By Vallance, Ted
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 138, No. 4957
In a recent poll conducted by Republic, the campaign for an elected head of state, 62 per cent of respondents wanted royal finances to be open to full public scrutiny. At the very least, the renewed focus on royal expenses, with its obvious parallels to the furore over MPs' claims, could stymie requests for an increase to the civil list. At worst, the timing of this debate, in the middle of a recession and in the wake of a serious crisis of confidence in our political institutions, threatens a repeat of the Queen's "annus horribilis" of 1992.
The toe-curling (or rather toe-sucking) revelations of that year brought public respect for the monarchy to its lowest ebb for a century; the fire that engulfed Windsor Castle was an apt symbol for royal grandeur brought to ruin. In the aftermath of these disasters, commentators on both the left and the right rushed to pronounce the imminent death of the British monarchy. The post-1992 reforms to make the monarchy more relevant--a "people's" Honours List, the opening of Buckingham Palace to the public and greater oversight of royal finances--seemingly served only to drain whatever substance remained from the beleaguered institution.
Yet, in spite of Charles's messy divorce, the death of Diana and Prince Harry's poor taste in fancy dress, the monarchy has survived. But the recovery of its fortunes does not indicate that Britain is a nation of ardent royalists, unquestioning in their loyalty to the Windsor dynasty. Rather, the persistence of the monarchy in 21st-century Britain has been achieved only by the near-complete submission of the Crown to the popular will.
The mistake that commentators in the mid-1990s made was to assume that the royal family's then poor reputation reflected deeper changes in society. Conservative and republican writers alike believed that the Crown had been fundamentally undermined by a decade of Thatcherism, both as a political institution and as a cultural rallying point. Respect for the monarchy, it was said, had rested on a class-riven society dominated by codes of deference, a society that Thatcher's government had torn asunder.
However, the problem is that throughout British history due public deference to the Crown has often seemed in short supply. From Wat Tyler swilling his beer in front of Richard II in June 1381 to the Kentish fishermen who accompanied the captured fames II to the privy in December 1688, British subjects have often failed to observe the niceties of royal protocol. High-profile instances of this kind can be accompanied by the thousands of cases of seditious speech and writing found in British legal records, demonstrating a plebeian hostility to the monarchy.
Denunciations of individual monarchs, such as the one by William Pennington in 1690 (he was accused of calling King William a "Dutch dog" and Queen Mary a "Dutch bitch"), or by John Harris in 1714, who said "God damn the Queen [Anne], she can kiss my arse", are commonplace. Many of these outbursts openly threatened violence. In the revolutionary crisis of the 1790s, anonymous handbills were pasted up in Bath proclaiming "Peace and large bread or a king with no head". Another from Wiltshire ended "God save the poor and down with George III".
On the other hand, British history is filled with instances of monarchs who were lionised even by radical movements. The greatest example of this was Alfred the Great. The Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor painted an idyllic picture of Saxon England under the rule of Alfred, when the working day was strictly limited to eight hours and "there was neither lock nor bolt on any man's door because there was no thief". Many Chartists similarly believed, erroneously, that Queen Victoria was sympathetic to the cause of reform and had personally intervened to prevent the execution of John Frost, the leader of the Newport rising of 1839. …