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
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
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
"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.
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