Friday, May 13, 2011


Perhaps sometimes when the Queen is settling down to an evening of telly with a mug of cocoa she might harbour a wistful thought or two about the good old days when she had subjects.

The only time you hear the word “subjects” in the context of the monarchy these days is when otherwise sensible people declare that they want to be citizens rather than subjects, meaning subjects of the monarch. Therefore they would like the monarchy to be quietly retired to the country somewhere out of the way. Why, for heaven’s sake?

The British monarchs of the past were above the law, they could do what they liked, their subjects didn’t know the half of what they did, and they could be stopped only by revolutions. They chopped people’s heads off with impunity, and it was only when the people chopped off one of theirs that the tide started to turn. It’s taken the Brits centuries to tame them so they are now house-trained and powerless, the Americans are jealous and probably wish they hadn’t declared war on them in 1775, and they are magnificent on special occasions. They are the most successful, long-running soap opera in the world.

Think of the alternatives. Republican models don’t have a great record when you think about it, and many of them are corrupt or dangerous, or both. Rulers (usually presidents) in a democracy are elected by only some of the citizens, they spend buckets of money in the process, they come to office owing too many favours, they wield enough power to start wars, and they sometimes morph into dictators and tyrants supported by military force. Look around at the countries headed by presidents – there are more republics than monarchies with down-trodden citizens. As the saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for.

On the other hand, those countries which have retained monarchies but in a modernised, modified form, have found ways of accommodating both royalists and republicans. The Dutch for example. Britain is now fairly close to the Dutch model. Indeed the younger British royals may already be cycling through Hyde Park or shopping at Tescos – we would never know because most of them would blend into the crowd. We know that they are ordinary, flawed human beings, they have jobs and probably live pretty normal lives, just like the rest of us.

In a modern democratic monarchy it really is the people who have the power – why would we want to change that after all the trouble we’ve gone to? It may be a curious traditional system which has been reduced to symbolic status, a ceremonial relic, but it works. And those who fret at being “subjects” should know that if they don’t wish to bend the knee on ceremonial occasions they don’t actually have to. The Queen can no longer have them beheaded. The worst she can do is to cross them off the party list. And she won’t be choking over her cocoa about that.