Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

Andrew Marr - Ruling Britannia (1995)  

Elizabeth II  - Cecil Beaton, 2 June 1953 - National Portrait Gallery, London

‘The British state is a pretty odd beast. First, what is the state? It is the government of the country, the historical form of the nation, the accepted focus of political authority. It is not us, the people, but something which claims somehow to be over us and around us and to be in some legal way (though this is clearly nonsense) prior to us. It associates itself strongly with the Crown. We don’t mean the headwear itself, of course: the days when we got worked up about fetish-objects such as the sceptre or the Great Seal are long gone. But we still associate the state with the person who occasionally wears and holds the fetish­objects, a shrewd and by all accounts sardonic woman in her sixties, of immigrant stock, and, by extension, with her rather curious family. More loosely still, the “crown” refers to her less curious but also less amusing secretaries of state and ministers of state; her army, navy, air force, marines, judges, courts, police folk, tax-gatherers, lawyers, civil servants, incivil servants and so on and so forth - all the law-makers, law-enforcers, war-makers, peacekeepers and others whose jobs and titles descend from the heyday of the nation-state. They are the servants of the state which, alongside the Crown, appears to consist of a few lorryloads of case law, various Archbishops of advanced views and the Bank of England.  

Because of the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, no constitutionalist would stop there, but would immediately go on to recite “The­Queen-in-Parliament” as being the deep sovereign core of the British state, by which of course the constitutionalist would really mean the Queen-not-in-Parliament, except-on-the-very­rare-occasions-when-she-is-asked-along-to-read-somebody-else’s­speech-like-a-very-grand-TV-newscaster. (….) Are ministers, then, the true fountainhead of authority, the living expression of sovereignty? The trouble with that is that fewer and fewer British people would accept it. We have become true democrats and, in our hearts, most of us now assume that it is “we” collectively, the people, who are the truest and deepest source of legitimate national authority, a sovereignty we loan to our parliamentary and state institutions, and through them to ministers and the constitutional monarchy itself. (….)’

‘Let us start by looking again, because everybody always does look again, at the monarchy, symbol of the continuity and centralism of the British political system. In the previous chapter, I discussed the function of the monarchy as a theoretical fountainhead of legitimacy and authority; here I want to look at it as a functioning part of the state. And even today, no one has written more engagingly about this survival of archaism in modem times than Walter Bagehot - yes, him again, that thickly-whiskered Victorian super-pundit whose flashes of insight some 130 years ago have stayed scorched on the country’s retina ever since. Most students of British politics have heard of his phrase about the Victorian Monarchy, at the beginning of the period of mass polities, when he warned of the danger of letting “daylight in upon magic”. He meant that the mob needed its suspension of belief in the charade. But even then the mob wasn't quite so sure. It is less often remembered that Bagehot was writing at a time when there was in fact a lively and vociferous republican movement in British politics: in the 1860s, Queen Victoria was not popular. The sentences he dashed out remain vividly relevant to our times, when the monarchy is again on a descending curve: “Above all things, our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. When there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let daylight in upon magic.”

To get his message aright, you need to read those words with a faint, worldly-wise sneer in your voice. Bagehot was a robustly cynical writer, who did not revere the monarchy himself. He had begun his account of the institution by suggesting that, without the Queen, the government of his day would fail and pass away. But he quickly went on to admit that the attention paid to Victoria at Windsor, or the Prince of Wales going to the Derby, was faintly silly: 'it is nice to trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance.” This is hardly the hallowed BBC Richard Dimbleby tone. Yet after Bagehot wrote, the monarchy became more popular, reverenced and un-thought-about, so that his dictum about secrecy and magic carne quickly to seem like an approving description of the British monarchy’s dignity, rather than a cynical one-liner. (…)’

‘We live in a different world: here is not the place to recount in full or even full summary the sordid and self-destructive exhibitionism of the younger air-headed Windsors, the sexual secrets spilled out, the marital misery publicized, the open acknowledgement of betrayal and bed-hopping. But it is worth noting that this has not been a simple tale of a great institution assaulted by journalists and eventually surrendering, but of the willing involvement of silly people with famous names in a circulation-boosting newspaper game which could only end in their personal and constitutional humiliation. The Waleses fought out their incompatibilities through biographers and journalists, heedless of the pain it would cause to their children or the damage it would do to their special status. The toe-curling stuff that came out ensured that no one could ever pretend, as they once had done, that these were in any sense special people. It wasn’t just daylight that was let in upon the magic, and destroyed it, but volleys of revolutionary flashlight. It hasn’t been Kalashnikovs or Mausers which accomplished the assassination of monarchy here, but Leicas and Nikons. (….) The result has been exactly as Bagehot predicted. If we do not yet have a select committee on the Queen, we do have the beginnings of parliamentary auditing, and a generally sceptical, businesslike tone when it comes to the Civil List and royal wealth generally. (….)

The possibility of a further move to a disguised republic suggests, of course, that the monarchy retains some genuine role in the real British constitution today, that it is something voters should bother to think about. This is so, but the practical aspects of Royal power have become tightly circumscribed. The Queen’s powers to make war or peace, conclude treaties, appoint officials and achieve numerous other things, have largely been passed to the Prime Minister, who combines the title of the Queen’s First Minister with many of the practical powers of a republican president. From there is suspended a giant mobile of committees and quangos, appointments for professional busybodies and snobbish bureaucracies which depend ultimately upon the authority of monarchy. For the Prime Minister, the monarchy acts as a kind of grand PR agency. The famous (and inevitably Bagehotian) dictum about the Queen’s right to advise, encourage and warn is not substantially different from what such an agency would do for a client: the monarch can be a kind of candid friend to, the Prime Minister, but the daily struggle of government makes this friendship of limited practical importance. She is less, much less, than the Chief Whip. The real muscle of the monarch only comes into play in the highly unusual circumstances of there being no president-mimicking figure resident at Downing Street when illness, parliamentary putsch or an indecisive election result give Buckingham Palace an umpiring role. The historian Peter Hennessy, giving a lecture in 1994, found only five “real or near real contingencies” since 1949 where the Queen’s reserve powers were relevant.’  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal written for Hereditas Historiae

At the time of writing Ruling Britannia: The failure and future of British democracy (1995), Andrew Marr was the chief political commentator for The Independent, a quality newspaper in Great Britain. In an earlier stage of his journalist career he was political editor of The Economist and The Scotsman.

Ruling Brittannia was more or less a political pamphlet by Andrew Marr on the eve of general elections in Great Britain. Marr advocated constitutional and political reform in his book. He didn’t revise the book.

Andrew Marr afterwards changed his views on the monarchy and especially Queen Elizabeth II in writing Diamond Queen. Quotations from this book are also to be found in this section of Hereditas Historiae.

Since 1995 the views on Walter Bagehot, one of the founders of The Economist, had received some more academic scrutiny.  Andrew Marr didn’t take part of that development. He wrote the “Bagehot column” in The Economist for some time, but had already left The Economist to go the Independent  by the time he wrote this particular book.