HThe ereditary monarchy is always an accident waiting to happen. A wise monarch reduces the risk of accidents. The Queen of Great Britain has been wiser than ever during her long reign in obeying the only obligation of an apolitical head of state, which is to avoid controversy. But he made a big mistake.
In 1969, the queen gave in to pressure from her husband, Prince Philip, and her dynamic Australian press secretary, William Heseltine, to modernize the monarchy. The decision was made to validate the hereditary monarchy as a “royal family” and present it as such to the world. Cameras were invited to royal residences to attend royal barbecues and view adolescent royals as “ordinary.” Little by little they would go through the list of public functions. The monarchy would become a collective enterprise.
Of course, royals were not ordinary, but from then on their slightest acts became the object of national and international attention. It is well known that the Queen was not happy with the 1969 Royal family documentary film and forbade it to show itself again. However, as the royal historian Robert Lacey recounts, the BBC had been surprised that the palace spoke on the phone suggesting the documentary, thus catapulting relations with the royal press “into a new era”. The Queen has lived with that catapult ever since, especially this week.
After World War II, the surviving kings and queens of Europe were generally regarded as historical debris. Some were buried in Portugal or in the south of France. Others, as in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, remained in their palaces but retreated to the background, aware of their democratic irrelevance. They eschewed the paraphernalia of “ruling”, simply becoming an embodiment of the united nation. Politics served them well. The most progressive democracies in Europe have titular monarchs.
Today, the King of Norway is less visible and state formalities are carried out by a council of state. The King of Sweden is a active environmentalist. The King of the Netherlands was a part-time airline pilot, much to the delight of KLM passengers who took notice. When, in 1990, the Catholic King of Belgium refused to sign a bill on abortion, he was forced to abdicate for a day. As for their families, most of them are not seen or, if they are seen, they are not recognized. The hereditary succession is represented by a royal house, the monarch and the immediate heir to the throne. The rest can go on with their lives and go to work. The Dutch royal family may enjoy a bike ride, which in London would absurdly require road closures, a hundred policemen and a troop of cavalry.
No other European royal family took Britain’s monarchical route to a top-notch celebrity. This path was not only unnecessary, it was high risk. Better to leave the sleeping dogs of republicanism alone. An accelerating certainty was that as each highly publicized child progressed into adulthood, the spotlights lit up and the glare of the audience dipped. A photograph, a gossip, a nudge, a kiss or a hug are now instantly front-page news.
None of this had anything to do with the roles and duties of the monarch, let alone the government, although I did try to say that to Americans, for whom the British monarch is like a president. Being fourth, fifth, or sixth in line to the throne is mindless work. However, the policy was to harness the power of celebrity to enhance the constitutional status of the monarchy. Politics was a big mistake.
Like the famous journalist and writer Walter Bagehot he pointed, Britain is actually a republic disguised as a monarchy. That is why the essence of the monarchy must be to uphold its own claim, to remain as disturbingly distant as the office it represents. Hereditary succession makes sense in a democracy only if public support is preserved. The British crown was reeling when a monarch appeared to step out of the line of public opinion, as when James II took the throne as a catholic, or when George IV disappeared from sight or Edward VIII planned to marry a divorcee. In the absence of other lines of responsibility, this leaves the monarchy at the mercy of the media. That is why, at her coronation, the queen refused to allow cameras to see the time of his “anointing.” If something does not make sense, it is better not to search for it through advertising.
Dragging an entire cohort of “lesser royalty” to this cause would always be unfair to the point of cruelty. Most European monarchs seem desperate to help their children lead a normal life. They are not forced – and paid – to be in the public eye daily as colonel of this regiment and patron of that charity. Members of British royalty are like the aristocrats of Louis XIV, locked up in Versailles, enduring an exquisite form of torture.
Prince Charles is known to want a “slimmed down“Royal family. That is insufficient. It should do without it entirely. It should dismantle it as an official entity of the state. It should protect its son and heir and tell the rest that after a painful transition, they are alone. They can do whatever they want. The British constitution has no role for this latter-day retinue of Stuart courtiers If the monarchy is to survive, as the undisputed symbol of statehood, it should focus all its efforts on one goal: to be boring.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism