At the moment, the national debate on whether we want to continue to have an inherited monarch as our Head of State is quiet. There is still plenty of grumbling from the liberal left, but it’s recognised that this is an issue which has little currency with the majority, and it’s hardly a priority for all but the most fervent. However, it is impossible for us to know whether this is okay or not, because we don’t know whether the terms of said consensus are valid. Accordingly, it is crucial that the relationship between the political elite and the social elite is made more transparent.
What I term, in the title of this post, the “standard conservative” defence of the monarchy is, I will confess, anecdotal. It is what I almost always encounter when I, as a tentative republican, suggest that we perhaps don’t require the monarchy, and it goes something like this;
- The Royal Family more than outweigh the financial burden they impose because they generate so much revenue via tourism.
- Although it would be unacceptable and undemocratic to have a monarchic ruler, this is not the role that the Queen plays. Her political role is purely ceremonial.
- The monarchy are popular with the public, perform a public service (the aforementioned ceremonial role) and represent part of our culture and history.
- Ergo, so long as (1) and (2) remain true, the validity of (3) means that the British monarchy is a good thing.
Patently, however, the value of this justification is dependent on points (1) and (2) remaining true. Point 1 is always contentious, but I don’t want to enter that debate right now. It is the second part of the argument which concerns me – do the Royals have an undemocratic influence on our politicians?
Today we found out that Prince Charlie has been liberally chatting up cabinet ministers* for the last 12 months;
Prince Charles has held private meetings with eight government ministers in the last 12 months, including Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury.
Palace records show he also met with ministers with responsibility for defence, culture and further education, as well as top civil servants involved in British defence interests in the Middle East and the UK economy.
Details of the meetings with senior political figures in the Westminster and Cardiff governments, including why they were held and what was discussed, have not been not made public, in line with a convention of secrecy around communication between both the Queen and the heir to the throne and government ministers.
This is significant. We should be clear – although I don’t personally like it – that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Prince Charles meeting government ministers and discussing state business. Ministers meet all kinds of people, all the time. It was well highlighted when the Queen attended Cabinet that she was only doing the same as many others have done (it was pointed out by a former cabinet secretary that Lord Coe attended cabinet whilst the London 2012 bid was being prepared). If they wanted to, the likes of Gove and Alexander would be well within their rights to hold meetings with the Merseyside Spelunking Society.** The important question is: does Prince Charles wield undue influence because he is the Prince of Wales?
The complexity of “undue influence” is incredibly difficult to unravel, and I’m not going to attempt it here. What I think we can say is that if ministers go out of their way – change their plans, feel pressure – because of conversations they have with members of the Royal Family in their capacity as Royals, then this is a problem. At the very least, it would mean we need a new national debate about the Royals. My intuition is that the sweeping popularity of the Royal Family, highlighted by the Royal Wedding, doesn’t extend to the Royals wielding significant undemocratic political influence. Whether or not it does, I certainly don’t think that this – “do you want the Queen and her offspring to hold a notable role in determining national policy?” – is the question most people have in mind when they say that they endorse the monarchy.
But to really form opinions on this, and know whether we do need a reappraisal, first we need to know what actually goes on in these meetings, and crucially why it’s deemed appropriate to hold them. It may be that there is no problem at all, but we can’t know this. We must have more transparency.
* Not literally.
** I have no idea whether this society actually exists. If it does, I mean no offence.