How long can the Royal Family survive?

Published by The i paper (27th July, 2020)

The Royal Family is both an anachronism and an absurdity. Just imagine for one moment that we were a republic in which everyone was a citizen of supposedly equal status. Then along comes a think-tank to suggest that we pick a posh family descended from Europeans and install them as hereditary heads of state, giving them not just castles, palaces, flunkies and immense wealth funded by our taxes, but also the right to rule over the rest of us as their lifetime subjects. The proposal would land somewhere between laughter and loud outrage.

As Charles I said shortly before his head was severed from his body on a chilly January day in 1649, “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things”. Yet despite that little hiccup for the hereditary principle, the monarchy has proved a remarkably robust institution in Britain, adapting with subtle skill despite occasional bouts of turbulence.

Even in this volatile era in which we have seen the destruction of deference, polls over the past 25 years show great consistency with a three-to-one margin of support for the royals over republicanism. As culture wars rip through our country and divide generations, the Crown stands alongside the armed forces and the sacred National Health Service  in a trinity of national institutions still retaining respect. The Church is irrelevant, Parliament despised and the media distrusted, with even the BBC diminished.

This success is down to the dignity, diplomacy and obvious devotion to duty of the Queen over almost seven decades. In four years’ time she could overtake Louis XIV of France – whose strife-torn reign coincided with Britain’s brief republicanism – as the longest-ruling monarch in recorded European history. She has proved a formidable family matriarch, managing to remain largely aloof from the descent into velveteen soap opera that has transfixed lesser members of her firm. Yet even this doughty character cannot go on for ever.

And as we watch support grow for Scottish independence and see the latest round of conflict swirling around the monarch, with her California-based grandson’s self-serving behaviour, it is hard not to wonder what will happen when she is no longer on the throne. There is, after all, no absolutist reason why the monarchy must remain for ever immune to the fury and fissures devastating most other national institutions. Prince Charles, serving perhaps the longest apprenticeship in history, is potentially a divisive figure with his quirky obsessions and political interventions.

I admire his long support for environmentalism and racial equality, but dislike his lobbying for homeopathy that possibly led to Tony Blair backtracking on rules to restrict sale of some quack medicines. This emerged after the Government was forced to release some of his “black spider memos” five years ago, which also revealed that the heir to the throne derided opponents of badger culling as “intellectually dishonest”. It is said that Charles plans to slim down the Royal Family, although claims of aides squeezing his toothpaste and ironing his shoelaces do not help the image of a proclaimed moderniser.

Meanwhile, his tarnished brother lurks in the shadows, even avoiding cameras at his own daughter’s wedding. Prince Andrew hung out with a middle-aged, paedophilic tycoon surrounded by teenage girls, enjoying the parties and private islands but supposedly oblivious to abuse and depravity. Now the Duke of York is accused of evading American prosecutors investigating sex-trafficking. This bumptious figure is so detached from reality that he thought he looked good when giving the most disastrous British television interview for many years. He sprays around racist expressions, according to former Downing Street adviser Rohan Silva. It is hard not to conclude that the eighth in line to our throne is a ghastly buffoon.

Then there is the tragedy of Prince Harry, following his mother’s lead with a well-sourced book that settles family scores in the most public manner possible. Just two years ago, he was the shining star of the royal show, a likeable former solder who married a glamorous mixed-race actress, promoted good causes and was the real moderniser of the clan. Now he has fallen out with his brother, resigned from the family firm, sacked his staff and sits sulking in a Hollywood mansion where he poses as a political warrior and whinges about the unfairness of his luxurious life.

I have no idea of the rights and wrongs of the internal rows, nor the degree to which racism played a role against his wife, but he seems a lost and tormented individual. It would be nice to think that we learned one lesson from the pandemic: the real heroes of our society are people such as care workers who risk lives for low wages, such is their dedication to public service, not vacuous celebrities and grandstanding royals who jet off abroad in a huff (and a private jet) after a few slights.

I tried to read the newspaper extracts from Finding Freedom, Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand’s biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but they contain the dullest dross about competitive brothers and wives failing to bond as in many other families. One thing is certain: this book increases the burden for Prince William and his wife, whose focus on issues such as mental health and early childhood has been good to see.

I have no strong feelings about the monarchy’s continued existence. I loathe the outmoded concept of a hereditary head of state, which sets the wrong lead for a class-ridden and heritage-obsessed country, yet there are so many more pressing reforms and the idea of electing a president amid our current divisions fills me with fear. Maybe this latest royal tiff is merely an entertaining diversion for others amid disturbing global realities. But as the Queen totters towards the inevitable end of her impressive reign, we should not exclude the possibility that insiders constantly chipping away at the House of Windsor’s foundations and riding the celebrity wave cause lasting damage to a rare institution that still unites the nation.

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