The pace of cultural redefinition in Britain is steady and strong. Since the day in 1991 when Prime Minister John Major refused to veto the Maastricht treaty, a new picture has emerged. To put it crudely, the Tories and the monarchy are looking unprecedentedly vulnerable. The only good argument for their continued survival is that they have been so strong for so long that a difficult period should be seen as normal, not terminal.
Perhaps so, but there is a new mood. The general election landslide for the Labour Party was an explosion of distaste—a grand alliance of resentments—much broader than the narrow issue of who governs. The anti-Tory fury has not relented yet, but the monarchy and the Act of Union stand not much higher in public affection. There is little doctrinaire opposition to the monarchy, but the public mood is highly susceptible. We are still going through a moment when the country looks round to be told how to modernize itself Mr. Blair and the Queen can do what they want with the constitution.
Mr. Blair is not proving very strong on ideas. Whether he is professionally hyper-cautious or just conventionally empty-headed, the effect is the same. He is a second-order personality who expects to be told what is going on. But once he senses an instruction, there is the chance he will do something. The Queen is a conservative but not a reactionary, and her advisors were badly shaken by the malice of the mob at the time of Diana’s funeral. The Palace, too, wants to be told what to do. The royal family is putting its very sound finances on a more private footing—just in case.
A redefined monarchy is contemplated by both the church and the state. The current ideas are that the monarch should cease to be supreme governor of the Church of England, that the hereditary principle of succession should be “preserved” by ending its sexist form, and that the monarch should be pushed even further back from political life by surrendering her remaining functions to the speaker of the House of Commons.
It has already been decided that the aristocracy should be removed from the House of Lords. We could also lose the state opening of Parliament and the whole symbolism of the victor in a general election having to go to the Palace to kiss hands. In the Church of England, disestablishment would suit more consciences and strain fewer loyalties than ever before. North of the border, the Scottish National Party sits high in the opinion polls and takes an avuncular interest in the vexed question of England’s post-British identity. Reform of the electoral system is imminent. There will be referenda: The People will consent.
The end of the incredible Tory administration of 1979-97; the final, final end of the empire, televised from Hong Kong; and the death of Diana: These three events made the long summer of 1997 unforgettable. The most cynical of us could not escape the mood, which has not dispersed. If Northern Ireland can change, so can mainland Britain.
But constitutional innovations pick up quickly on the fashions of the age. Would a monarchy redesigned by New Labour be worth having? Would it symbolize the sovereignty of a nation, or the erosion of a state tradition to fit the new European context? This observer is no friend to the pseudo-imperial monarchy for toffs and bureaucrats that we have had since “Ind Imp” (Indiae Imperator) went off the coins. But the New Monarchy could be worse. Should a patriot resist reform or try to rescue the imminent constitutional shift from its worst advocates?
The sense of the British constitution was once the balance of King, Lords, and Commons. Then the government—the cabinet—captured all three. Throughout this century, “the Crown” has meant the government, not the monarch. There once was a sort of thrill in conceding that Britain was, in strict form, an electoral tyranny in which absolute power was conferred on one government after another. This meant that our liberties have been preserved—or not—by cultural consensus, not by constitutional checks. This is the sense of the constitution which is about to be replaced . . . by something or other.
The monarchy once gave glamour to parliamentary sovereignty and implied the unswerving support of a loyal and attendant ruling class. But if national-parliamentary sovereignty is not wanted, the monarchy must be re-tuned; and if the great and powerful in the realm are disloyal, absent, or foreign, a “democratized” monarchy can be introduced less as a pledge of renewed citizenship than as an expression of the truth that Parliament is no longer where the power is. The tide runs toward new constitutional texts; that is, toward lawyers; and toward lawyers who sit in foreign courts. The lawyers will surely find new language to make this sound more appropriate.
The difficulty for the Euro-skeptic is that there is so little solid to cling to. The price of not embracing a more democratic symbolism in the late Victorian period —when the imperial hullabaloo was at its worst—is that today’s “Europeans” have a cheap, even costless, way of sounding fresh and modern. The language of citizenship, which was never grafted onto monarchy in Britain except in World War II, can now be used to cover the loss of sovereignty. Queen Elizabeth may not embrace a new Euro-status with the painful vulgarity of Queen Victoria’s passion for being “Empress of India;” but the monarch has long been an inert tool of the politicians constituting “the Crown.” The Queen is supposed to have the right to “admonish”—but only her ministers, and only in private. She did not presume to call on Parliament to protect her grandchildren from the press persecution which killed Diana.
Oliver Cromwell was not a doctrinaire republican, but he did have a non-aristocratic idea of the public good. His refusal to be king was a decisive moment in English history, because he did not doubt that there should be a monarch, and he knew that what the English expected was King, Lords, and Commons. Refusing to be king, he made the Restoration inevitable and so allowed English monarchy to relapse into an intensely aristocratic context.
Britain’s post-aristocratic elite now contemplates another trick with crown and scepter. An alteration has begun. The division of Britain—the disuniting of the kingdoms—and the new pattern of constitutional law—”human rights” in a European legal context—will supply the groundwork for this change, but the new functions of the monarchy are still at the design stage. The chance that “the Crown” will intend this new design to enhance feelings of democratic confidence and national sovereignty is not very good. The elite want Europe and the euro, and they will knowingly damage any tradition that might prevent them from having their way.
The rule in Britain is that the Royal Standard is flown, and only flown, where the monarch is, and is never flown at half-mast. There was an outcry against this splendid rule last year; and it was agreed—to quiet the multitude whose mourning for Diana was being given a marked anti-monarchy spin by the press—that during Diana’s funeral, the Palace would take down the Royal Standard and fly the Union flag at half-mast. This concession was received grudgingly by those who complained that the Queen had not understood the People; they said that she had been stubborn and had clung to protocol and had merely been told what to do. But it was the People —as invented for this curious moment of national contemplation—who did not understand the custom they overthrew. The things that have been of value in the British monarchy will be most at risk.
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