Whose democracy is it anyway?

The Royal Family has formed a committee to decide its own future, but decisions like this are too important to be left to self-interested parties, argues Anthony Barnett
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So now we know. A committee of key Royals and their sophisticated advisers meet every six months to assess the way ahead. How is the monarchy doing? Have any changes taken place that deserve a response from the Royal Family? The political philosophy behind such meetings draws on the experience of relatives who were insufficiently flexible, including their own ancestors 350 years ago. The art of staying royal is to make it appear that you are not against all change.

This might even necessitate accepting some actual change. Paying the bottom rate of tax, for example, while leaving open the option of escape from such impositions by making them voluntary. Lord Blake summed up the attitude marvellously on the radio yesterday. Of course it is good that people should "talk" about reforms, he emphasised. But, he added, the changes now being talked about, such as for the heir to be allowed to marry a Catholic or equal opportunity for women to accede to the throne, are quite unnecessary.

When Lord Blake tells us he is in favour of talk, one has a vision of another hundred years of velvet tones pouring from the mouths of constitutional experts. Yet this seems more like a crude filibuster masquerading as generosity of wisdom. Perhaps it is motivated by a conservatism deeper than the desire to see the Royals stay as they are; the conservatism that wants to ensure that the Royals and their experts alone decide if and when there is to be reform. Public opinion will be assessed, to help ensure consent; but private opinion, in the form of the Royal circle, will decide.

This confirms what may have been obvious to all those "in the know" - that we in Britain are actively ruled. The Royals are not a family passively accepting their fate. They constantly survey their role and seek to preserve their influence. Yet the official confirmation of the committee's existence gives a new edge to questions about the legitimacy of this approach.

Put it like this. To whom does the Royal Family belong? In the past such a query would have been pointless. There was a ruling order, the City, the Church (there was no need to say of what), the landed aristocracy, the military, the Empire, the civil servants, the London clubs (including the Commons). They ruled. Everyone knew it. Most people liked it. Consent took the form of deference and enchantment personified by the monarch. It didn't matter if personally he was a stuttering stamp collector. The system was brilliant. The monarch belonged to it. And shone accordingly.

Today, the imperial system that made and possessed the monarchy (and demonstrated its control in the abdication crisis) has deceased. To save themselves the Royals became a television family seeking to use the extraordinary appeal of the media as a substitute for the loss of their true surroundings. Now they have discovered that if they continue to live by the media they will die by it. They want their privacy. But, we are told, they represent who we are. Even, according to William Waldegrave, "a vision of what we should be."

As the empire has shrunk away, the monarchy has been inflated. So that it has now become a substitute for the constitutional order. This is an untenable travesty of tradition, one increasingly imcompatible with modern democracy. And it is exploited worst of all by the Government.

The personal tension is best illustrated by the proposal that the heir to the throne should be allowed to marry a Catholic. Were Charles just a member of a family, if royalty belonged to themselves, then whom they married would be a private affair. But the hereditary head of the Church of England cannot be free to marry a Catholic. Personal, private freedom for Royals means disestablishment, both literally, as far as the Church is concerned, and more widely. If, however, the Royals sitting as a committee decide to de-couple Church and Crown, this too would be an outrage. For it should not be a closed, family decision. It may be the right one, but it has to be a shared one.

But how can it be shared when Parliament is not even allowed to debate the monarchy, supposedly on the grounds that it is the Queen's own court? This is the real issue of sovereignty; not this or that reform of the rules defining the Royal Family, but how we decide how the rules are changed.

It matters for ministers, as they exploit prerogative powers, now that the informed constraints of consensus politics have been broken. A Tory leak seems to have inspired Saturday's Daily Express story, sensationally headlined: "The Queen's secret inquiry into Labour". This revealed that her private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, is conducting discreet interviews to consider the effect on the monarchy of Lords reform, while its editorial proclaimed: "The British constitution is a ... delicate edifice ... tamper with several parts of it ... as Labour intends ... and you may unwittingly unravel the whole thing."

Her Majesty is being enlisted to preserve us from decentralisation, a modest Scottish parliament and a Freedom of Information Act. If the monarchy collaborates with this approach, however surreptitiously, it could indeed help John Major win in 1997.

But such a short-term reprieve is likely to precipitate a constitutional endgame from which it is inconceivable that the Crown will emerge unscathed. Ironically, it is in the monarchy's interests also that we move away from Lord Blake's talk, Sir Robert's discreet soundings and Tory scaremongering. As well as ours. For until the monarchy can be properly debated it will be hard to describe ourselves as a democracy.

The writer is the editor of 'Power and the Throne' (Vintage, 1995).