Watching yet another of the indefatigable Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys, I was reminded that one of the unheralded benefits of the orgy of ecstatic confected panic with which the bien pensant elites have preoccupied themselves over the last two years has been the way it has displaced – and given us a much-needed break from – some of their more traditional concerns. Almost nothing of note has emanated from the republican cause, which can in normal times be relied upon to carp monthly, and cavil whenever there is an R in the week. However I see that the Australian Republican Movement has not been entirely idle, and has, by way of a ‘Covid project’, published its latest go at squaring the constitutional circle. It’s a model that even leading republican Greg Craven has described as ‘so incoherent, complex and downright wrong it makes Sydney’s traffic system look like a masterpiece in design.’ So I suppose a Harrumpf is in order.
Portillo, in his railway journey, visits a group of Australians who enthuse about the monarchy. They are all women of a certain age. He addresses them as ‘royalists’, an infelicitous term, since it tends to trivialise the case for the monarchy, suggesting that it rests on little more than an obsequiously voyeuristic curiosity about the lives of their natural superiors.
It will surprise few Harrumpf readers to learn that I believe our monarchy, together with the Westminster system with which it is inextricably linked, is one of the great wonders of Western civilisation. It is to constitutional affairs what the B minor Mass is to music. Unlike Bach’s masterpiece, it was not written as a whole, by a single genius. Rather, it is the product of a centuries-long game of constitutional whack-a-mole, played by all sorts of people, few of whom have been geniuses, and any of whom have been mediocrities. In other words, it’s been played by the sort of people it has been intended to serve. It’s a game in which much has been tried, and whatever didn’t work discarded, leaving a refined residue which I believe has no equal in the affairs of men. As Barry Humphries has reflected, it’s difficult to think of a republic one would want to live in, whereas the monarchies – Holland, Denmark, Sweden, even Spain, once again, tend, by contrast, to be in general rather agreeable places.
Mine, though, is a petulant, demanding monarchism which, staunch though it may be, owes much to Walter Bagehot, and nothing at all to the simpering effusions of the self-styled ‘royal correspondents’ whose job it is to titillate the readers of the Woman’s Weekly. My monarchism is of the dry-eyed, 1688-and-all-that variety. In particular, I cherish Bagehot’s warning not to ‘let daylight in on magic’. However fascinated I may be by the minutiae of our sovereign’s life, I have no wish to learn anything about her that she would not wish personally to impart to me, or has not willingly allowed to be publicised. Given the almost vanishingly small likelihood of my finding myself in private conversation with HM, that means I have to content myself with whatever she has allowed to become public knowledge – and even that I find has been at times excessive.
Of course, it’s bonkers that our nations should have as their head a person whose claim to sovereignty lay, not in her proven fitness to rule, but in her descent from some ancient king who, centuries ago, won his crown by being the biggest, baddest dude in the tribe. Absurd. You couldn’t possibly propose such a system these days – so if we lose the one we have, it’s gone for ever. But the sheer arbitrariness of inherited succession is precisely its salient virtue. When the democratic process fails, the last thing we need is more democracy.
As the unceasing, but so far unavailing efforts of the ARM demonstrate, it’s incredibly difficult to come up with an alternative to the heredity principle that isn’t fraught with its own shortcomings. Alternatives must of necessity involve popular approval of the Head of State, which puts them squarely in the realm of politics – precisely the realm from which our monarch provides a means of escape, there being no political system yet devised which cannot be brought to deadlock by politicians sufficiently determined to wreck it.
But I am a monarchist, and not a royalist. I expect my monarch to perform a lifelong, invidious and often immensely tedious task – to embody the nation, but to refrain from doing or saying anything which could be seen as operating it.
We have been blessed, for the last seven decades, with a sovereign in whom diligence and an unimpeachable habit of constitutional propriety have combined to an unusual degree. But one of the great achievements of the British monarchy is that it has evolved a degree of robustness that would enable it to survive an indifferent, although probably not a bad incumbent.
We must accept that the succession of Charles the Third is now not far off – an event I view with many misgivings. If he can be persuaded to fall silent on those of his passions which excite controversy, he may prove an adequate, if not an excellent successor to his mother. If he keeps banging on about things like the climate, he risks straying into areas of government policy in which his views should remain opaque to his subjects. The queen is now very old, and we shall see, sooner rather than later. If he fails, he will have accomplished the unlikely feat of making me a republican.