Kings' Ransom

By Botton, Alain De | The Independent (London, England), January 7, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Kings' Ransom


Botton, Alain De, The Independent (London, England)


LATELY, it has been easy to feel that Britain might be better off without a monarchy; in fact, to feel this so strongly that we might doubt whether we have really understood its true function. How could something so old and venerable suddenly seem so irrelevant? For anyone tired of royal scandal and looking for a thorough analysis of the constitutional role of the monarchy, Vernon Bogdanor, Reader in Government at Oxford, has written the perfect book. It gives us a vivid picture of how the crown works today as well as how it has evolved historically. There are chapters on the rules of succession, on how a sovereign appoints a Prime Minister in the case of a hung parliament, on the relation between the Crown and the Church, and the Crown and the Commonwealth. The implication throughout is that the Crown has a crucial role to play in modern British politics, and could not be replaced by anything better. However, somewhat ironically for the pro-monarchist Bogdanor, it is possible to leave the book not less of a republican but more, for as soon as one evaluates the worth of the monarchy in such a utilitarian way - as a means of efficiently running a political system - then one is likely to run into serious trouble, for it may just be that some, and perhaps finally the most decisive, arguments in favour of the monarchy are emotional rather than practical.

Bogdanor argues that a constitutional monarchy can offer the greatest degree of legitimacy available in a democratic nation. Because the head of the state has no political allegiance, he or she is able to unite parts of the nation that might be divided in their feelings towards Westminster politicians. In the case of a hung parliament, when the sovereign forms a government, people are more likely to trust a monarch, who has no past political involvement, than a president, who might once have belonged to a particular party. If Britain has avoided many of the upheavals of other countries in the last 200 years, Bogdanor suggests that it is in part because the Crown has been able to reconcile both sides of the political spectrum. The relative political instability of France since 1789 is attributed to the abolition of the monarchy, with the author darkly suggesting that trouble might follow if republicanism ever got out of hand here. Abolition might initially appeal to middle-of-the-road reformers, but he tells us that "it also has the potential to unleash political forces whose contours can at present be only dimly discerned".

Bogdanor's most intriguing but rather undeveloped thesis is that a nation has to have a public figure who will successfully embody its self-image. He argues that only the Crown "can represent the whole nation in an emotionally satisfying way; it alone is in a position to interpret the nation to itself". The danger in a republic is that people may be left emotionally unsatisfied by a president, with whom certain sections of the population will by definition not have agreed politically: as examples, Bogdanor points to the United States during Nixon's presidency, and France during Mitterand's period in office.

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