Friday, November 19, 2004
I talk to the trees...
Oh dear. Prince Charles is in trouble again - twice in the same week.
First, his antediluvian managerial practices have come in for scrutiny at an employment tribunal. Then he gets into an unprecedented public row with a cabinet minister over his views on education.
Critics of Prince Charles have tended to fall into two camps. One group complains that the Prince's views are old-fashioned and elitist, while the other argues that the heir to the throne should not express his opinions at all.
Both views miss the point while demonstrating the absurdity of a monarchy. One can hardly complain of Charles's elitism - it comes with the job title. Nor can anyone reasonably expect that he should be usefully occupied in good works without expressing an opinion about what he sees.
So far as one can tell, Prince Charles's politics are typical of the old aristocracy; a blend of traditional moderate Toryism and a sense of noblesse oblige. Despite this, his actual political function has been to protect the royal family's left flank. His green sympathies and hostility to modern architecture chime with the sentiments of much of the British left, who assume he is really 'one of us'. It is significant that he cemented this reputation during Mrs Thatcher's premiership, when the left had lost confidence in its ability to achieve its goals through the ballot box.
This is the real problem with Prince Charles. His perceived political sentiments have effectively inhibited any serious debate on the British left about the future of the monarchy, and prevented the emergence of a republican movement. The British left, if it is honest, sees the monarchy as the final bulwark against an elected populist right-wing government. Now who is the elitist?
Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown's retort to republicans within his own party was simply to say, "President Thatcher" - to which my retort would be "King Andrew". One only has to think for a minute about the consequences of Prince Andrew being Prince of Wales, mouthing off his boorish opinions in place of his elder brother's sentimental waffle, to realise what a weak argument this is.
There are two basic faults with the British monarchy, neither of which has anything to do with the unfortunate individuals in the royal family.
The first is political. Although the monarch is a figurehead with no political power, the unlimited powers of the Crown survive and are exercised by the government. The checks and balances built into Britain's constitutional settlement of 1688 no longer exist. Most of our constitutional problems stem from this unhealthy concentration of power.
The second fault is symbolic. The monarchy remains the foundation of Britain's system of class-based privilege. British people are legally 'subjects', not citizens. The culture of hierarchical snobbery is rooted in this essentially feudal system. Royalty gives the system a veneer of respectability and keeps this absurd show on the road.
Criticism of the monarchy is often labelled 'republican' but has yet to mature into a genuine republican movement. This is largely due to respect for the present Queen, who has become part of the furniture. She has been on the throne for 52 years and most people have no memory of anyone else doing the job. It is hard to imagine Charles, assuming he ever becomes King, commanding the same broad popular assent.
In the meantime, respect for the royal family has been in gradual decline. In part, this reflects a series of public embarrassments, including the whole Diana saga. But mainly, it is due to the slow death of deference and the emergence of a more meritocratic society in Britain. The more this development continues, the more the monarchy will become incompatible with the rest of society.
Apologists for royalty on the British left point to the so-called 'bicycling monarchies' of Scandinavia and the Benelux countries as a model. They argue this demonstrates that it is possible to 'modernise' monarchy and remain in tune with the wider society. Yet it is inconceivable that the Eton-educated, polo-playing British royals could or would make such a transition.
Sooner or later, the British political classes will realise that the monarchy is no longer credible. If they want to shape a sensible alternative, they must anticipate rather than wait for a constitutional crisis. This issue deserves more serious thought than it is getting. And we need better ideas from the left than clichés about a 'bicycling monarchy'. The British constitution can't be fixed with a pair of bicycle clips.