Fake sheiks and redundant royals

Forget Sophie-gate. As everybody wants to debate the roles of minor royals, why is there such reticence to suggest that the Queen should give up her job?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Silly Sophie has put the very future of the royal family at risk’ ran the headline in the UK Sun (1).

The ‘silly Sophie’ bit might be right – whoever heard of a PR woman whose job involves dealing with the media falling for a tabloid sting and telling all to a dodgy sheik in a hotel room? It seems Sophie not only looks like Diana, but also shares the late princess’s self-confessed likeness to ‘two short planks’.

But the ‘future of the royal family at risk’? Unfortunately not.

The New Labour leadership wants to reform the monarchy, not get rid of it. The government wants a People’s monarchy on the Diana model. At a time when popular institutions are few and far between, New Labour sees a new and improved monarchy as something worth cultivating.

It doesn’t want Prince Charles ringing up ministers to demand action on issues like GM foods, or the Queen suggesting that the general election be postponed – and it doesn’t want minor royals generating sleaze stories (minor government ministers are more than capable of doing that).

But the government lacks the nerve to see the reform of the monarchy through. It does not even have the guts to tell Prince Charles to shut up (something it would dearly like to do). If New Labour were to initiate a debate about reforming the royals, it would probably get a good hearing, but instead it holds back. Which is why something as silly as the ‘Sophie incident’ can become a big story and a rare focus for a discussion about the monarchy’s future.

This discussion also reveals deeper problems facing today’s monarchy. The royal family is constantly trying to negotiate the tension between being regal, official, sovereign rulers and down-to-earth, ordinary folk (as symbolised by photographs of Prince William posing as toilet-cleaner). The royals are trying to straddle the two worlds of royalty and ordinariness. At a time when elitism is out and populism is in, the royal family, like other traditional institutions, has recognised the need to change and to rethink its role in a post-traditional age.

Yet most people in Britain have a shrug-of-the-shoulders indifference to the future of the monarchy – neither loving it enough to get the flags out, nor hating it enough to start polishing the guillotines. And institutions were never brought down by waves of indifference.

About the only thing today’s monarchy has going for it is that it’s not as unpopular as politicians. A MORI poll carried out on 8 April 2001 showed that, while fewer than 10 percent of those surveyed believed the monarchy was ‘relevant’ to modern Britain, 71 percent would vote to retain the monarchy in preference to an elected head of state in a referendum on the royals’ future (2). This is less an indication of passionate support for the monarchy and more like saying, ‘oh well, at least they’re not as bad as the ones we voted for’. This was captured by the UK Daily Mail’s front-page headline ‘Would you want this lot to replace the monarchy?’, alongside pictures of Cherie Blair, Keith Vaz and other unsavoury politicos in full crown jewels (3).

That is why, as argued before on spiked, somebody like Prince Charles can be taken seriously as a spokesman for ‘the People’ – not because he has anything sensible to say, but because he can fill the void left by people’s distaste for politicians by espousing populist causes like being anti-GM food (4).

Even in Australia, where people are even less attached to their distant monarch, the Queen can still survive a referendum on her role as head of state, because Australians alienated from the political system thought anything was better than their elected representatives (5).

In a world where the government wants to reform the monarchy but doesn’t have the backbone to see it through, and where the monarchy only survives on sufferance and a shrug of the shoulders, it seems that, even at the start of the twenty-first century, we’re not yet going to get a heated debate about the future of the monarchy.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
Royals without royalty by Brendan O’Neill
Down with ‘The People’s Monarchy’ by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Sun, 9 April 2001
(2) See ‘The Royal Family RIP’, The Times (London), 10 April 2001
(3) Daily Mail, 10 April 2001
(4) See The ‘madness’ of Prince Charles, by Graham Lee
(5) See Wallaby free?, by Liz Frayn

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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