The Case for Nationalising the British Monarchy
Smith, Andreas Whittam, The Independent (London, England)
An interesting idea for reforming the monarchy has come from Mark Bolland, a former deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales. He proposes, if I fully understand the mere sketch of his ideas he gave in an interview over the weekend, that the system of royal households and courtiers should be swept away and replaced by a proper "Department of the Head of State", presumably a government office like any other. To this Mr Bolland adds a more familiar recommendation: that the Royal Family should be shrunk to its essentials: the Queen, the heir to the throne and his children. Privatise the rest. Let them live in decent obscurity.
Reform of the monarchy may indeed be possible, but not abolition. I have learnt this the hard way. By chance, in recent years I and Bill Emmott, the editor of The Economist, have twice been asked to put the republican case to student debates, one in Oxford and the other in Durham. Hundreds of intelligent young people were present on both occasions. I think we spoke well and effectively, though better in Durham than in Oxford. Our opponents were nothing special. Yet each time we lost the motion by a significant margin. From that moment on I have believed that Britain will never become a republic.
I argued that I wished above all to respect my head of state. As the hereditary principle cannot by its very nature provide an uninterrupted flow of people one can admire, it is necessary to find some other method of selection. As do most countries around the world without any dire results. If neighbouring states such as Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy can manage it, why can't we? As for the British monarchy's few remaining constitutional powers, they can easily be absorbed by the other offices of state. All so reasonable, yet unacceptable to the great majority of British people. Why?
Because when asked to suggest who might be the first British President after, say, the present Queen's reign, there is no name one can put forward which does not invite sniggers of derision or sheer disgust. A former prime minister? Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher or John Major as head of state? Not on your life, is the immediate reply. OK. Rule out politicians. What about one of Britain's distinguished citizens, say a Nobel prizewinner, legal luminary, respected business person, or world-famous cultural figure? Response: you must be joking. Hardly anybody would know who they were, or care. I wonder. The Irish can have Mary Robinson as president (1990- 97); is it really beyond us to locate someone of similar calibre?
Of course not. Our lack of interest bespeaks deeper considerations. At its best it is an instinctive revulsion at the notion of cutting away one of the deepest roots of the British state, a steadying influence for 1,000 years, not so ancient as Christianity in these islands but older than the establishment of Parliament by two centuries or so.
It is also fear of the unknown. A distinguished head of state might be, after all, somebody who said or did something significant. It is much safer to stick with the present Royal Family which, despite its occasional bouts of bizarre behaviour, remains a known quantity. We look through royalty's faults, remember our own and see our long history reflected back at us.
Reform, though, is surely necessary to make the best of the system we seem inclined to retain. Adding some flesh to the bones of Mr Bolland's brief analysis, the chief problem, he argues, is an inappropriate support system for the Queen, Prince Charles and the two young princes. This is because the old methods of running a large, wealthy aristocratic family and its estates have been retained. …