Everyone’s writing about the Royal Wedding, so I guess I’d better toss in my tuppence-worth too.
I find I’m fairly schizophrenic about Royalty. On the one hand, I’m a passionate supporter of the Monarchy as an institution. On the other, I find it difficult to get excited about the individuals. And it’s vitally important not to confuse the two. That’s why it’s quite wrong to propose tinkering with the institution — as, for example, with the proposal that we skip a generation and go straight on from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to His Majesty King William the Fifth (and Queen Catherine). Of course The Prince of Wales is a bit of an eccentric, and loves to express contentious views on a range of issues. I hope and believe that on ascending the throne he will pay more attention to constitutional niceties, and be a little less controversial. Of course I think he’s nuts to talk to his plants — and more importantly and more generally to take strident positions on environmental issues which I suspect he understands rather less well than he thinks he does.
On the other hand, I rather admire his taste in architecture, his passion for the Book of Common Prayer, and his rather good watercolours.
But that’s all beside the point. The institution is greater than the incumbent — and greater than the incumbent-in-waiting.
The Queen herself, of course, has been next to faultless in her rôle as Monarch. She has done her duty, weathered a series of storms and set-backs with quiet dignity, worked tirelessly for decades, and continues to work despite her advanced years. It would be churlish to deny that such a long and distinguished reign as hers has added to the lustre of the institution. But the institution remains greater than the incumbent.
So we have the Queen, Prince Charles, and a few other luminaries, but I must confess that I lose patience with the Hello-style soap opera of minor players. Indeed beyond Prince Charles and Princess Anne, I rather lose track even of the names of the Queen’s other children.
The argument for the Monarchy, and the rebuttal to the kill-joy and curmudgeonly levellers and republicans (who seem determined to try to rain on the Royal Wedding parade), is all about the institution, not the incumbents. Conservatives who read Burke will be content to learn from the wisdom of their forebears, and will be reluctant to tamper with an historic and ancient institution that despite the vicissitudes of its temporary embodiments, seems on the whole to work very well.
Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government known to man — apart from all the others. He might have added that an hereditary monarchy is the worst way of selecting a head of state — apart from all the others.
The republicans will argue that an hereditary monarchy is out of touch with the zeitgeist of the times. They may well be right. But the zeitgeist of the times changes with the generations, whereas the Monarchy as an institution has lasted for a millennium — as has the nation — and it would take a brave man to bet that it will not last another. They will argue that a monarchy is expensive. Yet arguably it pays for itself in tourist revenue alone.
And it has untold benefits in terms of the standing and reputation of our country in the world. They say that more than half a billion people around the world watched the marriage of Charles and Diana, and that a billion may watch that of Kate and William. “From the four corners of the earth they come”, said Shakespeare, and he could well have been speaking of the army of foreign journalists converging on London to cover Friday’s event.
There are two kinds of countries in the world: those with a head of state who is also head of the executive branch of government, like Obama and Sarkozy. And those where the two rôles are separate. Amongst the latter group, some like Germany have a President, usually a retired politician, who is selected by some arcane process, is limited to ceremonial functions, and makes little impact. Frankly I can’t remember the name of the German President, and I don’t think it matters that I should. But some, principally the UK, have a Monarchy that stretches back through the long years of our island story (hat-tip to Churchill again). And that Monarchy fascinates people around the world in Shakespeare’s “less happier lands”, and raises our country’s reputation and profile in an entirely positive and creditable way.
Does anyone imagine that a President Kinnock would carry the global media impact of the Queen? Or that the wedding of a grandson of a President Patten would have newspaper editors salivating from San Francisco to Sydney? Of course not.
We should rejoice at our good fortune in having such an institution. The question is not whether the Royal Family deserves its position, but whether we the people deserve the Royal Family, and the institution of Monarchy which it represents. We should strive to do so.
So despite my lack of interest in the passing pageant of the Royal Soap Opera, I shall nonetheless take a few minutes on Friday to see some of the event on television (I have staff members who are planning to join the crowds on the pavements). And I daresay I shall raise a glass or two to the Happy Couple.