Hereditas Historiae

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

The Economist (leader) – 22 October 1994


 An idea whose time has passed


 “We must not let daylight in upon magic,” wrote Walter Bagehot, the finest and most influential writer ever to have been editor of The Economist, when in 1865-67 he defined - some would even say created - the constitutional role of the modern British monarchy. Now, with each week of new books, new revelations and new comments from the royal family, there can be no doubt that the magic is thoroughly exposed, though by floodlight more than by daylight. In an institution which might be thought to be above personality, the foibles and weaknesses of the heir to the throne, his wife, his father and even his mother have become a subject of open debate and widespread criticism in a way not seen for decades. Is Prince Charles a suitable future monarch? That is the question on millions of lips, and not only those of republicans or of editors of salacious newspapers.

Yet it is also the wrong question. The right questions, though few dare to pose them in serious company, are the ones Bagehot would have asked: whether a monarchy is any longer a suitable part of Britain’s constitutional arrangements, and whether those arrangements remain collectively suitable for this modern democracy. The answers, in The Economist’s view, are that the monarchy’s time has passed; that the only powerful argument against abolition is that it is not worth the trouble; and that there is an even stronger case for reforming other parts of the constitution, which anyway cannot be done without addressing, and hence altering, the monarchy’s role.

The paradox of a royal democracy

The most unpleasant aspect of all the current talk is that it has arisen out of personal revelations. Yet the tittle-tattle has performed a useful service, by prompting the royal family itself to open the debate. Responding to a book by a journalist, Jonathan Dimbleby, about his son, Prince Philip sensibly told the Daily Telegraph that a republic was “a perfectly reasonable alternative” to a constitutional monarchy, and that the monarchy should survive only as long as people wanted it.

That is the right starting point, and also the right corrective to any dogmatic republicans. If the British people want a monarchy, they should have a monarchy. That is the contradiction at the heart of a constitutional monarchy: that an unelected institution, redolent of authority and selected by accident of birth, depends for its legitimacy on the popular will. That is why a  referendum on the monarchy would be wise, either soon or at the time of the next succession, for it would test the popular will, which is what democracies are all about. It is also, however, why the royal family knows that personal revelations do matter, for they threaten the popular support on which the crown depends.

For the moment, the monarchy remains popular. Opinion polls still show widespread, albeit gradually declining, support: generally 70-75% of people say they favour its retention, though that is down from 85-90% a decade ago. When asked whether Britain will still have a monarchy in 50 years’ time, people are more divided: those sure that it will still exist have fallen from 70% in 1990 to a range between 35% and 50% or 50 in more recent polls. This uncertainty may arise from a view that kings and queens belong to the past, not the future; more likely, it also arises from those turbulent royal lives.

Dyed-in-the-wool monarchists hate such polls, and hate even more deeply the idea of a referendum. To them, monarchy is about awe and deference, and to put it to a vote is by definition to destroy its very essence. Yet that is the weakest possible defence of monarchy, to those who value democracy. For the royal family does need popularity whereas in the distant past monarchs were remote and invisible, in this age both of television and democracy the royal family has sought to make itself more accessible, and to build an image in which fairy-tale grandeur, a sense of tradition and, perhaps most fate­fully, the importance of family life are blended. Some say that it should never have done so. Yet remaining remote was nor a real choice: one way or another, modern communications would have made royalty visible; one way or another, an educated populace, eager for information whether profound or prurient, would have wanted to know more. And the more they know, the more they are likely to question.

Nor dignified, not a disguise

Like it or not, then, the questions are there, They cannot and, in a democracy, should not be dismissed, as the foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, tried to this week by attacking “chartering people” who “chip away at our institutions in this country.” If Prince Charles is deemed widely to be an unsuitable king, then to allow him to succeed without a referendum would itself harm the institution of the monarchy by removing its own legitimacy. Leave the personal question to one side, however. Does the monarchy deserve support?

On principle, this newspaper is against monarchy. Constitutional or nor, it is the antithesis of much of what we stand for: democracy, liberty, reward for achievement rather than inheritance. Surrounded as it is by privilege and patronage, the crown even has a certain, though not inevitable, bias against capitalism. It may be a symbol of unity but it is also a symbol of aristocracy, of feudal honours, of baseless deference.

