Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why the monarchy matters

By SIR ANTHONY JAY, Broadcaster and co-author of "Yes Minister"

These are great days for royalists and loyalists. A Royal Wedding, the Duke of Edinburgh’s 90th birthday and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee all falling within less than a year.

But behind all the celebration and jubilation there is always an awkward question: why are the citizens of democracy giving such recognition, respect – even reverence – to an unelected head of state and her family, who will furnish her succession not through the decision of the people but an accident of birth! And perhaps even more perplexing, why are so few people worried about this?

It certainly worried me at one stage of my life. Not at the start; I was only six years old at the time of the abdication crisis, and by the time I was nine World War II had broken out. The King and Queen symbolised all that we were fighting for as a nation and an empire and my parents, who were actors and archetypal Labour luvvies, never for a moment questioned the logic of a free democracy being presided over by a hereditary monarchy.

It didn’t worry me at university either; when George VI died, in my last year, no one suggested that it was an opportunity to move over to an elected head of state. We even accepted the decision of the BBC (our only broadcaster at that time) to transmit nothing except solemn music, and when it played a Beethoven symphony to announce that it was omitting the Scherzo.

And it certainly didn’t worry me during my National Service in the early Fifties. My commissioning leave coincided with the Coronation and I stood at the junction of Trafalgar Square and Cockspur Street cheering my head off as the Queen’s carriage drove past.

The Army, of course, was tremendously loyal to the monarchy – it left us free to express our contempt for the government without impugning our patriotism. We stood up and toasted the Queen formerly every mess night, and then sat down again and went on rubbishing the prime minister.

But the Sixties – ah, that was very different. Ever since Suez and Look Back in Anger in the late Fifties there had been a growing mistrust of the ruling elite, a feeling that they were out of date and out of touch. They exuded a feeling that as honourable and experienced gentlemen they had a right to govern. It was this feeling, after 12 years of Conservative government, that gave such explosive force to the Profumo scandal.

When it emerged that John Profumo, a government minister and ex-Army officer, had been having a secret affair with a call girl and lied to the House of Commons about it, the whole edifice of authority and respectability came tumbling down. The monarchy had no connection with the Profumo scandal, but as part of the edifice, it was inevitably damaged by it.

By now I was in the BBC, and it is hard to convey the glee we all felt at the scandal. We had done our bit in chipping away at the foundations: the Tonight programme (which I was in at the start of, and edited in 1962-63) had a policy of questioning authority, and its spin-off, That Was The Week That Was, had pushed at the frontiers of BBC impartiality with its satire and mockery of politicians. Now it seemed that everything was justified; not just the criticism of the Establishment, but the whole media value system of liberal egalitarianism.

I don’t know whether the spirit of the BBC was actually republican, but it certainly wasn’t enamoured of the monarchy and thought that the old adulation of the Royal Family was absurd. Looking back, I’m surprised at how quickly and painlessly I was corrupted to this scepticism about the institution I had accepted so unquestioningly for 30 years.

But it didn’t last. Indeed, I’m not sure how widespread it was anyway. It was certainly widespread throughout the media, but the media are not the nation. I suppose its high point came in April 1964 with the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government.

At last we had got rid of all the old has-beens and fuddy-duddies and could bask in the white heat of technology. I don’t know if any government could have lived up to the expectations that precipitated its election, but certainly this one couldn’t. Crisis followed crisis, the pound was devalued and gradually the high hopes of 1964 faded away.

The Sixties was the monarchy’s lowest point since the abdication crisis of 1936, but by the end of the decade its stock had suddenly shot up again.

In June 1969 the BBC broadcast a documentary film, Royal Family, giving a behind-the-scenes picture of the family at work and play, and a few days later there was an outside broadcast of the investiture of the 20-year-old Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.

Suddenly Britain was emphatically loyalist and royalist again. It was not as if a hostile, or at least lukewarm, nation had been dramatically converted by these two programmes. The respect and affection had actually never gone away, but had been suppressed through the Sixties and now was released and reaffirmed.

It is not that there are royalists and anti-royalists (though obviously there are some of each); it’s rather that the majority of royalists have a vein of suspicion running through their loyalty and are always capable of resentment. The attitude seems to be ‘who do they think they are, and what would we do without them?’
I believe that a hereditary monarchy is the best institution yet created for symbolising, embodying and representing the state

I believe that a hereditary monarchy is the best institution yet created for symbolising, embodying and representing the state

Even so, the pro-monarchy element is extremely strong, much stronger than the media liberals realise. The Guardian and The Independent thought the death of the Queen Mother was a very small story, and were genuinely astonished to see that over a million people lined the route at her funeral.

But the potential for resentment is always there and it surfaced when the sovereign appeared not to reflect the national mood or express the national emotion at the time of the Lockerbie bomb, and again – even more strongly – after the death of Princess Diana.

This emotional involvement with the Royal Family is obviously not a peculiar British quirk or a modern phenomenon. It is just a manifestation of something universal to people everywhere: the need to belong, and to a group larger than just the family. You only have to look at the crowds at Old Trafford or White Hart Lane, or an Army regiment, or indeed a striking trades union, to see there is some very deep and powerful force at work, an emotional bond that unites a large number of people, most of whom have never met each other.

It was only in the Sixties that scientists, or to be more precise evolutionary biologists, started to reveal the reason for it and the history behind it. Quite simply, they showed that it was rooted in the survival of the species.

Our basic social unit is about 50; it is still the unit of our cousins the gorillas and chimpanzees, and is deep inside all of us, the size we are easiest and happiest with. But unlike our cousins we found a way to combine those groups of 50 into tribes of 500 or so: the battalion, the parliaments, the schools, the one-man business, the village – it crops up everywhere. It is the largest group in which pretty much everyone knows everyone else.

That’s fine for a hunting tribe, but it gets harder as numbers grow, and especially when this larger community starts to develop permanent institutions – an army, a legal system and the whole apparatus of civilisation. The problem is that the old system of tribal chieftain grows into a dictatorship. But overthrowing the dictator brings the whole edifice crashing down.

So what we need is a system of government that makes it possible to get rid of a failing leadership while leaving the institutional framework intact. We want, in other words, to separate the state and the government. We need a government that can be democratically removed and replaced, and a state that carries on regardless. When they are united in a single person you have a dictatorship (and there are still quite a few of those around). Separating them is the start of a democratic state and a free society.

I believe that a hereditary monarchy is the best institution yet created for symbolising, embodying and representing the state. The government is our means of institutionalising conflict. It is about ideas, about immediate problems. The state is our means of institutionalising national unity: it is about shared values, common interest, permanence and continuity. It is what we all belong to and form a part of, whatever our political differences.

Of course you can elect a head of state, but it can be a problem if he is a political figure: Watergate paralysed the U.S. in a way it would not have done if Nixon was only the head of the government.

It is the fact that the monarchy has no day-to-day power that gives it its strength. That, and the fact that a family is something we can all understand.

As Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867: ‘The best reason why monarchy is a strong government is that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in that world understand any other.’

In Bagehot’s time, of course, there were still huge political meetings; people felt very much a part of the government process.

Today the political meeting is dead, political parties have tiny memberships, and politicians are almost universally despised. In this situation, events like the Royal Wedding and the Diamond Jubilee are more important than ever before in sustaining and displaying our sense of national identity and national unity.

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