Anthony Barnett witnesses the rowdy birth of republican Murdoch Manby Anthony Barnett / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
British republicans and monarchists alike have been upstaged by the British people. The Tories-the Tories-failed to grasp this. In what they thought was a carefully planned ambush of the Labour party, they picked up the Crown in the form of the Royal yacht only to drop it on their own foot. They should have known better, for the writing could not have been projected on to our screens in bigger letters.
In an extraordinary and raucous show staged in January by Carlton TV in the Birmingham stadium used for Gladiators, the monarchy was turned over. The phone-in for or against its continuation generated 2.5m calls. Most were from the redial buttons of partisans. None the less, the redialling balanced out and the proportions seemed broadly accurate: 66 per cent supported keeping the monarchy.
The show generated a furious response. Most of the argument was about the spectacle, as mediacrats exchanged views about the power, responsibility and limits of the media. Meanwhile the bottom lines, as totals are called these days, were generally ignored. They were, however, of considerable interest. In particular, an orthodox poll before the programme showed 69 per cent support the idea of a referendum on the monarchy.
Thus at least half of those who support the monarchy also want to choose it. As this segment will swing any result, it seems a majority of the public wants to keep the royal family but in a most non-royal way. For a referendum that kept the crown would none the less spell the final end of divine right. The servants, it seems, are intent on taking over the Victorian house for themselves. They will install central heating and other modern conveniences that release them from drudgery. But they will keep the grand fireplace (if not all the small ones). By doing so, the fireplace will come to symbolise no longer their subordination but their ownership.
Since Bagehot, official theory has told us that the monarchy is merely the dignified aspect of an efficient, secular republic. In fact, as scholars have shown, the British system is intrinsically monarchical even if its absolutism is mainly exercised through the royal prerogative powers of ministers and senior civil servants. But the throne, too, exercises its unaccountable power. As Diana reminded us in her Panorama interview, none of the royals want a Euro-style constitutional monarchy.
It now seems that the throne will be…