Only a few years ago the merest criticism of the Queen, or even of the institution of monarchy, was unacceptable. Then, around the late 1980s, the taboo on criticism of the royals was broken, but public criticism - increasingly freely directed at royal life styles and tax avoidance - still steered clear of questioning entrenched hereditary privilege. More recently, even before the Windsor Castle fire, liberal opinion seemed to be settling for a reformed monarchy on the Scandinavian model. Now, finally, the tide is running strongly in favour of a serious look at the republican alternative: even High Tory monarchist John Biffen has welcomed such a debate.
But what can royalists say? They can no longer rest their case on the monarchy 'setting an example'. What they are now offering is the view that British monarchy provides some kind of deep psychological need, a social cement that holds the country together.
Hugh Massingberd set the tone in the Spectator last week: 'A country that scraps its monarchy breaks links with the past and thereby seriously interferes with the nation's inner clock.' The suggestion that some kind of national meltdown awaits us if we dispense with monarchy is echoed even by such progressive commentators as Anthony Sampson. He recently asserted that the nation's 'whole sense of security rests upon the monarchy' - as if the Royal Family had replaced the nuclear deterrent of the Cold War years.
Are we really about to dissolve into anarchy and bedlam without the royals? And are we to believe that the level of emotional stability among citizens of republics (in, say, America, France, Italy or Germany) is lower than here? This kind of argument goes hand-in-hand with the jolting observations - still heard on television and in newspaper columns - that the world 'envies' Britain its monarchy.
It was this kind of provincial guff which first persuaded me that Britain's love affair with monarchy was distorting its sense of reality. My own republican sympathies were strengthened by living in the United States, where, for all its problems, public life without an intrusive monarchy was freer and healthier and devoid of the grovelling and syrup that used to accompany all mention of the Windsors. The republican idea that anyone - but anyone - can aspire to be head of state seemed to breed a refreshing self-confidence. It was good to know that the head of state was not in the job for life, was not above the law, and paid the same taxes as anyone else with similar resources.
If we are not frightened off the idea of a republic by predictions of widespread personality disorders and instability, another spectre raised is 'revolution'. Somehow the idea has got about that abolishing the monarchy in Britain would be too constitutionally traumatic to contemplate.
In fact, establishing a republic need hardly cause a political ripple. All it amounts to is the 'disestablishment' of the monarchy by cutting the link between the Royal Family and the constitution. The Windsors would then become an ordinary - though very rich - family who would live within the law and pay taxes like anyone else. They could then request, with considerable justification, that their private lives should be free from press intrusion.
To give effect to this 'disestablishment' - which need not come into force until the Queen dies or abdicates - would need only a Bill passed by Parliament. But would the Queen, as for the moment our polity requires, sign such a Bill?
She must now know that the public is hardly in a mood to accept a new reign by Charles III, and that an attempt to skip a generation would be seen as a contrivance to save the monarchy, not the country. She has, therefore, the opportunity to clear the path for democratic constitutional change. It would place her in the history books as the engineer of a new chapter in our national life, a noble epitaph for a reign that otherwise promises to end in the public ridicule of monarchy.
In the short run, much depends upon politicians. And here the 'great debate' about monarchy may become somewhat awkward. For our Parliamentarians remain surprisingly and remarkably shy on anything to do with matters royal.
Take the scene in the House of Commons last week as John Major announced the separation of the Prince and Princess. Of course it was a sad occasion (as is any separation) but the sycophancy from all sides was embarrassing. Privy Councillors, seldom lost for words, accepted without comment the spectacle of a separated prince and princess coming back together only in order to become King and Queen.
Some politicians believe there are votes to be lost should they speak up on the monarchy question. A more unpleasant explanation for their reticence is that some MPs and peers believe they are gagged by the medieval oaths they utter on induction into the Palace of Westminster.
And not only every MP, but every judge, bishop, army officer, and virtually everyone in 'official' public life, has at one time taken an oath to the Queen. Such is the awesome totality (if not totalitarian extent) of the obeisance required by our ancien regime. None the less, this oath of loyalty - to 'heirs and successors' - includes a phrase 'under law'; should the law change, any notion of 'loyalty' can be dispensed with.
The deafening silence of politicians is matched among an elite (particularly those in receipt of honours and peerages) many of whom still see their status and security as bound up with the monarchy. As Tony Benn points out, these road blocks to constitutional change have already persuaded some reformers to give up on Britain and put their faith in a republican system emerging through European union.
Certainly, the treaty on union (signed at Maastricht) is a republican document. It excludes the remaining European monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth, from any role, and for the first time places the British Royal Family on an equal legal footing with the rest of us. We are all 'citizens' of the union. So, they argue, let the Houses of Windsor and Lords and the rest of the ancien regime wither on the vine; the real action is elsewhere.
Yet there can be no substitute for having our own constitutional debate. For one positive side effect of the 'annus horribilis' is that the Royal Family's problems might, for the first time in generations, make the usually dry subject of constitutional change a popular issue.
The author is Professor of Government at London Guildhall University. His book, 'The End of the House of Windsor', will be published next year.Reuse content