Michael Ignatieff on the Monarchy

Michael Ignatieff, after the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, wrote an article published in the Montreal Gazette on December 12th, 1992:

LONDON – We are being told to sympathize with the private grief of the tragic couple. We are being asked to believe that the horrid tabloids are to blame. Buckingham Palace and No. 10 Downing Street smoothly assure us that the couple’s private misery need have no constitutional implications.

Enough of this nonsense. The Royal Family is not doing its job. And what pray is that? It is to represent and to guarantee the institutional continuity of the British state.

The separation announcement effectively declared that the monarchy had placed its dynastic succession on hold until the unhappy couple sort themselves out. The monarchy has suspended normal service and has no idea when it will be resumed.

We swear allegiance to the Queen and her heirs and successors. As of Thursday’s announcement we no longer know who they actually will be. Will it be Charles? Or Prince William? Will Diana be Queen?

In constitutional theory, prime ministers and politicians come and go but the Queen and her heirs go on forever.

On Thursday, the proper constitutional order was stood on its head. The prime minister was on his feet in the Commons acting as the source of constitutional continuity, struggling to make it appear in his usual unconvincing way, that nothing was really amiss.

Both the prime minister and the palace must dwell in a realm of deep unreality not to have anticipated the gasp of disbelief in the Commons chamber at their blithe contention that Britain will accept the prospect of being ruled by a miserably separated couple.

In reality, as both MPs and the public appear to have realized, we are heading into constitutional No Man’s Land. The problem is not that the monarchy is failing to live up to some rosy family ideal. The British royal family never has and in any case that is not its job. Along with the dutiful diligent and much-loved Queen, we have had madmen, philanderers and incompetents on the throne.

Listening to the separation announcement, I found myself wondering exactly why this shambles was so magically preferable to an elected presidency. Dignity, authority and respect – all the qualities peeling away from the monarchy by the hour – are there to behold in the distinguished figure of Richard von Weizsacker, Germany’s president. He has even used his office to speak for the German liberal conscience. Could someone tell me why the current Speaker of the British House of Commons could not do just as well? At least she has no family we would have to endure.

I will be told that republicanism is alien to British traditions. This is monarchist cant. Britain is the home of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. From the English revolution of 1640 to the Reform Act of 1832, the British people taught continental Europe how to bend a monarchy to the popular will.

The rights of free-born Englishmen, the sovereignty of Parliament and the independence of the judiciary were all won in essentially republican struggles against monarchical power.

The result is a unique form of government in which “We, the people” consent to be ruled by a hereditary monarch. We think of ourselves as subjects rather than citizens, but the reality is that the monarchy is a creature, even a prisoner, of public opinion.

It is this unstable combination of republican sovereignty, clothed in the trappings of monarchy, which is slowly coming apart. The British now have to decide whether to admit how republican their history actually is or whether to continue with the fantasy that they are ruled by kings and queens.

The tabloid press faithfully reflects the rabid and schizophrenic attitude of the public. One minute the tabloid hounds are licking the royal hand, the next they are biting it off. One day they bay for the Queen to pay taxes “like the rest of us.” The next they are weeping tears over the end of the royal fairy tale.

What is depressing is not the cynical opportunism but the corruption of an authentically British republican tradition into a rabid kind of porno-populism. The royal family is now being torn apart by a uniquely British combination of raging envy and fawning deference. This schizophrenia perfectly expresses the conflict between republican and monarchical principles at the heart of the constitution.

What happens now depends not on what the palace wishes, but on what the public comes to believe is right. My fervent wish is that it will regretfully but firmly decide enough is enough.

The future looks decidedly bleak for the institution. The tabloids will ferret out the royal mistresses and consorts soon enough. Separation will be followed by divorce. What then? We seem to be headed, slowly but surely, towards a humble Scandinavian monarchy, which bicycles to work, busies itself in inoffensive good works and tries desperately to make itself so boring that the tabloids will give up the chase.

But a Scandinavian-style monarchy is acceptable only if the British public finally admits that Britain’s days as a great power are over. For greatness is what monarchy once implied, and the greatness is irrevocably gone.

If so, why retreat further? Why not turn retreat into an opportunity for reform? Now is the time for the republican tradition in Britain to find its voice again.

Such respect for the monarchy as I have makes me believe they deserve a more honorable opponent than rabid porno-populism.

For the choice the British face is between clinging to an institution which has had its day or affirming what their history has always taught, which is that “We, the people” and not the crown are the source of all power and authority in this island.

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