Why the Queen should abdicate: it's as natural as retirement

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The Independent Online
THE V & A once advertised itself as an excellent cafe with some nice art attached. Now that Kensington Palace is rumoured to be turning into a picture gallery, we are on our way to getting another nice museum with a monarchy attached. So many reformist ideas are leaking from government and the Palace's consultative Way Ahead group that, far from following Bagehot's instruction to never let daylight in on the magic, royalty is dwelling in the unrelenting glare of critical scrutiny.

How strong public dissatisfaction remains was shown in a leaked poll which led the Palace to conclude that a spin-doctor - contemporary form of the genie - should be appointed. The Sun revealed that the opening of Parliament is to be simplified, HRH's culled and curtseying abandoned. Not even in the advanced condition of Tony Blair's love-in with Rupert Murdoch has the Sun become the official journal of record (yet), but the stories were well sourced and the denials vague.

The death of the Princess of Wales was an event after which, in Yeats's words, "all is changed, utterly". It was inconceivable that the Royal Family could simply go on as if nothing had happened. From the moment that Mr Blair made his intuitive leap and spoke of Diana as the "People's Princess", it was clear that his government would take a defining role in the future of the Crown. But my strong suspicion is that the impetus to form a reformist alliance came as much from the Prince of Wales. Indeed, he may have thought of it first.

Even before Diana's death, Prince Charles was aware that the monarchy needed to be reinvigorated to ensure its survival. In New Labour, he saw a potent ally for change. If there is one thing that we can all agree Mr Blair is good at, it is managing change. When the Prince first met Peter Mandelson, he remarked, 'Ah, the red rose man', a reference to Mr Mandelson's deft decision to replace the implied militancy of the red flag with the inclusive symbolism of a well-loved flower.

After the election Mr Mandelson, who can be charming when he wants to be, was sent to dine with Camilla Parker Bowles, while the MP Tony Wright, acting as the Lord Chancellor's emissary, was given leave to condemn those Anglican clergymen who seek to block a remarriage by the heir to the throne.

It struck me at the time that the logic of this partnership ran in one direction only: it strengthened Prince Charles's chance of becoming king before the death of his mother. Although custom and loyalty forbid that he say it, this is what he wants. It would be highly unnatural for any man in middle age, whose life has been one long preparation for a job, not to wish that the time would come to get to work. How much more keenly the Prince must feel this now, as the winds of change whistle under the stout oak doors of Windsor. The response to Diana's death confirmed that we are a far less deferential, less conformist nation than we were. For the first time this century, a mass of people expressed public dissatisfaction with a remote, inward-looking royal family.

One powerful paradox of Thatcherism was that it undermined conservative attitudes in society. Nothing was left unquestioned. It tore up old ways of thinking and working and behaving. Cherie Blair's failure to curtsey to the Queen was an instructive, a representative lapse. We do not see why we should leave traditions intact where they no longer serve us well. We look at our monarchy and ask whether it provides what we, the people, want of it. At last, we are behaving like citizens, not subjects.

Initiatives to scale down the size of the Royal Family follow, some fifty years on, my grandfather's unwanted advice that it should rid itself of the "hangers on" (he agreed to help support King George, his wife and children, "but that's the lot"). It should certainly rid itself fast of the royal version of Clause IV - the bar to an eldest daughter inheriting the throne.

There is still, however, one great unspoken: the future of the Queen herself. It is absurd nowadays for a monarch to rule until death, a remnant of the belief in the divine right of kings. Otherwise, only the president of the National Union of Mineworkers keeps his job for life, and much good that has done his members. In short, it is time for the Queen to consider retirement. To use the word abdication - heavy with woeful echoes of Edward VIII - is to invite misunderstanding. Queen Elizabeth is over 70 years old. She has ruled for 46 years. The millennium is approaching. What better time for a generational shift?

I imagine that this proposal is unwelcome to her. She took the throne for life. Few older people revise such fundamental attitudes. For the same reason, it is cruel to expect that she will rise to the challenge of forging a thoroughly modern monarchy. She was subjected to a "People's" wedding anniversary party and endured it with forbearance. But the community- centre style and Mr Blair's Gawd-bless-you-Ma'am tribute did not suit her. A still, small voice inside must have thought, "What on earth am I doing here?".

Yet a less formal monarchy is what we must have. At times of constitutional upheaval, through devolution to the House of Lords, a single, non-political head of state should embody both the unity of the United Kingdom and the growing diversity of its governance. The job description has altered. That is the real reason for changing the chief executive of what Prince Philip still calls "the Firm".

Prince Charles understands this. He has dropped his unappealing habit of whining about his misfortunes and wishing he had been born Bob Geldof. The Prince's Trust enshrined welfare-to-work long before Gordon Brown came along. I wouldn't appoint him as London's architect-in-chief, but at least he has opinions and voices them. The objection that Mrs Parker Bowles cannot be his consort is ill-founded. She will never become queen, nor fill Diana's elegant shoes, but she is a mature and sensible woman and would not seek to do so. They should marry if they wish - a happy king is preferable to a miserable one. The wedding could be the first down-sized, low-cost royal event. If marriage brings forth calls for disestablishment, so much the better. The church does not own the monarchy, but neither does the monarchy any longer own the church.

My Ladybird book of Kings and Queens, published in the mid-1970s, contained a fulsome description of the "second Elizabethan age". It showed the Queen boarding new-fangled aeroplanes and as head of the perfect nuclear family. How dated that seems now - as distant in some ways as the first Elizabethan era. The golden family turned out to be a nest of unhappiness. "She's had her troubles just like I've had mine," said an old lady in the East End last month when the Queen visited. Too right. If they weren't royal, someone would have alerted social services long ago.

But, then again, we no longer really believe in the post-1910 fiction of the monarchy as First Family. Neither - outside the rarefied echelons of Tory Anglicanism - do we see it as the untouchable source of Bagehot's magic. A monarchy that is compact, dignified and which expresses the link between all parts and peoples of the United Kingdom is the best defence against republicanism. It must change, because not to do so will mean the end of our faith in it. That is death to any institution.