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Why we keep our royal family

In the second extract from his compelling new book about twenty-first century Britain, Anthony Sampson explains how a medieval institution adapted itself to a modern world

Sunday April 4, 2004
The Observer

Both houses of Parliament, through all their intrigues and manoeuvres, still support the improbable idea that they are the subjects of a monarch who is the head of state, who proclaims the Government's policies in the Queen's (or King's) Speech, passes all Bills, declares wars, ennobles peers and in emergencies exercises the Royal Prerogative and thus bypasses Parliament itself. It remains the key to Britain's unwritten constitution that sovereignty has passed to Parliament which took over the powers of the monarchy, while the monarch remained the constitutional head of state, ruling through Parliament.

But the idea depends on the dignity and status of the monarchy being accepted and upheld by Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. And in recent years, the Government has been much less prepared to maintain any such thing. When, in 2003, Tony Blair abruptly announced that he would abolish the position of Lord Chancellor, who was theoretically the Queen's senior Minister, holder of an office which predated the Prime Minister's by several centuries, he did not even consult the Queen, to her dismay. And the future of the monarchy, and of the eccentric heir apparent, now seems more uncertain than at any time in the last century.

The Queen has seen her own majesty diminishing as she has lost much of her patriotic or religious role as the nation's figurehead. Filmgoers no longer stand up to ask God to save her; postage stamps have pushed her head ever more frequently into the corner; banqueters no longer drink her loyal toast. In courtrooms, many defendants who are prosecuted by Regina have no idea who Regina is. In Whitehall, only James Bond talks about being On Her Majesty's Service. Everyone now knows that the real centre of power is not Buckingham Palace but Number 10. State visits by foreign Presidents, processing through London with golden coaches, footmen and trumpeters, are seen as mere tourist attractions which get in the way of the traffic.

Yet the Queen has retained much of her personal loyalty and magnetism, as she has developed from the glamourous young princess to the small old lady with a handbag and a bemused look, as depicted by painter Lucien Freud. It is the combination of public and private roles which still gives the British monarchy its special hold.

The monarchy can also still provide a continuous romantic version of British history, merging public and private events as in Queen Victoria's time. After the Queen Mother died in 2002, her past life was recapitulated as a flashback of the twentieth century; a crowd of one million watched the funeral procession; a two-mile queue waited to pass the catafalque guarded by her grandsons, who represented the future.

Two months later, the Queen's own golden jubilee brilliantly combined nostalgia with contemporary excitement. The celebrations began with the lighting of beacons on hilltops across the country, as in Napoleonic times, and culminated in a pop concert in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Ben Elton made bad-taste jokes, Edna Everage congratulated the jubilee girl, and Prince Charles began his speech: 'Your Majesty - Mummy.' The next day, the Queen sat in her antique golden coach, rocking and swaying en route to St Paul's Cathedral, while a parade progressed down the Mall, including black performers from the Notting Hill carnival and Hells Angels.

The monarchy had excelled in revels since medieval times, but it could now merge ancient images with pop singers and rock songs, tailor-made for television. The advantages of monarchy over a republic were again obvious. The Queen could represent the spirit and unity of the nation while remaining above the political fray, in obedience to the constitution. No one knew the Queen's views: she gave no interviews and permitted no leaks; she kept a diary but no one knew its contents, and no courtier was allowed to keep one.

For her jubilee, the BBC screened a congratulatory programme about her, narrated by a sympathetic commentator, William Shawcross, but he could not interview her and never discovered what she thought about the programme; however, he was invited to write her mother's biography.

Historian Ben Pimlott, who wrote the most authoritative biography of her, was invited afterwards to dine with her at Windsor Castle but she said nothing about the book. She remained the complete constitutional monarch. Alone among the figures in my book, she has defied the pressures of publicity and thus maintained her dignity.

But how could the monarchy continue to combine its private and public roles in an age of mass democracy, when voters and politicians insisted that every public figure must be accountable in detail to the public? The whole institution had been wrapped in mystery and irrationality. Even in the twenty-first century, the actual purpose of the monarchy remains undefined. 'There was no mission statement or consensus,' wrote Pimlott. 'The contemporary lexicon of audit, accountability and transparency was difficult to apply.'

Many of the traditional justifications of the Queen's role had diminished as the empire disappeared, the Anglican Church lapsed into confusion and her family lost moral authority. The media were becoming still more intrusive in the name of the public interest, while the palace had lost much of its power to resist them; phone calls have been intercepted and servants have sold memoirs. The daylight flooded into the palaces and the magic dimmed, bringing still more demands for democratic oversight and accountability.

But how much does it matter? And how does an organ as vague and pervasive as the monarchy connect with the rest of Britain's anatomy? No political scientist can measure the real power of an institution which depends on fluctuating public emotions and which commands no votes? But clearly its future depends in the end on popular approval. As Prince Charles told me 20 years ago: 'It can be a kind of elective institution. After all, if people don't want it, they won't have it.'

At a time when the United Kingdom appears increasingly disunited, the monarchy can still represent unity. The Queen remains the most effective symbol of the state's impartiality, especially when she opens Parliament and Ministers walk alongside their political opponents. The more political parties and the media discredit each other, the more unique she appears in her dignified detachment.

The republican movement remains very weak, partly because no one has convincingly shown how the British could choose an alternative head of state who would have the same impartiality. In Britain, a popular election would inevitably favour a celebrity, whether a politician or a sportsman or an entertainer, with no obvious qualification as a ruler.

The argument against a British President, said Denis Healey in the 1980s, could be stated in two words - 'Margaret Thatcher' - and today the equivalent two words would be equally controversial, whether they were David Beckham or Tony Blair. The British public still relish royal scandals and exposures, but remain curiously unprepared to discuss a different head of state who would be more accountable to them.

In the meantime, the courts surrounding many foreign Presidents have become increasingly extravagant and controversial. Lord Dahrendorf, the Anglo-German sociologist, has reckoned that the German presidency is more expensive than the British monarchy. The British royal family may be eccentric, out of date and out of touch, but it has had a long training in the arts of diplomacy and impartiality, and its strange lifestyle at least ensures that it inhabits a quite separate world from politicians.

By the twentieth century, the political power of the monarchy had become vestigial, but it retained its popular appeal and charisma, quite separate from the power of politicians. The head of state could represent the nation with all the traditional pomp and splendour, while the head of government appeared in a more workaday role. Churchill always paid respect to the Queen as her 'humble servant', and referred to 'Her Majesty's Government'.

Harold Wilson, too, was respectful, visiting her in Balmoral or Sandringham despite the complaints of more radical Ministers such as Richard Crossman. Margaret Thatcher avoided competing openly with the Queen for public glory, despite developing her own regal style and calling herself 'we'.

But Tony Blair has become more detached from traditional institutions, and the monarchy has, meanwhile, been losing its ability to awe a new generation without memories of the world war or the empire. The Prime Minister's own little court in Number 10, his showbiz receptions, his holidays in grand houses and his travels on planes from the Queen's Flight, have become more publicised than royal tours or lavish receptions in the royal palaces, which kept the cameras away from them. A vague and nostalgic loyalty to the monarchy is becoming a less effective counterweight to the growing practical powers of a Prime Minister under an unwritten and increasingly confused constitution.

Who Runs this Place? by Anthony Sampson is published by John Murray.