The Economist – 11 September 1997
The people’s monarchy
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has not changed two basic facts about monarchy: it is a bad idea; but it will survive if it remains popular
'As the millions of viewers around the world know, the funeral was a fine and moving event, made even finer and more moving by a superb speech by Diana's brother, Earl Spencer. Beyond the appropriate expressions of familial feeling, Earl Spencer showed good judgment both in his choice of targets for criticism and in the firepower he deployed against them: a moderate but pointed attack on the royal family for its dealings with his sister and the way in which, left alone, it might bring up Princes William and Harry; a heavy barrage against those in the media who he said were “at the opposite end of the moral spectrum”. If only other commentators had shown as good a sense of moment and of balance. For the struggle, still not over, by newspapers and broadcasters to fill acres of newsprint and hours of programming has led to the world's greatest ever glut of hyperbole and humbug.
The emotional hyperbole was understandable. But the sort which arose from the effort to find political and even constitutional significance in the popular reaction to the princess's death was unforgivable. Phrases like “people power” and “finding a voice” tripped lightly off tongues and keyboards, as did the notion that, all of a sudden, Britons had chosen to be “citizens rather than subjects”, allegedly by acting in an undeferential way towards their queen. The monarchy would “never be the same again”, a phrase used in the apparent belief that it was more than a mere truism.
Such hyperbole was unforgivable, first of all, because those who rushed to find a historical significance in what was happening showed so little sense of history. Did Britons have no “voice” when, for example, they took to the streets to demonstrate against Margaret Thatcher's hated poll tax? Have policy makers never before bent before evidence of popular desires or disquiet? Did not “people power” exist when Tony Blair was elected by a landslide on May 1st? Go back decades or even a century in the history of Britain's monarchy, indeed, and you will find plenty of examples of monarchs who felt a need to respond to popular and political pressure. Even Queen Elizabeth, in deciding in 1992 to pay income tax, was responding to the undeferential views of her subjects.
Those royal examples reveal the second reason why the hyperbole was unforgivable: that it betrayed a misunderstanding of the modern monarchy, and by “modern” is meant the past century or more, not just the 1990s. To survive, the modern monarchy has to be popular, and has sought to be so ever since the widowed Queen Victoria was persuaded out of her seclusion and into ever gaudier processions in order to defend the institution against republicanism. After all, disrespect is not new - the Times declared at George IV's death in 1830 that “there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures”. And the current royal family has long been as conscious as any of its forebears of the need to be popular.
A republic - if the people want it
The only relevant question is whether the monarchy can and will remain popular. There has been criticism aplenty of the way the royal family reacted to Diana's death, and a MORI opinion poll for the Sun (see moral spectrum, op cit), taken on September 6th-7th, found that 39% now thought less of the royal family. Yet the same poll found that 73% wanted the monarchy to continue. That figure rose to 82% if Diana's eldest son, Prince William, were to be the next monarch.
If that is the peak of anti-monarchical feeling, as it may well be, then monarchists can relax. This newspaper is not among them: in October 1994, The Economist declared that it would prefer the monarchy to be abolished. The arguments for this are unaffected by last week's events. As we said in 1994, monarchy “is the antithesis of much of what we stand for: democracy, liberty, reward for achievement rather than inheritance.” It is “an idea whose time has passed.”
Unless, that is, it remains popular. The reaction to Diana's death showed how popular a royal figure can become. And in a democracy, if the people want to keep a monarch, then they must have their way. It would be best if that popularity were properly tested by referendums, perhaps at the time of successions. That way, there would be no doubt about the people's “voice”. And the monarch would be given a mandate.'