Wake up to modernity, citizen Charles: We are poised for citizenship of Europe but remain subjects of an antiquated monarchy Anthony Holden

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The Independent Online
THE widening debate over the monarchy's future - unthinkable even a year ago - is a striking index of the crisis now facing the House of Windsor. Would Lord Reith have countenanced Sunday's 90-minute 'trial' on BBC 2 in which a motion calling for 'fundamental reform' was lost by only three votes in 300? After decades of uncritical deference, the devil now has the best tunes, and the onus is on monarchists to defend the irrational, divisive institution that has so long held unchallenged sway.

For the monarchy to outlive the present reign, the Queen and her heir must ensure it is perceived as a relevant, contemporary force for good in 21st-century Britain, rather than an antique, outmoded repository of hereditary wealth and privilege, hoarding its huge private fortune by living off taxpayers who have never had it so bad, underpinning the class distinctions that still bedevil British society, and subverting, rather than safeguarding, basic democratic freedoms.

From the demise of the monarchy would flow a written constitution, an elected second chamber of parliament and separation of church and state. These reforms would pave the way for a Bill of Rights, a Supreme Court, a Freedom of Information Act and all the other civic rights taken for granted in most modern democracies, but denied the British while they remain subjects rather than citizens.

Adopting a written constitution would entail replacing the present oath of allegiance to the Crown with an oath of allegiance to the constitution - which the monarch would be obliged to swear, as is European practice, thus ensuring (in Charter 88's phrase) that the monarchy belongs to us rather than we to it.

It is not just the collapse of several royal marriages that has brought about the monarchy's plight. Nor is it merely the abuse of public trust by certain members of the sovereign's family. It is the failure of the hereditary head of state and her advisers to mirror national evolution in the institution that is supposed to symbolise it. So long as the monarchy remains redolent of Britain's lost empire - and thus, in Dean Acheson's famous phrase, of her lost role - it will compound, rather than amend, Britain's failure to face its future as a European nation-state.

That the head of state is forbidden by law to marry outside the Protestant faith is offensive in our multiracial society, in which regular Anglican churchgoers make up less than 2 per cent of the population. In the interests of self-preservation, the Church, which would not permit a king to marry a divorcee in 1936, now says it is prepared to overlook its own canon law and crown an adulterous divorcee - although it may be obliged, in the words of some senior churchmen, to amend the Coronation oath, even delete two of the Ten Commandments, to do so with a clearish conscience.

Small wonder that younger Britons, who will be running the country by the end of the present reign, have come to see the hereditary principle as a curious way for a supposedly mature and vigorous democracy to choose its head of state. So much is done in the name of the head of state that they are asking in increasingly large numbers whether they might not have some say in the choice of the individual purporting to represent their corporate identity and aspirations.

At present, the politicians elected by the British people are pleased to call themselves Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. The Queen's peace is kept by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It is illegal to mail a letter that bears a stamp without the Queen's head, and inelegant not to speak the Queen's English. Even if separate parliaments are eventually won by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, not to mention the embattled inhabitants of Northern Ireland, they and the English will all still cohabit a federal state called the United Kingdom.

Britain's progress to 'the heart of Europe' will involve constitutional arrangements more in line with those of our democratic partners. Thanks to Maastricht, the British monarch will soon join her subjects as a mere citizen of Europe, with a vote in European elections, which would seem to compromise her present status. If John Major is to make us all citizens of Europe, might he not first have the decency to make us citizens of Britain - rather than subjects of the Crown?

Where else in Europe is the citizenry partly governed by people who inherit their seats in parliament? Have Mr Major's protracted negotiations ensured that his monarch will receive immunity from European employment and discrimination laws, as she does from her own (which is why the head of the Commonwealth employs an all-white Royal Household with impunity)?

Has he seen to it that no European court will be able to summon her as a witness, even a defendant, as is the case in her own British courts? Will our European partners be content for the British sovereign to travel without a passport, drive without taking a test, and own numerous dogs without buying a licence?

If the 21st century sees King William V performing the state opening of parliament in a suit and tie, rather than a crown and ermine robes, then the British monarchy will have been saved by the Maastricht treaty. If His Majesty arrives in a Rolls-Royce, rather than a golden horse- drawn coach, and does not expect elderly aristocrats to walk backwards before him bearing 500-year-old relics on velvet cushions, Britain at last will have emerged from the long shadows of its past and woken up to its future.

The alternative is for the Prince of Wales, who has recently described the monarchy as 'a kind of elective institution', to put his money where his mouth is and run for election, on his mother's demise, as head of our brave new United States of Europe.

This article is adapted from Anthony Holden's newly published book 'The Tarnished Crown' (Bantam Press, pounds 16.99).

(Photograph omitted)