Leading article:Most royally exposed

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Let us us step back in time, all the way to 12 August. That was the day that the Fabian Society published a pamphlet entitled Long to Reign Over Us? which proposed, inter alia, stripping the Crown of its political role and abolishing the Civil List. The monarchy, it said, should be purely ceremonial and all its finances should be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. Every 10 years, moreover, there should be a referendum on its future. The reaction in the political world was predictable. The pamphlet was, we were told, an Embarrassment To Blair. The Fabians are affiliated to Labour and the author was a prospective parliamentary candidate for the party. QED. Tory newspapers huffed and puffed like Bateman cartoon figures while an outraged Michael Portillo warned Labour that "they meddle with the monarchy at the nation's peril". The Labour leadership, meanwhile, behaved as if the Fabian Society was the Militant Tendency and was proposing a legally enforced maximum wage. "This pamphlet," a party spokesman reassured us, "which is in no way a Labour Party document, will not have any effect on Labour Party policy."

Return now to the present, and what do we find? The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales have been holding occasional discussions with other members of the Royal Family and of their various households about reform of the monarchy. Among the ideas they have aired are the shrinkage of the official Royal Family, allowing older daughters to succeed to the throne ahead of sons, allowing the monarch to marry a Roman Catholic, disestablishing the Church of England and overhauling the royal finances. Radical stuff. Oddly, after these revelations we did not hear Mr Portillo warning the Queen that she "meddled with the monarchy at the nation's peril". Nor did any Labour spokesman step forward to distance the party from the Queen's activities and insist they "would not have any effect on Labour Party policy". The craven paralysis of our political class in matters relating to the monarchy has rarely been so royally exposed.

New Labour would have us believe that they think there is no crisis for the Crown and nothing much needs to change. This, however, is mere window- dressing; what they really believe is that the institution as it exists is indefensible but that if they said so they would lose the next election. The Conservatives also insist that nothing more is needed than the odd touch on the royal tiller, and they would like nothing better than to take the loyal high ground in a republican debate with Labour. The Queen herself knows better than both. Last week's revelations demonstrate if nothing else that the Royal Family recognises that change is needed and it must be substantial change. This is important. Short of a referendum or a parliamentary vote, it is hard to imagine a more compelling verdict on the state of the institution than a vote of no confidence by the incumbent herself. Loyalists who argue that the monarchy is in good health have suddenly found themselves in disagreement with their monarch.

This is not to say that the Royal Family is the proper body to determine the shape that any reforms should take. The very idea is laughable (as laughable in its way as Mr Portillo's assertion that the present monarchy was the fruit of "centuries of constitutional fine-tuning". As he should know, the present institution was shaped only in the reign of Victoria, and before that the tuning tended to be far from fine - vide Charles I). Most striking of the ideas to have been discussed by the royal committee is the abandonment of the Civil List and the financing of the monarchy from the Crown Estates. The virtue of this arrangement, apparently, would be to relieve the taxpayer for all time of the burden of feeding, clothing and housing the head of state and his or her attendants. Our occasional mean-spirited and intrusive debates about royal funding would thus no longer be necessary. This may be superficially attractive, but it is constitutionally outrageous. Tudor and Stuart monarchs wanted just the same thing: financial freedom from scrutiny and regulation. Charles I (before he was fine-tuned) arranged his budget in such a way that he did not need to call a Parliament for 11 years, and was very pleased with himself indeed. It was not, however, a happy period in the evolution of our democracy, and it became known not as the Eleven Years' Efficient Monarchy but as the Eleven Years' Tyranny. No, the head of state must be on the public payroll; that way we keep control.

As for the succession, the Queen is right: it is plainly an anachronism that sons should inherit ahead of older daughters. But the anachronism does not end there. Why on earth is the position inherited at all? As Tony Blair once said (in the context of reform of the House of Lords), the hereditary principle is wrong and absurd. Not only should we, the electors, be able to control the purse-strings of the head of state, we should be able to choose who has the job. The Queen is also right about religion: in today's Britain it is divisive for the head of state to be associated with just one religion. But association with all religions is impossible and association with none would be difficult for someone who needs to be crowned in church. This is the trouble with piecemeal reform of the monarchy: the whole institution is an anachronism and minor adjustments will not stand up to scrutiny in the modern world. The European models we are sometimes offered - leaner, more informal, "bicycling" (when did you last see a European monarch on a bicycle?) - are no answer at all. The true fault of the British monarchy is not how many hangers-on it has or how much it costs or that it is surrounded with preposterous protocol, it is that selection is by birth and the job is for life. If the head of state is, as Mr Portillo once said, "the personification of the nation", then what does this hereditary monarchy say about us? Are we not a modern democracy, striving for a fair society in which merit is rewarded and the weak are protected? When this reign ends, the nation should have the opportunity to choose the individual who best personifies it.