In the sublime novel The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald evokes how the news of the French Revolution in 1793 reached provincial Saxony by means of the Jenaer Allgemeine Zeitung, the newspaper that the poet Novalis brought back from his university. Novalis’s old father, Freiherr von Hardenberg, says: “I don’t understand what I am reading . . . They are going to bring a civil action against the legitimate king of France!” In disgust, he resolves not to read another newspaper until the revolution has been defeated. His other son, Erasmus, however, believes that “the revolution is the ultimate event . . . a republic is the way forward for all humanity”. I sympathise with both points of view, while wishing that I shared the beauty of vision of Novalis, who believes: “It is possible to make the world new, or rather to restore it to what it once was, for the golden age was once a reality.”
What would make Britain new? We urgently feel the need for renewal, for refreshment, after a period of bad government. Would it help to get rid of the monarch and reach forward with “humanity” towards a political system in which anyone of great ability – a British Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela – could provide us with the inspiring leadership we need? Or is our way to the golden age only to be found in our rootedness, our connection with the past?
The cliché that the present Queen has “never put a foot wrong” during her long reign points to the nature of our dilemma. As head of state she did nothing discernible to prevent the horrendous abuses perpetrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the past 12 years. When Blair tried to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in a fit of power-mad tinkering, who prevented him – indeed, pointed out that it was constitutionally impossible? Not the head of state, no, but the old Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine and a spirited group of backwoodsmen in the House of Lords.
It was easy to see New Labour’s objections to a second chamber crowded with hereditary peers and bishops; the House of Lords needed drastic reform. But Blair, who created more peers than any prime minister in history, filled the place with his chosen friends and some others who were suspected of having paid for the privilege. Besides this scandal, the expenses fiddles of MPs are small beer. George V, in comparable circumstances, refused to give out peerages and insisted his own ideas about parliament be carried out. What did our Queen do? Apparently, nothing.
At the very same time, the biggest foreign policy blunder since the period of the Second World War was being presented in the Commons as a fait accompli. The Queen, as both head of state and colonel-in-chief of many regiments that would be despatched in the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, should have said no – the majority of her people were against it, after all – but she was as spineless as the MPs who lined up in the lobby to vote in favour of war.
If a head of state has no power, what is it for? The old answer – given at the end of a documentary shown by the BBC 40 years ago – was that the key wasn’t to invest power in her, but to withhold it from politicians. Monarchs did indeed once exercise such a role: it could be argued that having a constitutional monarchy, when other nations were kicking out absolute monarchs and allowing absolutist dictators to take their place, saved Britain from being ruled by a Lenin or a Hitler. Alas, the Queen has let successive leaders grab ever more power. Now the prime minister enjoys presidential power without presidential authority; we have an elective dictatorship that has destroyed the legislature and conducted a criminal war.
If our democracy is to flourish, we need a head of state with more power, not less – one that can hold prime ministers to account and, if they commit crimes, sack them. If only Queen Elizabeth II had the intellectual, political and linguistic skills of Queen Elizabeth I, many people would support giving her some of the powers of an elected president. The trouble is, saintly as she might be as a person, she is politically incompetent. After the Iraq War, parliamentary collapse, and the Lords and expenses scandals, it is no longer possible to claim that all we need in the head of state is someone to carry out ceremonial roles – to distribute Maundy money and say a few clipped words to the recipients of damehoods or the British Empire Medal. The Queen’s refusal to check the power mania of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair was no doubt motivated by the fear that if she stepped out of line, there would be calls for a republic – it would “damage the monarchy”. But if the monarchy is as ineffectual as this, why should anyone care whether it is damaged or not?
The answer might be religious. The Queen is a pious woman, and when she was crowned she promised to uphold the Protestant religion. No future head of state will be able to take any such oath without seeming ridiculous. Most practising Christians in the country are Catholic; the huge majority of the population is either secularised or signed up to a non-Christian religion. Whereas the monarch’s religion used to be a unifying force, it would now be a cause of (possibly dangerous) division.
As someone who instinctively favours leaving things be, I do not much like the direction in which these thoughts lead me. Like many people in Britain, I have an affectionate respect for the Queen, and am surprised that I should be having such republican thoughts. In the past, I used to counter any such notions by asking myself: “Would you really want President Hattersley?”
I now find that possibility rather cheers me up. With his chubby, Dickensian features and his knowledge of T H Green and other harmless leftish political classics, Hattersley might not be such a bad thing after all.
I would not reach for the Kleenex during Hattersley’s Christmas broadcast, and he would look rather a chump in his red robes, but these are small prices to pay. I no longer consider him any more absurd, as a potential head of state, than any member of the House of Windsor. It would take only a few deaths – an outbreak of virulent swine flu during a shooting party at Sandringham, or a helicopter crash – for us to have Prince Andrew as head of state. Think about it, if you are a republican. If you are a monarchist, try not to.
Monarchists do best not to think about how the republican system has produced heads of state of the variety and calibre of Charles de Gaulle, Mary Robinson, Mandela and Obama. Yes, Prince William could turn out to be our Juan Carlos. Yet we are within one explosion of having King Harry.
My fear is that, whoever becomes the next prime minister, parliament will not set its house in order. As things in Westminster slither from bad to worse, with more irresponsible silence from Buckingham Palace, the republican argument will seem stronger. We need a politically intelligent head of state, and only an election could produce such a figure.
I had these thoughts in the week that the Dean of Westminster announced a plan to add a corona or some other architectural embellishment to the abbey, above the point in the transept where the monarch is crowned. I was privileged to be asked to join a small group for a walk around the abbey after it was closed, as the light of a high summer evening faded from the windows.
It is eerie being all but alone in Westminster Abbey. Without the tourists, there are only the dead, many of them kings and queens. They speak powerfully and put my thoughts into vivid perspective. Ever since Saxon times, we have crowned our monarchs here, and a high proportion of them are buried here, too. As I walked from the shrine of Edward the Confessor, past the splendid tomb of Henry III to the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, I asked myself whether I truly wished to bring the whole system to an end. Then, among the shadowy tombs I wondered whether, in a strange way, the end had already been reached? Was the Dean’s idea of building a corona over the next coronation throwing into focus that, for the first time in British history, many people do not want such a ceremony to take place at all? Or will it, on the contrary, lead to a great surge of monarchist feeling, such as I have myself from time to time?
Just before you enter Henry VII’s chapel, there is a tiny paving stone recording that Oliver Cromwell lay there for two years. That was before he was disinterred, hanged at Tyburn and mutilated. Deeply moved as I was, among the tombs, by the thousand years of history that they represent, I was also very moved by this stone. I could not help thinking that those, such as John Milton, who followed the Good Old Cause of Oliver Cromwell might yet have the last word.
I went home and opened my copy of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches by Carlyle – “Oliver is gone and with him England’s Puritans . . . The genius of England no longer soars Sunward, world-defiant, like an Eagle through the storms . . . the Genius of England, much liker a greedy Ostrich intent on provender and a whole skin mainly, stands with its other extremity Sunward, with its Ostrich-head stuck into the readiest bush . . . The Voices of our Fathers, with thousandfold stern monition to one and all, bid us awake.”