What future for the House of Windsor?

This week’s New Statesman has a lengthy feature on the monarchy, clearly coming out in favour of abolishing it and establishing a republic. Ted Vallance gives a long history of British public hostility and disrespect for the monarchy, while AN Wilson, a historian and former monarchist, reveals why he has moved towards a republican stance in recent years, one reason being that we are within an accident or two of having a much less desirable monarch than the Queen or Prince William — Prince Andrew or Harry, for example. Architect Piers Gough gives his (not very sympathetic) reaction to Prince Charles’s preoccupation with neoclassical architecture, Dominic Sandbrook tells us of the peccadilloes of Queen Victoria’s children, while Simon Walker, the Queen’s former press secretary, tells us that the monarchy is more progressive than people give it credit for.

I am personally indifferent as to whether this country keeps or gets rid of its monarchy. I used to be a republican, and favoured abolishing it upon the death of the present Queen, but these days I am aware that republics are more than capable of perpetrating all the injustice in the name of the constitution or the people as monarchies are in the name of “His or Her Majesty”. Some of them require citizens to sign up to some sort of national myth, particularly when a “revolution” has been instrumental in setting it up (never mind if the monarchy had been restored at some point since). The colonists in America who talked of “we the people” were all white and weren’t talking about Blacks, and some of them considered them to be only three-fifths human.

I am not entirely sure that the doubts about the suitability of Andrew, Edward and Harry to be king will make the difference, because the monarchy has weathered far worse scandals in the past, as the Sandbrook article makes clear. A few public gaffes or affairs (which the public only knew about because of press snooping or talking to their so-called “friends”) has not destroyed the monarchy in the past, so why should it do so now? Prince Charles has not been ruled out as king because of his outspoken and controversial views, a far more worrying problem given that the head of state in the UK is supposed to be apolitical, nor because of the carry-on with Camilla. If anything, the callous treatment of Diana, whom Charles never loved and never wanted to marry, as an incubator for royal successors was a bigger stain on the monarchy’s record, but I believe the blame lies with many more people than Charles. As for Wat Tyler and the peasants’ revolt, that happened in a time when the monarchy was actually powerful, and when barons and other “nobility” had a real, and often tyrannical, effect on those peasants’ lives. That is not even a memory now.

Of course, the one obvious difference between any of the current successors and the Queen is their sex; the Queen lends a certain feminine grace to a political system whose corridors of power are often dominated by dull or nasty men, and the most popular figures, and the least tarnished by scandal, in the royal family in recent decades have been female: the Queen, the late Queen Mother, Lady Diana and Princess Anne; nobody talks of a possible Queen Anne (Anne II?), but ironically given that it goes against the rules of succession, it might appeal to anyone who wants to preserve the status quo. Nobody under the age of 60 can remember this country having a king, but it is most likely that the next monarch will not be able to put a spurious kind face on British politics. That might well lead to a decline in public deference for the monarchy and, by association, many of the institutions associated with it (since many British political institutions have “His/Her Majesty’s” at the front of their name); this might also lead to a decline in tolerance towards politicians and the state.

AN Wilson makes the point that the queen’s reputation of “never putting a foot wrong” during a long reign also means that she has done nothing to stop the abuses of power committed by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, including wars involving regiments of which she is Colonel-in-Chief and the abolition of the Lord Chancellor’s office. However, the UK is a democracy in a family of democracies, and a royal intervention in politics would be tantamount, to some minds, to a military coup elsewhere. The Queen is simply not expected to be political, and much as some might wish she might use her power of Royal Assent to deny bad laws, there is no guarantee that any such effort might be honoured by the establishment, quite apart from the fact that the use of such powers could cut both ways. It could endanger our relations with other European countries, including our membership of the EU, which has never admitted a country that was not a democracy.

I do not subscribe to any theories about the mystique or magic of monarchy. “Royal” families are not special; they are just wealthy ruling families who have taken on a few airs and graces. Much of the ceremony associated with the British monarchy consists of Victorian inventions or exaggerations. The House of Windsor has only been called that since the First World War; before that, it was the German royal house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which also provided a royal house for Belgium and Bulgaria, while the Mountbattens were known as the Battenbergs; both changed their name because of the anti-German feeling which arose as a result of the war. Some Muslims are very attached to them, regarding monarchy as “true” Islamic rule and everything else is the work of the devil — an obvious reaction to the Turkish experience of republicanism which is by no means typical. I have even heard claims that the Windsors’ rule is legitimate because they are descended from the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam); of course, most Muslims would say that such descent is of no relevance unless you are a Muslim.

However, I do not believe that getting rid of the monarchy will do much to fix the political malaise of this country; it will still leave a voting system which allows a government a majority in the Commons with less than 40% of the popular vote, for example (of course, a change of government might do something to change the particular mood this country is in, but only until the Tories become as discredited as New Labour is now). We need serious constitutional reform, not just to replace the monarch with a ceremonial president.

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