Mockery of monarchy tilts the power axis

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'AT THE END of the day, the person I answer to is the little lady at the end of the Mall'. The speaker was a civil servant, enraged by a scandals in which ministers had pressed their officials to lie and to suppress the truth in order to save the Government from embarrassment. I believe it was the Westland affair. But, whatever the occasion, those words still stick in my mind.

They are not just a cry of blind royalism. They are also an appeal for clarity, for a plain answer to the question of where authority really lies in this country. They are an attempt to make sense of the British power structure - the Establishment, if you like - and to seek above it some supreme authority to which both elected politicians and bureaucrats are subject.

In modern countries, it is not a little lady but a constitution which lives at the end of the Mall. The civil servant under illegitimate pressure does not resort to a monarch or even a president but to a supreme law, to which he or she is bound by oath. In our unreformed 'Ukania', by contrast, nothing is lucid or clear. An antique myth of royal authority forms a smokescreen behind which governments and the social and economic Establishment act almost with impunity to protect their own interests.

For some years, this power system has been showing signs of breakdown. That is what the whole circus of Camillagate and Calcutt is really about. The breakdown has many underlying causes. Education, steadily transforming British subjects from deferential sheep to critical and independent individuals, is one. The growing radiation of the European Community, with its republican philosophy of the state, is another. But the public did not start this complicated row (however much tabloid editors ventriloquise the supposed feelings of 'ordinary folk'). It is an outbreak of civil war within the Establishment.

That is why it is so revealing. Those at the top - whom Germans call the Obrigkeit and Scots call the 'high-heid yins' - are profoundly frightened because they feel the principles of authority, secrecy and obedience cracking up under their feet. In response, they have turned on two vulnerable departments of the Establishment itself. One is the media. I do not want to analyse that battle here, although it almost passes belief that any government - even a British one - could propose to restrict investigative reporting without offering even the sham of a Freedom of Information Bill to compensate for it. What interests me a lot more is the second victim. This is the monarchy.

The most amazing thing about the whole annus horribilis, taken as a period which began some years ago, is the dog which didn't bark. 'I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult,' wrote Burke 200 years ago about the French queen. When Lord Altrincham, a generation ago, compared the Queen's voice to that of a priggish schoolgirl, he was slapped in the street. Until almost yesterday, political leaders used private and effective methods to strangle hostile or impertinent publication about the Royal Family. Maverick MPs, with a few exceptions, were 'managed' out of expressing irreverent feelings in the House.

And then, so quietly that it wasn't noticed, the dog was locked up. It is not just Spitting Image with its slightly desperate grotesques of the Royals, or a recent New Statesman cover showing the Royal Family being guillotined. It is that, throughout the annus, nobody in authority has moved to protect the Royals from mockery and shame. The tabloid press, far from 'fearless', at first behaved with its usual cowardice. The press barons sat on their tapes. Then a few ruderies were nervously scrawled on the pedestal of the sacred image. Nothing happened. More graffiti appeared, and still no thunderbolts, no private words in editorial ears. Soon the whole statue was being merrily defaced, and journalists were chipping off fingers and ears. Only poor Lord McGregor of the Press Complaints Commission behaved in the old way, consulting Downing Street and the Home Secretary about how to protect the Palace from imminent revelations. The message, whatever it was, had not reached him.

But what was that message, and why did the dog not bark? One version is that the Palace (or the Charles wing of it) colluded with Government to permit and even engineer the blackening of Diana's reputation in order to open the way to divorce, perhaps remarriage, and a stable and guaranteed succession to the throne. The problem with this theory is that the annus, with all its tapes, ruptures and public attacks on royal wealth, showered its horribleness not only on the Princess of Wales but on the Prince of Wales and on the Queen herself. The succession and the monarchy itself were blackened too.

Some loyalists insist that no real damage has been done. Monarchy in England, they say, is about the Crown as a principle, not about the fallible individuals who wear it. 'The king can do no wrong', as the 18th-century lawyer William Blackstone put it. It may be that the English are still loyal to the institution rather than the person, although in Scotland (as in Belgium or Scandinavia) it is the personality rather than the bauble which determines loyalty. The Camillagate tapes certainly tell us nothing whatever about Charles's capacity to reign in the English tradition. Suppose C P Scott had published in the Manchester Guardian a transcript of what Edward VII said in bed to Daisy, Countess of Warwick (assuming they did much talking) - that would have been no more than a startling footnote to the reign of one of Britain's most popular and successful kings. But the tapes do raise Tom Nairn's theory, in his book The Enchanted Glass, about royal 'ordinariness'.

'The inner meaning of the belief that 'They're just like us' ('ordinary beings', 'got their own problems' etc) is the certainty that They are not and cannot conceivably be just like us.' Given the deep English faith in the extraordinary, quasi-magic nature of royalty, evidence that they can lapse and err 'just like us' only makes Them even more extraordinary, like Jesus Christ feeling hunger and pain and getting his feet dirty. 'To be so like normal mortals in this way means that it's even more wonderful that They are who They are.'

The gawky, toe-curling sex-talk in the Camilla tapes is certainly all too ordinary and all too 'like us' - or many of us. So, if Nairn's theory still holds, its publication should actually make the Prince of Wales more marvellous and numinous rather than less. But all theories can be stretched until they snap.

As Nairn acknowledges, revelations that the Queen was investing in heroin or that the Palace was tolerating an under-age sex parlour in the cellar would jerk the English public out of its fond trance. The Camilla tapes must be on the borderline. Either we are humbled by the Prince's grace in descending to share our own follies, or we think he is a total wally. It could go either way.

This country is slow to change. Many features of the abdication crisis, 57 years ago, have recurred. Here are the newspaper barons trying to hold out of their papers material which the rest of the world is reading. Here is a British public supposed to be in ferment about the future of the monarchy, when in fact the panic is restricted to bishops, politicians and journalists. And here too, as I suspect, is a Conservative faction which has deep political suspicions about the successor to the throne - and dresses up those suspicions as moral disapproval.

It was not Edward VIII's silliness or sexual experiments which really disturbed them, still less his interest in fascism. It was his element of apparent radicalism ('something must be done' for the unemployed and the poor), and his contempt for the old Establishment. This King, they thought, might not be controllable. He might even go over the heads of the political system and try to enlist the people. By the end of 1992, Prince Charles was beginning to awake the same kind of suspicion, and he is being treated with the same kind of hypocrisy. Charles III will not know his place, and will threaten us all.

That, then, is why the dogs do not bark. Monarchy - the principle of authority from above - is the axis of the British system. Yet, when really at bay, the Establishment may even be prepared to jettison the dynasty and seek some other way to preserve itself.

That will not work, of course. The trouble is not 'something wrong with the monarchy'. It is that the whole environment of which both the monarchy and the unreformed British state are part is starting to break down.

The little lady still lives at the end of the Mall. But when disaffected public servants want to answer to her or to her son, rather than to political masters, a crisis of the state is not far off. I do not know what that conflict may destroy. But, though I am a republican, I know that a republic entered through Camillagate is not worth having.

(Photograph omitted)