LM Comment
  5:17 am GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar
13 January 1997

Off with their heads!

Bruno Waterfield joined the "baying mob" at Tuesday's monarchy debate in Birmingham. But what he found was that those who criticised the monarchy miss the point as much as those who support it

The great and good are not amused. Carlton TV's live debate on the future of the monarchy has rattled the cages of those who believe that a rational discussion is best confined to the intelligentsia. Their anti-democratic distaste for any form of public debate combined with the final poll result - 1.8 million for the monarchy, 800,000 against - show both the limits to contemporary constitutional debate and its apolitical character.

"The programme consisted of two hours of ignorance, distortion, prejudice, half-truths, crude assertion, bad temper and cheap personal abuse. Needless to say all this is what one expects in our democracy."

Sir Robin Day, Daily Telegraph, 9 January 1997.

There is a lot to be said for getting up the nose of pompous twits like Robin Day and offending professional toadies like Frederick Forsyth or the revolting Allan Starkie - I certainly know that I enjoyed myself. But what the show had in style - controversy, contestation, catcalls - it lacked in substance. I was left wondering just how offended "people of experience and authority" would have been if the debate had really started to get to grips with the issue?

Most commentators agree that the Royals have lost their "mystique", and may well never regain it. The unsayable is now commonplace: Prince Philip is a bad father, say 36 per cent of the UK (MORI poll carried out for Carlton) and 34 per cent believe that Prince Charles has damaged the House of Windsor's reputation.

The fact that most of the debate revolved around the personalities of the royals ensured that most of the debate misses the point.

A small horsy woman with terrible dress sense, a ridiculous voice, and a thing about corgis is not my cup of tea - but so what? Focusing on the personality traits of the royals (unpleasant as they are) merely replaces the old mystique with a new, albeit negative, one. The monarchy should be abolished, not because Prince Charles is a fool, but because it is unacceptable that any state should be structured around a hereditary dynasty.

The question is one of democracy and a democratic constitution is one that gives no power or role to unelected, unaccountable people. A constitutional monarchy is a constitution where the unelected and unrepresentative have precedence over or parity with an elected assembly. In Britain, Parliament does not even pretend to exercise the will of the people but the prerogative of the Crown. Institutions like the Crown, the House of Lords and the judiciary have the primary constitutional role of "checking and balancing" the rule of the people - on top of the parliamentary filtering mechanism of corruption.

This is what the debate should be about but is not, at present. It is too much caught up in the mystique of character and personality. Even the debate about what a republic would be like focuses on the personalities of today's lacklustre and unpopular politicians. This means that any discussion about "reform" is not about democracy or politics but, when it is discussed, is more like a form of national therapy.

"... [T]he first thing the whole family should do is go for therapy to get themselves sorted out. For the sake of the next generation of children they must become more responsible, thoughtful, reflective and, most importantly, kind and generous human beings."

Miriam Stoppard, Mirror, 8 January 1997

But then the monarchy always was about the symbolism of the family of the nation. It seems appropriate that they should all be in therapy in these politically correct times. Unfortunately, that would just be the signal for us all to consider 'getting help'.

The least helpful proposal in the monarchy debate comes from the Labour Party:

"Democratising the monarchy is part of the Tony Blair-Prince Charles agenda. We don't want a monarchy associated any more with this upper class flummery...We want a leaner, modernised, more democratic monarchy."

Tony Wright MP, constitutionalist and Blairite, Today Programme, Radio 4, 7 January 1997

It is impossible to democratise the undemocratic. A 'modernised monarchy' would only mean one that was better tuned to the times - and so more effective at frustrating real popular choice. And discussion about that is what's really missing from the debate.

Join a discussion on this commentary



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk