Tonight will decide everything. Thirty million Britons – and many more millions throughout the world – are expected to watch. It is a staggering figure, a record British television audience, but these are staggering times. Hereditary monarchy has been abolished and the nation is on the edge of a momentous decision: we are about to vote for our next king or queen.
Pressure for an end to the monarchy built inexorably when Prince Charles came to the throne in 2009, refusing to allow his son to take the crown, even though the Queen had made it known it was her wish when she abdicated.
The king’s subsequent conversion to Islam unleashed a constitutional maelstrom. As a consequence, Vince Cable’s Lib-Green-Lab coalition went into the 2014 election on a joint platform of renationalising the denationalised banks and democratising the monarchy. Cable won with a huge majority, and when the Democratic Succession Act 2015 passed through parliament with ease, most of the Windsors sloped off into polo-playing obscurity.
There was some protest, but largely the country took the end of constitutional hereditary monarchy quietly. Scotland was an independent republic anyway, and although Ulster threatened, as it often does, to say “No!” and leave the remaining rump of the Union, there was never any serious prospect of the then 89-year-old Queen Mother exchanging Balmoral for Belfast. Instead, Elizabeth accepted a deal that left her in possession of several palaces – though not Buckingham Palace – and still one of the richest women in the world, knowing that to fight the will of parliament would be to encourage other, wilder, suggestions. Among the wildest were plans for Regicide, a live, pay-on-demand reality TV show, abandoned after an outraged campaign by the Daily Mail.
But live TV did win in the end: the hustings of the initial eight candidates for monarch attracted huge audiences for the BBC (though not as big, perhaps, as Regicide would have pulled in). The debates proved impassioned, and at times chaotic. George Galloway’s flamboyant candidacy, in which he promised to take the throne on behalf “of the dispossessed of the world and the countless unnamed victims of British imperialism”, attracted global attention. DJ Chris Moyles’s clownish campaign met only ridicule. Too old
to catch the youth vote yet too offensive for everyone else, Moyles finished in last place in
the first-round vote – a contest that set another astonishing record when 68 per cent of the electorate turned out.
The four favourites have, predictably, made it through to the last round, due to take place tomorrow after tonight’s final live debate. Now they must address the country. Charles Windsor’s Islamic dress and manner – and in particular the beard that he has grown – have made him an easy target for satirists. Yet his principled effort to recapture what he has lost has rescued much of his reputation. His address promises a mix of tradition and modernity: he will have a faith-based approach to ruling, but will be a king for all Britons.
He is followed by Joanna Lumley, who argues in the main for Buckingham Palace to be used to house asylum-seekers. Next is William Windsor, who has not spoken to his father for more than two years. Still shy, and almost completely bald, the 38-year-old ex-prince gives a halting speech that shows his dental work to good effect but carries no force apart from a reference to “strengthening the place of women in society”, when he appears to look directly at his estranged father. In so doing, he plays to his strongest card: public support for the prospect of a Queen Kate.
Then the hush comes. Charles twitches and adjusts the sleeves of his djellaba. Lumley runs a hand through her still-blonde tresses and smiles, it must be noted, regally. William simply looks resigned, knowing, as the watching millions do, that there was only ever going to be one winner. Comfortable in the knowledge that he is destined to be returned as the elected monarch of the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and stretching his palms outwards in a gesture that is at once inclusive and dominating, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair turns his eye to the camera and speaks. He is, someone observes later, going to be a pretty straight kinda king.