The latest MORI poll shows more people (55 per cent) think the country would be better off, or no different, without a monarchy; only 40 per cent think the country would be worse off. It seems unlikely the Princess of Wales's interview will have done much to tilt public opinion back towards the monarchy, whether or not she has scored more points in the television boxing ring: the same MORI poll rated the rebarbative Princess Anne as the best performer, with 45 per cent approval, while Diana scored a mere 17 per cent and the wretched Charles a pitiful 6 per cent. The royal spectacle has been mainly absurd, and looks set to remain so.
Does it matter? I used to think not. I used to think politics was too serious to bother itself with the nonsense of monarchy, and Parliament too busy with more important matters than replacing harmless Queen Betty with President Betty. It has now become a pressing question that encompasses our national life. Monarchy has little real power but it tyrannises our imagination.
If royalty is an emblem of the state of the nation, then its dysfunction is a symbol of the chronic dysfunction of the state and the constitution. What does monarchy stand for? It is the apex of a hierarchy and that is not a fitting model for a pluralistic democracy. The royal insignia stamps a notion of absolute sovereignty on all that politicians do in the name of the Queen. It diminishes us, turning us all into subjects.
Our glorious heritage rides by in golden carriages, our empty pageantry troops the colour and changes the guard. The Lords in their ermine and coronets, Royal Ascot, birthday honours and the Stone of Scone bring in the tourists. This, we are told, is what we are best at - no one does it like us. Look at the busbies in perfect formation; what a seat Her Majesty has on her side saddle. (What nerve and aplomb when shot at once by a dud starting pistol.) Look at our blossoming Queen Mother, as old as the century, her radiant smile embalmed and oblivious of family turmoil. Here embodied in all its glory is our happy link to the world of Good Queen Bess and Bluff King Hal, as if our Empire were still rosy pink across the global map, our history on parade. Does it bring a tear to the eye? Does the heart swell as the marching band strikes up?
I used to think it had no meaning, bare ruined choirs signifying nothing. But no longer. The trappings are not trivial. They trap us all in an infantile fairyland of yesteryear heritage. We may not line the streets, but gazing in our millions at our screens on Monday night, we play the subject, absorbed, bewitched. Astonishing how the royal phantasm captures and seduces politicians of all parties as they set off to kiss hands at the palace. On ascending to the peerage, the doughtiest old trade unionist, the briskest old rationalist will wax astonishingly lyrical about the mysteries of the College of Arms.
It is deep-dyed in all our blood, a drug as treacherous as heroin coursing through the national veins. It breeds Eurosceptics and little Englanders, constitutional bigots and yobs with Union Jacks painted on their faces as they rampage through the streets of Europe. It tells us lies about ourselves and our proper place in the world. It prevents us from seeing where we stand, though the rest of the world understand us well enough and laugh up their republican sleeves.
In our hearts, we are still at the top table - hang on tight to that seat on the UN security council. In our self-image we are leaders of Europe, setting the pace, admonishing the others, up there shoulder to shoulder with the Germans, better far than the Frogs, let alone the Wops, Spics, and oily Greeks. The long dead Special Relationship with our Atlantic cousins abides still in our dreamy delusions of grandeur, as a royal favour from us to those of impoverished heritage. Poor things, they only have a man-made constitution, we have the divine right of kings.
Time and again we cast about for the reason for our phenomenal economic failure since the last war, victory turned so quickly to ashes, while the vanquished Germans conquered all. The things we fought the war to conserve became the albatross of our destruction - our traditions, our constitution, our ossified and arcane systems of patronage, old abuses of power, unchecked sovereignty of Parliament, a winner-takes-all voting system that guarantees election of a government chosen by a minority, all power drawn ever tighter into the clenched fist of Westminster.
What must we do? Alas, only "maverick" MPs dare breathe the word republic. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition bends in the deepest bow to the throne. When it comes to power, Labour promises to expend all its constitutional energies on giving Scotland a parliament - satisfaction to the 8 per cent who live there. What of the 92 per cent of the rest of us yearning to breathe free of the Westminster autocracy symbolised by the Crown? Living in London, even under the shadow of the Palace of Westminster, we are as drained of power and self-determination as Skye or the Gower Peninsula.
Why would abolishing the monarchy change anything? Because all the power exercised in the Queen's name would have to be reconfigured, from the system of appointing judges and bishops to the establishment of the Church of England. The House of Lords would have to be turned into a second chamber with more power and so it would become at least a partially elected body. It would mean a written constitution, which in turn would lead almost certainly to a Bill of Rights, some devolution and a measure of proportional representation in the Commons.
These are partly reforms we could have and still keep the Crown. But we have had no reform and the Crown, emblem of tradition, bolsters politicians who want no change. We have no reformist party to vote for, no project, no official expression of desire for radical change, beyond opinion polls showing that the people are becoming, yearly, more dangerously disenchanted with the whole political process.
The latest British Social Attitudes survey, published tomorrow, shows that most voters think politicians care only for themselves, that local elections count for nothing, and only a tiny number of the young give a fig for politics. This sort of apathy may not breed revolutions to storm the gates of Buckingham Palace, but it warns of a political vacuum that beckons to tyrants.
Keep Diana talking, give her a show of her own. The more mockery the monarchy makes of itself, the closer we come to the end.Reuse content