Magazine article The Spectator

No Old Monarchy for New Labour

Magazine article The Spectator

No Old Monarchy for New Labour

Article excerpt

THE FABIANS are not used to rebellions, but that is what happened last Friday. Deep in the Oxfordshire countryside the annual Young Fabian weekend school began with a plea for a change to the published agenda. `It isn't good enough to stop for the service itself,' insisted one delegate. `Events must begin only after lunch.' So much is unsurprising; these young Blairites were simply reacting like the majority of the population. What was revolutionary was the chat in the bar later that night.

The very same people who earlier had insisted on cancelling the next morning's sessions were scathing about the behaviour of the House of Windsor and not one of them expected the monarchy to survive the death of the Queen. More interestingly, they couldn't see how the monarchy fitted in with the `New Labour' vision they had come together to spend 48 hours discussing.

The Young Fabians have long been the modernisers' cutting edge. Past officers are now young MPs, advisers to ministers such as Peter Mandelson and Alastair Darling serve on the executive, and the discussions at their yearly country retreats would make David Owen blush. This year Dr Madsen Pirie from the Adam Smith Institute is a guest and one session is titled, `How and what Labour should privatise'. `These people are the ghost of New Labour future,' moaned one Old Labour MP recently.

Abolishing the monarchy is not top of their political agenda, but that is for practical reasons - and a sense of inertia - not because of any royalist sympathies. They know that abolition would consume the government's energies, taking up huge swathes of parliamentary time. After all, a republic would require the very fabric of our lives to be rewoven, from stamps to law courts. A written constitution would be required and the lingering power of the monarch (the Royal Prerogative, assenting to Bills etc.) would have to be passed to others such as the Speaker of the House of Commons, or an elected president.

It is not only Blair's young shock troops who feel ambivalent about the monarchy. John Prescott admits that he is `certainly not a monarchist and so that makes me a republican in the democratic sense'. He confesses to compromising in practice. For example, he swears the oath of allegiance at the start of every parliament but, `when I swear, I affirm but . . . I don't say it, I mumble it. That's one of my little compromises.' He respects the Queen, though, and tells the tale of a visit she made to Hull in 1977. Prescott decided his compromise on that occasion would be not bowing but, as he recounts, `She came along the line. She gets to me. I just shook her hand and looked straight up. And she started speaking to me and I couldn't hear what she was saying, she's not tall. I automatically bent down as she's not tall then realised I had appeared to bow.' He concludes, `She's a shrewd woman.'

The present Home Secretary, when in opposition, called for a scaled-down monarchy, but his remarks had an air of the last chance saloon about them. The royal family, he said, were `deeply decadent and detached'. There has been no sign yet of whether Home Secretary Straw is ready to go into battle with the House of Windsor with his spending axe, though he might have a useful ally in the Chancellor of the Exchequer. For Gordon Brown too has spoken of the need to reform the monarchy, with only the Queen and the Queen Mother receiving payments from the civil list.

Dennis Skinner, Paul Flynn, Nick Ainger, Llew Smith, Nick Raynsford, Tony Banks, Peter Hain, the list goes on - and ministers not just backbenchers feature on it. Ron Davies is the most outspoken. The then shadow Welsh Secretary earned a rebuke from Blair before the election when he said the Prince of Wales `was a sadist [because of his thirst for blood sports], adulterer and deceiver and therefore not fit to be king'. In case that wasn't clear enough he added that the heir to the throne was `an absolute pillock'. …

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