How we love to admire the flick of Princess Margaret’s cigarette ash and the gleam of well-polished marble in The Crown. Evenings are spent gawping and sniping at the lavishness, the cynicism and the political intrigues from the comfort of a sofa in a darkened room. In private we are hardly deferential.
But snap back into the real world for a moment and ask the question “is the monarchy fit for purpose?” and you get a different answer. Boris Johnson, when posed this question in the ITV leaders’ debate on Tuesday, pretty much stood to attention as he declared that the monarchy as an institution was “beyond reproach”. Even Jeremy Corbyn was broadly polite.
Of course, there is reproach about the royals, but it is on a personal level, a patter of gossip and criticism. The middle classes might be too sniffy to discuss them openly around the dinner table but in many a household they are the bread and butter of conversation. A friend of mine from Llanelli, a working-class town in Wales, tells me his family argue incessantly about the relative merits of Meghan v Kate, the two duchesses destined to be future stars of The Crown.
It is that family’s version of the open versus closed world or the Brexit versus Remain debate. Official polling commissioned by Tatler this autumn asked who was the more popular — it was Kate.
But the Prince Andrew issue is not just table talk or tittle-tattle. Mere reproach is not enough. His behaviour was worse than “unbecoming”.
The Duke of York had been our roving global ambassador for trade but took on a second, informal role — that of a magnet for all sorts of questionable characters who’d like him at their dinner parties to burnish their reputations.
The royal family is viewed as a long-running soap opera: we’ve been seduced into thinking they are somewhere between real and fictional. Andrew’s association with Epstein has for some time been regarded as more like a future plot line in The Crown than the scandal it really was. The Queen’s son simultaneously wore the title and took the benefits while damaging the monarchy’s reputation. It is good that he has now recognised that, but in a real firm the shareholders would have demanded his suspension long ago.
That we can discuss the individuals but not the institution seems all the stranger given the events of the past few years. Complaints about unelected overlords in Brussels and their gravy trains, an arrangement we voted for in 1975, led to a referendum. Meanwhile, back here the Queen received £82m from the public purse in the last Sovereign Grant, which could have paid for, say, a lick of paint for a few NHS hospitals rather than Frogmore Cottage. Not only do we pay for the chefs to make the gravy, we also pay for the royal train. And a royal helicopter. And Boris Johnson has in the past suggested bringing back the royal yacht, priced at £100m — incidentally the same amount required for a public information campaign to “Get Ready for Brexit”. The yacht may come in handy as an emergency cargo ship one of these days.
I might sound like a raving republican but I am not. I’m in favour of the Queen and a constitutional monarchy of sorts. But it has been 330 years since the Bill of Rights, in which we last formally revisited the public’s relationship with the Crown.
There have, however, been a few advances over those three centuries — mass enfranchisement and taxation and a free press — and so it is curious that the arrangement continues unquestioned. In the age of democracy, the public has never been asked what role we want the monarchy to play.
Do we want the firm to run the country? Apparently not. The authority that once came with the throne is now largely in the hands of ministers, whose decisions need only a royal rubber stamp.
Of those reserve powers still left, the most potent — that of the ability to sack the prime minister — came into question in this autumn. If push came to shove, would the Queen still have the authority to shove?
One could say the royals are here for the financial return. Two years ago, Forbes magazine put a valuation on the British monarchy, both on its assets and its brand, of about $88bn, pictures and palaces included. The Queen’s stamp collection alone is valued at £100m. And in return, they were estimated to contribute £1.8bn to the economy through tourism, royal warrants on jams, people following the Duchess of Cambridge’s fashion and media such as The Crown.
That seems a modest return for the cost of all that pomp. If they are just here for our entertainment, it would be easier to write a cheque directly to The Crown’s writer, Peter Morgan.
Might I suggest, in the spirit of provocation, that once Brexit is done, one way or another, we discuss a referendum on the monarchy? The audience for The Crown and the current British political trauma means we are highly informed. I don’t expect the Brits will abandon their Queen easily, particularly with the threat of a President Blair or President Johnson to follow.
But it is a question that we should be allowed to ask — and should not be reproached for doing so. A vote — even the threat of one — is a check on power. After all, when one thinks one’s mum might get sacked because of one’s dodgy friends, it does sharpen even the dullest of minds.
Follow Joy on Twitter @joy_lo_dico
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