In HIS diaries the former Labour MP Chris Mullin recounts a conversation in 1994 with BBC presenter John Humphrys during which the feared interviewer spoke of how reporting of the Royal Family had changed from the days when the “fairy tale was still intact”. The phrase implied that, for the Royals, the age of deference was basically over.
As far as predictions go, that one seems to have been about as accurate as George Robertson’s claim that devolution would kill the SNP stone dead. Indeed, as we enter 2012, it seems only the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee will come close to rivalling the London Olympics for uncritical media coverage. A mass of events is planned, including the novel idea of a bumper four-day weekend in June, presumably because a Saturday and Sunday of concerted Windsor worship will not be sufficient. Scotland is also to be blessed with a special Holyrood Week in July. The rest of the Commonwealth will not miss out either. All 15 “realms” – those countries apart from the UK that have the Queen as head of state – will have a visit from at least one member of the Royal Family.
The apparently undiminished interest in the Royals was clear during the Christmas holidays, with constant updates on the health of the Duke of Edinburgh and live breaking news reports of which relatives were visiting at any one time, for how long, and by what mode of transport they made it to the hospital: limousine or helicopter? The family even enjoyed the ultimate accolade – a prime-time documentary of their magnificent year presented by one of the few people of equal status in 21st century Britain: Alan Titchmarsh.
But more telling for the tone of Royal coverage was the visit of Kate’n’Wills to the London homeless charity, Centrepoint, a few days before Christmas. No-one seemed to think it was worth addressing a few critical questions on homelessness to members of a family who seem to own, or have access to, vast residences in most parts of the country.
This doesn’t mean I want to see the monarchy abolished. I don’t really see the point of electing a non-executive president whose role is basically ceremonial. In Ireland the election of Mary Robinson (and perhaps the incumbent, the veteran Labour politician, Michael D Higgins) highlighted a change in Irish society that had already taken place, but Irish presidents cannot be themselves, in Tony Blair’s phrase, “change-makers”.
Providing a retired politician, even a distinguished one, with a big house in a park and seven years’ worth of privileges does not seem to me to be an urgent priority when we already have a working head of state system. As a supporter of independence, I also don’t see the need for a radical change in this area. One of my early memories is of my father, an SNP MP in the 1970s, preparing to meet the Queen during a visit to his constituency as part of a previous jubilee publicity stunt: a Royal train tour.
Few people seemed to have been exercised by the meeting because presumably then, as now, it was recognised that control of tax, welfare, industrial policy and proper representation in Europe should be the priority to create a more prosperous and fairer country. None of that need be impeded by retaining the Queen or her successors as head of state.
Keeping the monarchy is also a useful, if minor, counter to the nonsense language of separation often used to describe independence. If Scotland becomes an independent country there will of course still be enduring social ties connecting those who live north and south of the Border, and for some people the Royal Family will be an important part of that social union.
However, whether in an independent Scotland or the current UK, rejecting a Republican position does not mean accepting no change. The broadcasters in particular need to remind themselves they are not a part of the Buckingham Palace press office. Too often it seems reporters suspend their critical faculties when covering Royal events. In this respect, I suspect the viewers are a little less believing of the fairy tale than programme editors and would welcome a change in attitude.
A more enlightened view of tax and spending would also be welcome. When the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, and Mike Tindall decided to get married in Edinburgh last year, it was reasonable for them to ask for a private ceremony. It seems a little less reasonable to then ask the taxpayer to fork out £400,000 for policing and the like for the privilege.
More importantly, as the land reform campaigner Andy Wightman has pointed out, Prince Charles will pay no inheritance tax when he inherits the Balmoral estate from the Queen. This favoured tax status appears to be increasingly difficult to justify at a time of real austerity for many.
In his book, Prelude to Power, the former head of communications at Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, reveals the agonising that went on among Labour’s high command when in opposition over what to do with the Royal Yacht Britannia – and how the story should be handled in the press.
In the event most people seemed far more relaxed about the decision to retire the yacht than either politicians or journalists. The same would surely be true now if some of the more anomalous Royal arrangements were reviewed.
So as we prepare to mark 60 years of Elizabeth’s reign, I along with others will recognise the Queen’s dignity in often very trying circumstances. In some respects the Royals have the misfortune to live in an age of celebrity with huge interest in the minutiae of their lives. In particular the obsession with the wardrobe of the Duchess of Cambridge appears to be unbalanced. It can’t be easy for anyone to be placed under such intense personal scrutiny.
The Queen carries out an important constitutional function. She does it well, but she and her family are human like the rest of us. Hopefully a recognition of her role and humanity, rather than fawning obsequiousness, will be the main sentiment of the Diamond Jubilee year.