What might Bagehot think? Our modern Bagehot column summarises what its inspirer wrote about the crown during his mid-Victorian era. Whether he would now have changed his mind depends on what his view would have been of today’s democracy. His defence of monarchy, in his book “The English Constitution”, depended crucially on a belief in rule by an educated elite and a fear of giving power to the uneducated masses. He saw the “efficient” part of the constitution as the parliament and the cabinet: these took on the complicated and difficult tasks of governing. The monarchy was the “dignified” part, which meant not merely that it was decorative but also that it acted as a “disguise” for the true nature of government. Leadership by a single person was something ordinary people could understand, and accept. Leadership by an assembly, and political parties, could not easily be understood by the ignorant masses. So it was best to use the monarchy as a channel for popular support, deflecting attention from the true centre of power.

Since then, many things have changed. The monarchy no longer disguises the business of government, for the suffrage is universal and the nation far more educated. Bagehot wrote of the monarchy that “among a cultivated population, a population capable of abstract ideas, it would not be required.” That is true, and it would be outlandish to argue now that the British people cannot understand democracy. Nevertheless, that it may not be required does not rule out the chance that the monarchy might be wanted.

Questions of value

It might, for example, be felt that in times of transition, of turmoil and division, a monarch could be a steadying, unifying force. Yet Britain does not look like such a country and has not done so for a century or more. In the past five years many other countries, especially ex-communist ones, have endured painful transitions: yet only one, Cambodia, has chosen to restore or create a monarchy.

Another reason for wanting a monarchy might be its neutrality, and the value of using that neutrality in the way Bagehot defined: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” The existence of monarchy, in other words, is a useful check on the behaviour of parliament and the prime minister. That it might play such an active role cannot be ruled out altogether. Yet there is also contained within this idea a fiction, a last remnant of Bagehot’s notion of the dignified disguise. The modern monarch could not afford to offer any serious opposition to a determined democratic entity. In the monarchy’s current state, there are virtually no true checks and balances in the British constitution; but the fiction that one exists is convenient to governments, and therefore dangerous to their subjects.

That leaves three other reasons for wanting a monarchy, one bad but the others perfectly reasonable. The bad reason is one of the most often cited: tourism. Not only is tourism an odd justification for a constitutional arrangement, it is also wrong on its own terms: tourists visit Britain for its history, which would not disappear if the monarchy were to go. The most popular tourist site is the Tower of London, which thankfully has not been in active use by monarchs for some time. Just as the attraction of Versailles has endured for the two centuries since the French revolution, so Britain’s historical and monarchical sites would survive the loss of their living inhabitants.

The two good reasons for the monarchy, have, however, far greater force. One is sentiment. People might simply like the monarchy: it is an institution of which some people feel fond, something they would rather have than lose despite the political, symbolic and constitutional arguments. This newspaper would not share that view, but, being based on emotion, it cannot be refuted and should not be ignored. The other good reason is also hard to refute: that even if the monarchy does not deserve support, to abolish it would be more trouble than it is worth. Britain has bigger issues to address than whether to remove the queen’s head from postage stamps. Abolition of the monarchy would be a giant distraction.

The interdependent constitution

As long as the monarchy is considered on its own, this view is surely correct. Its symbolism is harmful: the hereditary principle, deference, folies de grandeur. But it is hard to prove that doing away with it would bring such powerful benefits as to overcome the costs of doing so. Yet the monarchy should not be considered on its own.

This brings us back, once again, to Walter Bagehot. As he realised, the connections between the parts of Britain’s constitution are as important as the parts themselves. Britain’s basic constitutional defects arise from the excessive power of the House of Commons, and hence of the cabinet. In Bagehot’s view, that power was a marvellous, “efficient secret”. Now it is damaging and inefficient, permitting abuses of power, excessive centralisation and a steady erosion in respect for government. Yet it derives from the royal prerogatives that Parliament enjoys; it is reinforced by the weakness, since 1911, of the House of Lords as a scrutineer of legislation; it depends on an electoral system that allows strong majority governments to be chosen by a minority of votes; it is preserved by the lack of a constitutional court and of a bill of rights by which the judiciary could limit over-mighty government; it is protected by the lack of public access to information. Government actions, and the actions of agencies appointed by government, are accountable only to the very Parliament that that government dominates.

