Royal Wedding Score: Monarchy revived, Royal Power weakened, Conservative State strengthened, Blairism squished

The Royal Wedding is already fading from public memory, taking its place in the archives of history. But the marriage of the second in line to the throne has shifted the landscape, not only for the monarchy, but for the Conservative state and the legacy of New Labour
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
5 May 2011

The Royal Wedding seems a long time ago already, blasted off the headlines by the assault on Bin Laden’s compound, itself finalised as the nuptials were unfolding. For many the sense of it being already an ancient event was part of its charm even at the time. All the more reason to give it a scorecard before it becomes another untouchable thing that gathers cobwebs in the British brain.

Monarchy restored


The monarchy has been rejuvenated by the marriage of the second in line to the throne. That it badly needed to be revived was the subtext of the huge sigh of relief from establishment England as all went well. It has taken a nearly twenty-year exertion, since the annus horribilis of 1992 when Diana separated from Charles and then declared war on ‘them’, the Establishment. The monarchy, under the leadership of the culturally autistic Queen, teetered on the edge of implosion. It was not going to be saved by the opinions of Prince Charles. Now it has secured a viable, long-term option for the eventual succession in terms of public consent. It has become sustainable.

Royal Power diminished

While ‘The Firm’ has secured its comfortable existence, it will not be returned to its previous, untouchable position. The weakening of what can be termed ‘Royal power’ has been confirmed. This is a nuanced distinction but in British terms significant and needs to be understood.

Before the Second World War the monarch was a personally active force, with George V taking a robust role in the creation of the peacetime coalition of 1931. Understood as such, in a polity that knew itself to be an Empire, the monarch could also be confidently removed by the governing class, as in Edward VIII’s abdication, without fear for the system. But under the pressure of the War as part of the Churchillist remoulding of the United Kingdom, the monarch became so much a part of “what were are” that it moved to a new status beyond consent. It became an unassailable totem. This status was consolidated by Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 when even the existence of republicans was denied.

It is hard now to imagine how the monarchy was a taboo subject. It could be cheered but it could not be touched. Long after the sixties and the rise of satire, serious debate about the existence of the monarchy and prerogative power was suppressed. The notoriety of the Sex Pistols God Save the Queen (banned by the BBC at the time in 1977 but in reality topping the charts despite their official manipulation to the contrary) has turned it into a celebrity cult. Today this may make it seem that the expression of anti-royalist views was normal, if also disapproved of. It was not normal and when it occurred it was shut down. Up until 1992 to be republican was still a private vice.

But a generational change was underway that emerged at Diana’s funeral. Michael Elliot has just summed it up in Time Magazine:

A nation that was supposed to be emotionally stunted, with stiff backbones and stiffer upper lips, descended into the sort of public grief normally reserved for the last act of second-rate Italian operas — except that it was genuine. Stuck at their home in Scotland, the royals seemed woefully out of touch with the sentiments of their people. Only at the last minute did the Queen walk into the crowds that were mourning Diana outside Buckingham Palace and show that she shared the national sense of loss.

The criticism of the royal family that week did not lead to a sustained increase in republican sentiment in Britain. To the contrary: once the Queen returned to London, the numbers of those saying they wanted to ditch her dropped to historic lows. But that extraordinary week changed the nature of the relationship between Crown and people forever. The crowds mourning Diana were not subjects. In a way that the revolutionaries of the 17th century would have understood, they were defining for themselves what they expected of a family, one of whose members was their head of state, and compelling that family to act accordingly. It was as if modern Britain were saying, "We get it. We're more than happy to have you around. But you do the job on our terms."

His conclusion in terms of power is that:

The Queen remains head of state, but in any real sense, she is the least powerful monarch Britain has ever had. You won't have heard that among the hushed voices of the global TV commentators who prattle on about Britain's wonderful sense of tradition, but it is true.

The argument that in a “real sense” the monarchy’s power is much diminished was confirmed last year. In the run up to the election, when a coalition looked probable, the Cabinet Secretary mobilised various constitutional experts to set out the procedures for what should happen. There is a clear account of the episode and its distinctiveness in Vernon Bogdanor’s new book, The Coalition and the Constitution. It was unanimously regarded that “the sovereign would not, and should not be expected to, take a role in the process”.  The sovereign’s permission or even her own views were not to be sought out. In British constitutional terms this was a ‘radical’ change! There would be no return to the days of the Monarch seeking the advice of favoured courtiers and then issuing a summons to the Palace, as happened for example in October 1963 when the Queen fingered the then 14th Earl of Home (pronounced Hume) to become Prime Minister. 

