The August 2011 riots in England will be remembered as a terrible moment for the nation. But, when we look back, it may also look like a disaster for the monarchy. This will be not because of what they did, but because of what they did not do.
During the riots, all the three main party leaders cancelled their holidays and returned to the fray. But all the main seven royals, the queen, her four children, including Prince Charles, and the two princes, William and Harry, stayed where they were. Only belatedly, on Thursday and Friday of last week, did Harry and William and Kate make flying visits to some people who had suffered during the riots. These photo-ops each merited a few minutes of time on TV news but were generally, and rightly, ignored by the media.
If members of the royal family were paragons of virtue and generosity, it would not make one jot of difference to the republican cause. The arguments for a republic are based on the benefits that the republic will bring, not on the character of the incumbent monarch. The reason for pointing out here the failure of the royal family to show solidarity with the British people at a time of crisis is that it is worse than showing up the irrelevance of the monarchy to Britain today. We already knew that. It was rude; impolite. And as Hannibal Lector himself said: "There can be no excuse for impoliteness."
It was impolite, above all, to the many British citizens who still attach some significance to the monarchy, and it is worth reminding ourselves why this is so.
In the 19th century, Queen Victoria was a meddlesome monarch and insisted on having the ear of her prime ministers. This tendency increased as she got older and, at the same time, following the early death of her husband, Prince Albert, she retreated from public view and participated less and less in public ceremony. As the 20th century began, it became increasingly clear to royal advisers, most notably the Private Secretary to George V, Lord Stamfordham, that the combination of interfering in politics while not reaching out to the people was a formula that would lead to the monarchy's demise.
It was Stamfordham above all who was responsible for creating the "modern" British monarchy where the royal family expressly gave time (and money) to doing "good work." This created the vision of what was called the "welfare monarchy." This strategy worked well enough during the interwar period and then during the Second World War, when international war was for the first time brought onto British shores with the German bombing raids. The monarchy showed solidarity with the people by remaining in London, when they could have easily transferred to one of their country retreats. The King and Queen made efforts (no doubt partly stage managed) to appear at sites of devastation.
This passed into the national psyche and no doubt helped cement the position of the monarchy. Following the war years the monarchy more and more extended its activities into charitable works and raising money for good causes to justify its existence.
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What the present royals seem to have lost sight of is the unwritten "deal" that the monarchy struck with the British people in the early years of the last century. According to this, the monarch would be accepted as a figurehead but they were expected to put their weight behind doing their bit to help the needy and advancing opportunity for their subjects. Stamfordham understood very well that, if they retreated from view, their days were numbered.
It would appear that there is no longer a Stamfordham figure advising the royals, for if there had been they would have been on the spot during the riots. The royals were very happy earlier in the year to receive the cheers of well wishers lining the route of the royal wedding. But the spirit of "noblesse oblige" seems to have escaped them. You have to be there for the bad as well as the good.
It is possible that personal experiences of recent times may have had an effect on their reluctance to get involved. Charles and Camilla may have felt that they had had enough of contact with the people following the pelting of the royal car during the student demonstrations this year. The queen might have been afraid that the smell of burning buildings would remind her of the time she let part of Windsor Castle, a priceless piece of national heritage that was in her charge, burn to the ground. Andrew may still feel put out as a result of being kicked out of his lucrative job as trade ambassador on account of suspect practices.
And only two weeks ago the prime minister had announced in the Commons that slow growth in the economy was partly to be blamed on the royal wedding. A $620 million boost was promised last year but it turned out to be a loss it now seems. (He forgot to mention that it also put a whopping hole in the government's finances.) Just think, how would you feel if someone said your joyous wedding was detrimental to economic growth? Perhaps another case of impoliteness that might attract the attention of Mr Lector.
But in spite of these possible reasons it is more likely that the idea
of a "welfare monarchy" that shows solidarity with the people just does
not figure in the mental make up of the current royals. They are
beginning to prefer remoteness, with a contact with the people that does
not extend beyond "Hello" type exposure. A search for "riots" on our
official head of state website
yielded no results that
did not refer to events less than 300 years old.
A few months ago, as we reported Diane Abbot MP, proclaimed herself
to be "post queen republican." I suspect a lot of people are moving to
that position. To paraphrase St Augustine: "God, make me a republican,
but not yet." The monarchy is irrelevant to people has a symbolic head.
They are doing their best to reinforce this.
I suspect more and more people are going to bring forward Diane Abbot's timetable for becoming republicans.