To deal with those defects you do not have to change everything entirely and all at once. But if you start to deal with one part of the constitution you will inevitably affect the others. For example, if, as we would argue, the House of Lords should be replaced by an elected second chamber, then to do so would affect the role of the monarchy, and it would alter the case for reforming the Commons’s electoral system. The connections continue, from everything to everywhere.

The point is this. The case for constitutional change is, in our view, irresistible; it is one to which this newspaper wilt return in the coming months. The crucial reforms do not require outright abolition of the monarchy - but they would inevitably alter the monarch’s position and open that position to further scrutiny. Those who argue that, for the sake of avoiding a fuss, there should be no examination of the monarchy’s future are therefore, deliberately or otherwise, acting to stifle a broader and necessary debate. Constitutional change of any sort is certain to be “troublesome”, and is equally certain, one way or another, to raise questions about the crown.

The monarchy is not the most pressing issue facing Britain. In our view, it would be best to abolish it, but the rest of the agenda for constitutional change matters more. In the end, if the people wish, it would be appropriate to preserve the crown. But to protect it from review is indefensible. This would be to preserve its mere dignity, such as it is, at the risk of leaving Britain’s constitution unreformed. And that would be plainly and unforgivably wrong.

Postscript by Irène Diependaal for Hereditas Historiae

This leader of The Economist was written on the occasion of the publication of Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Prince of Wales (1994). The story is well-known: for this book Prince Charles gave unprecedented access to his own archives, including more than 10,000 letters, private journals and diaries. Dimbebly was also authorised to interview at length scores of people, including Prince Charles’s own personal staff and close friends. Jonathan Dimbebly drew a picture of a heir to the throne who was a victim of his destiny to be become King. A future king who was not only emotionally estranged of his wife (who was accused to be psychologically unstable), but also from his parents. In an accompanying television interview Prince Charles admitted in front of camera that Camilla Parker Bowles was a dear friend. At the evening the television interview was to be broadcasted: Princess Diana appeared in public in a very sexy black dress (below).

This particular issue of The Economist had great impact in 1994 and the following years. It took some time and some events before The Economist changed position. Another newspaper, the Guardian, took the lead in 2000. Some articles are also to found in this section of Hereditas Historiae.

Bill Emmott, the editor in his goodbye article on 30 March 2006: ‘It seems fitting to begin with the ancestors. One of the exceptional characteristics of this newspaper is the degree to which it still follows the principles and methods begun 163 years ago by its founder, James Wilson, and perfected by his son-in-law, Walter Bagehot. The Economist was launched to campaign for free trade and all forms of liberty, what proponents and detractors alike today call globalisation, blended with what George Bush likes to call “the freedom agenda”. It did so with a formula that was three parts factual description and one part strongly held opinion or argumentative analysis. That is what we continue to attempt today. We do not do so merely out of loyalty to our founders: if those principles had turned out to be wrong, they would have been ditched long ago. And their application must always evolve. I, for one, had Bagehot grumbling in his grave when, in 1994, we declared the British monarchy to be “an idea whose time has passed”, in flat contradiction to his great 1867 book, “The English Constitution”. But in general what is striking about the past 13 years is how strongly this period has fitted Wilson's original view, how it made his principles feel more relevant than ever, and how in some respects our world is one whose issues he would have recognised.’ 

Most contributions to the debate on the future of monarchy, which was started in 1994, are outdated. New historical research and new journalist reports had their impact in time. Queen Elizabeth II and her staff learned from all experiences and a quiet revolution behind the palace doors took place. However, this leading article in The Economist still has some value because of its argumentative analysis. Some arguments are still interesting and deserve an ongoing historical research.

This particular issue of The Economist had also great impact on Irène Diependaal. The Economist was and is one of her favourite newspapers for the reasons summed-up by Bill Emmott in 2006. The Economist in 1994 relied partly on the historical evidence brought in by historians. So, this particular issue (with more than just one article) inspired her to study both the British and Dutch constitutional monarchy. Her first article in the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, published on the comment pages, was inspired by the discussion in Great Britain and the book by Jonathan Dimbleby (which was more worthwhile to read than the juicy details extracted in the newspapers would expect).

So, for more than one reason the article is reused for Hereditas Historiae.

The House of Lords was partly reformed by the Labour government in 1997. Further reform was on the agenda of the Cameron-Clegg government and even subject in 2007 to a “White Paper”, an official report presented to British Parliament, but never realised during the term of this government. A referendum on the monarchy never took place. Another referendum did.