The explanation offered - indeed, insisted upon by the new experts - is that the Queen must not be ‘politicised’ by taking an active role. But this is a measure of royal weakness. Neither press nor people would now tolerate a hereditary head of state intervening to select the shape of the government: think of the precedent this would set for Charles! Such an intolerable prospect would give republicans the argument they need. Thus our experts had to protect our politics from being interfered with by the monarchy as much to preserve the monarchy as our politics. Preserved in this way as a symbol and mental totem pole, royalty has to be powerless personally. 

This relationship of a monarch playing a decorative role controlled by a secular political class was sketched out by Bagehot in his famous book on the English Constitution of 1867. He argued that the simplicity of the English Constitution was superior to America’s “composite” republic yet ours was also, in effect, a republic ruled by a governing class which used the pageantry of “constitutional royalty” to act “as a disguise”. He was wrong, monarchism penetrated English decision-making as the Empire reached its apogee. But Bagehot was not wrong to observe that royal influence could be a device of the political class. Since 1992 it may have become what Bagehot wrongly thought he was observing nearly a century and a half ago. The way in which the wedding was talked about, the widespread indifference and lack of defence noted by the BBC even while popular mobilisation was encouraged, confirmed that Royal Power, in contrast to its pageantry and media celebrity, is now limited.

Except that there is still Charles. He seems to regard limitations on his influence as yet another burden one has to endure. Was it Charles who pushed through the absolute ban on our knowledge of how the Royal Family spends taxpayers’ money and exercises their influence, by excluding them from the Freedom of Information Act? Only Heather Brooke, the hero of the MPs expenses scandal, has so far pressed this story. But it is a scandal. Charles is known to influence major building and architectural decisions. If he is going to claim to have the right to his views ‘as one does’, then it needs to be established that this is not a divine right. Freedom of Information on all such public activities should apply.

So while the diminution of Royal Power is confirmed it has far from disappeared. Brooke’s vigilance should be supported as ‘the firm’ renews its confidence.

Conservative State Strengthened

Below ‘Royal Power’ is the power of the state itself. Here a more ominous rolling back of the democratic impulse is underway as we witness the recreation of a Conservative state. What matters is both policy and the shaping culture that legitimises it. In terms of its public culture the Conservative state is a particular form of ‘one nation’: led by upper class males, white, unionist and favouring the City and finance. Yet it orchestrates consent not polarisation - it is not politically Thatcherite. It is rich, to be sure, but cool rather than striving and hot.

The Wedding said it all. Cameron needed the deal with the Liberal Democrats to detoxify the Tory brand. Now the marriage of William to a privately educated commoner and daughter of a self-made business couple who know their limits has detoxified the braying royals. The crowds confirmed the branding. Unlike Diana’s funeral which for the first time saw a distinctly multi-cultural public mobilised, reflecting the composition of our cities, the wedding crowd in 2011 was happy but pale. It was also issued with Union Jacks, which as a matter of policy (one can be sure) gave a union stamp to the proceedings to counter the recent rise of the Cross of St George. The same exercise is likely to be repeated for the Olympics. 

The grand politics and hard-ball implementation of Cameron and company’s strategy is for another article but their ideological hegemony, as some of us used to say, was enormously aided by the wedding.

Bye, bye, Blairism

For many of us the best part of the wedding was the way the ice closed over Tony Blair. There was no tanned and iconic mug shot of the Middle East ‘peace envoy’ alongside Beckham, no smirk from Mandelson or manipulation of the day’s meaning by Alistair Campbell. It is not just that New Labour has been defeated, it has not even been honoured in the pantheon of recent history. Blair himself must have been eating the carpet with frustration. First he loses his long-term investment in the Gaddafi fortune, then the retail value of his speaking engagements drops sharply as he can’t offer his clients any first-hand royal gossip. 

John Rentoul, still amongst Blair’s greatest fans, sets out a brilliant, angry analysis of the hurt in the Independent on Sunday. What ingratitude of the “vindictive classes” towards the man who saved the monarchy. But he also shows how Blair patronised the Queen and broke protocol, cashing in by writing about his relations with the royals. The real ingratitude is surely that the new Prime Minister who happily sat back and let the royal symbols take the flak for Blair's exclusion. For the foundations for the revival of the Conservative state after the debacle of the 1990s were laid by Blair who discarded the opportunity to set the country on the path towards constitutional democracy. 

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