There is a future for a new model monarchy

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The Independent Online
Vive la republique! How natural a conclusion that would be after a week of stargazer Vasso on Fergie and (a very different book, to be sure) Ben Pimlott in these pages on the Queen. "Dregs of a dull race" - Shelley's judgement on the Hanoverians - needs to be updated for the Battenberg-Windsors and their circle. Even after due weight is given to media preoccupations, and fact peeled apart from the "as-told-to" and "a courtier said", how little there is in all these tales to inspire love and esteem for our monarchical institutions. How easy it might be to let disillusion consume the institution of the British monarchy.

Even Cromwell, though, knew that one way or another he would have to re-create a working relationship between executive authority, titular headship of the state, and the legislature. Inside that constitutional triangle lies the continuing justification for the monarchy. The House of Windsor may be in questionable condition, but that in itself is insufficient cause for conducting major surgery. Why? Because the other components in the constitutional matrix require more urgent and more substantial reform than the monarchy. Indeed, there is a strong case for feeling that, while the storm of reform quite properly blows about the Lords, the Commons, Scotland, Ireland, electoral reform and our relationship with Europe, the monarchy might even serve as a sort of sheetanchor.

During the next few years there ought to be sharp discussion about how to reform the peerage by, at the least, injecting a representative element into the upper house. This week (Neil Hamilton, election funding, representativeness) has underlined once again the need for profound changes in the method of election to, and the daily conduct of, the House of Commons.

The creation of even a mildly authoritative Scottish parliament will have knock-on effects throughout our constitution, as will any ultimate settlement in Northern Ireland. The position of this country inside the European Union will alter for certain during the next three years; whatever decision is made about our joining the single currency, its mere creation by France, Germany and the German mark neighbours will provoke inevitable revision in the political and administrative relations between Brussels, London, Luxembourg and Strasbourg.

That welter of constitutional change is either necessary, or unstoppable, or both. Why then add pointlessly to it by attempting to invent an alternative for the monarchy? If George IV showed how a king could side with the reactionaries, George V showed how in a moment of constitutional crisis the monarch can smooth reform. The practical fiction of "the Crown" is and remains useful as a bond for the state's officials, for the legal system, and for the ownership of various kinds of government assets.

It is a commonplace, as true now as it was when Lord Protector Cromwell was offered a throne, that nations need figureheads. To some people the prospect of a British president seems beguiling. But it is hard to see how our progress towards a more modern society would be greatly aided by the creation of a brand new, unknown centre of potentially authoritarian power, in place of a monarchy whose power is partly irrelevant, partly imaginary, and partly rather pragmatically convenient. Stripped down from its imperial pretensions, the monarchy provides a historically valid symbol of unity.

Change, however, should be brought about more in gradualistic Fabian fashion than in guillotining revolutionary fashion. Ben Pimlott's narrative leaves the impression that Elizabeth II is not so dyed-in-the-wool that she could not contemplate substantial patching and alteration to the royal purple. Her eldest son has shown himself open to new thinking about the royal future. That phrase, "a king for all faiths", for which he was so much derided, is spot-on. The Anglican Church, a wily survivor if ever there was one, does not need a monarch at its head; if the king or queen of next century Britain were a Catholic or even a non-believer, so much the better. The monarchy would serve the nation better after disestablishment.

But the nation need not pay so dearly for the privilege. Any chancellor worth his or her salt should demand substantial further reductions in the cost of the Civil List, together with a thorough review of the Queen's personal wealth and of the Duchy of Cornwall. There is even a case for reviving the old medieval slogan that the king should live "of his own" - the proceeds of the royal family's property paying for its institutional existence. That ought, at least, to encourage the Queen or her heir into long overdue pruning of the grace and favour lists and the further appendages of the immediate royal family.

The British monarchy is an institution which history proves to be capable of dramatic internal change. The House of Windsor has not been an especially imaginative dynasty. But there are signs that, for its own sake as much as that of the throne it occupies, fresh thought is taking place about downsizing and disappearing off the front pages of the tabloid newspapers. It would be too much to expect Prince Charles to write a Demos pamphlet on the prospects for modest monarchy. But he could and should stimulate his cleverer friends to start thinking aloud about the dimensions of a new model monarchy.