, we should request her support for a republic after she dies.

So those of us who are democrats seem caught between a royal family on the one hand and a republican movement on the other, both of which promise us continuity as far as the ear can hear and the eye can see.

But something tells me that it can't go on like this.

The annus horribilis of 1992 was certainly the turning point. This was partly because of the separation of Charles and Diana. But it was the Windsor fire that caused the unquestioning allegiance of populace to sovereign to snap. Taxpayers groaning under negative equity orthe threat of it were told they should pay the costs of rebuilding Elizabeth's favourite home. The presumption that the Royal Family should not, like their subjects, share the risks of contemporary misfortune, broke a spell that had been created during the Blitz and sustained ever since. The double blow, of a monarchy that had lost its touch and a succession that lost its way, brought the whole institution into question.

But the Queen's "annus horribilis" speech and the decision to pay tax were evidence of the monarchy's capacity to adapt and fight back. There was a turning point - perhaps rather like the Abdication, after which the monarchy knew that it had to work harder to maintain the affection of the people - but there was not necessarily an ending. Yet the Crown this time seems to have failed in its appeal to renew the love affair between people and sovereign.

When a relationship breaks up, it is often the little things that signal an ending. For me, it was the sale of the royal train. It creates the sense that the Queen has given up and that the relationship may now be beyond resuscitation or counselling.

The royal train is being sold to a freight company from the American Mid-West. You might have thought that, despite railway privatisation, the Government would have offered to continue to run the royal trains. You might have thought that the monarchy would have insisted upon this. Instead, the Queen can now be greeted by a broad American accent when she boards "her" train for Balmoral. If there has to be a "Royal Train" it should be British. That she can't be bothered to insist on this, and that the Government thinks it has nothing to gain by protecting the status of the royal train, tells us that public belief has died.

Where does the logic of the sale lead? If the Government can sell off Her Majesty's Stationery Office, if it can sell off her train, it can easily privatise the palaces and Civil List. Perhaps it could sell off the franchise on the monarchy itself. The Sultan of Brunei could easily give the cash up front for a 99-year deal to run the Royal Family and take responsibility for the palaces.

More important, the Palace seems to have given up on public opinion. It no longer cares enough to prevent the royal carriages being owned by Mid-Western Covered Wagons. The monarchy's indifference is its own indictment.

John Major tells us it is "a very powerful institution indeed". Usually we are told that its role is limited to advice. It is healthy that, at last, the monarchy's power is acknowledged directly. This helps us ask if its influence is being properly exercised. Suppose we had had a president elected by both Houses of Parliament as a constitutionally neutral figure to represent the impartiality of our public service. We would have expected that head of state to have expressed concern over the findings of the Scott Report. We would have expected him or her to act to ensure a proper role for civil servants and to advise against the suborning of our institutions and to ensure that public office was untainted by private gain. If that head of state was a large landowner from a family concerned with organic farming, we would have expected some warning about the responsible way to treat the land and livestock, which our townie prime ministers could well have appreciated.

All these expectations apply even more to an alert and responsible monarchy. Why hasn't the Palace felt it was its place to protect the integrity of our Civil Service and warn against the improper use of prerogative power? The answer seems to be that our head of state does not care. She has given up on Britain. She is interested in Europe and feels herself to be a European - and, in a way, that is to her credit. She is interested in the Commonwealth and world affairs and was incensed as few in Britain were when the United States invaded Grenada without warning us.

But she does not seem to be exercised by the undermining of the Civil Service, the poisoning of our food or the treatment of public office as a means of private gain. Perhaps she can't be. Perhaps things have changed so much that today, far from being "above" this kind of quango politics, the monarchy appears all too clearly to be participating in it.

If so, the disenchantment will be irreversible. British government is frequently criticised for being too monarchical: the Prime Minister has inherited royal powers and uses them to dispense patronage and bully the Civil Service. But it may also be true that the monarchy is too presidential. It has lost its enchantment and magic and its role as head of the established church is dwindling away. It has become just another secular institution, which we pay to perform a service (opening new buildings, making speeches, showing the flag overseas) rather as we would pay a president. And this dowdy head of state quarrels over its spoils, as evidenced by Prince Edward's recent complaint that cutting him from the Civil List was "an insult". The difference between our monarchy and a genuine presidency, however, is that we have no democratic constitution to define its powers and make it accountable.

The present arrangement is most unlikely to last. Constitutional experts tell us it will. This seems to be their role. To say that there is a serious problem apparently rules you out of consideration as an authority on the matter. The trick is pulled by a spurious application of history. The monarchy has been in bad patches before, our "experts" tell us. Republicanism was stronger in 1876 than it is now, and royalty bounced back. It always has. Therefore it always will, and those who judge it otherwise are partisan and lacking in objectivity.

It is a blatantly sycophantic reading of British history that depends on people not wanting to see the obvious. In the last quarter of the 19th- century, the British Empire in India was created, the merchant fleet expanded, the role of the City extended. The monarchy flourished because Britain was a world success.

But imperial Britain is dead. In the two decades since the country needed a loan from the International Monetary Fund, it has undergone deep change - the rise of monetarism, the end of consensus politics - and that change is, if anything, intensifying. Britain no longer wishes to be represented by the monarchy in the way it longed for after 1945 and celebrated at the Coronation in 1953. If, in response, Elizabeth becomes more presidential, then we had better write down the rules and do so well before she needs that telegram in 2026.

Comments