Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Monarchical Problem

Talking about the Monarchy in Britain is generally a bit like talking about the weather. No matter how odd it might be, it is simply there, a fact of life. It may seem a rather foolish institution, but it has survived into the twenty-first century for two reasons: the strength of character of Elizabeth II, sanctified by her long reign; and the lack of appeal of an alternative presidential system. This second is usually expressed as "you wouldn't want [insert the name of a party politician who is widely disliked, but nonetheless popular on their own side] as President now would you?".

There usually follows some bunkum about the monarchy being "good for tourism", as though the important constitutional role of head of state should be decided by backpackers or overweight Americans in leisure wear. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Queen remains both respected and popular, and for as long as she remains on the throne, the future of the system she embodies is largely dictated by her.

Nevertheless, the growing scandal concerning Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is beginning to ask wider questions than simply the details of the allegations against the rather oafish Prince himself. 

In a sense, we have been here before, the Prince has a whole host of bad decisions behind him, from his questionable business dealings to the unusual relationship he has had with his ex-wife, a woman who appears to have even less good judgement than he does. It is quite possible that even were the allegations are true- and they are categorically denied by Buckingham Palace- the Prince himself still did not commit a crime, given that the woman at the centre of the allegations may have been above the age of consent at the time the Prince might have become involved with her.

Unfortunately for the Prince, even if the specific allegations were false, the spectacularly poor judgement and the unrelenting self indulgence that is highlighted in the relationship between the Prince and Mr. Epstein does ring rather true. On the few occasions I have met the Prince or attended events where he has been a guest of honour, I have been struck by his determination to do what he wants, irrespective of the convenience of others. Nor is the Duke of York unique in the Royal family. The late Princess Margaret was famously haughty and she too flirted with scandal. Then, of course there is the matter of Edward VIII, who- as his own father had predicted- "ruined himself within a year".

In recent weeks, the behaviour of the Prince of Wales too has come under scrutiny, with injunctions being sought to prevent publication of his voluminous correspondence with government ministers, and irritation being publicly expressed over a new documentary on the rocky relationship the Royal family has developed with the media. Although these issues lack the immediacy of Prince Andrew's rather juicy sex scandal, in a sense they are more serious, since they strike at the heart of what the constitutional monarchy should be about.

It is clear that a new monarch would do things differently from Elizabeth II, what is not yet clear is how these inevitable changes will work within the rather fragile constitutional framework of the UK. "Conventions" and "soundings" are all very well in an age of deference and secrecy, but in the age of the 24-news cycle the nuances are lost to megaphone democracy. How will the Prince of Wales, with his decided and public opinions be able to keep silent? He clearly does not keep silent in his role as one of the five counsellors of state, but his positions have not generally been made public.

The fact is that many would be surprised to learn how much power the monarch, and indeed the royal family, still holds. They have retained a central constitutional role, and have strongly resisted any reduction in their power, or even their influence. That situation has been tolerable during the long reign of Elizabeth II, because now so few can even remember any other monarch. Yet at 88, it is also true that the Queen is being forced to reduce her own activity, and so changes are coming sooner, even should her reign continue for several more years.

As we see the appalling judgement of Prince Andrew- himself a Counsellor of state- thrown into such sharp relief, I think it is now essential to consider the impact of a royal house who might not- shall we say- live up to the standards set by Queen Elizabeth. The stability of the British constitutional monarchy has rested on the personality of a Queen who is generally recognized as a good monarch. For the institution to survive, it will need to learn to cope with more "human" occupants of the throne.

The 2015 election may create new ground in terms of the electoral part of the constitution, but it is not just the franchise and the Parliament that needs review. It is clear that a future constitutional convention will need to consider the powers and role of the Monarchy too.  

If we let the system continue unchanged, then instead of the gentle rain we have grown used to, the weather for the Monarchy could grow very stormy indeed.

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