Dream on, republicans Could a postal vote really usurp the young royals?
Malcolm Turnbull’s republic push will struggle against the royals’ popularity
Malcolm Turnbull may have thought he was addressing a domestic audience when he revisited the republic question earlier this week, but his comments have been taken as inspiration for rebellion in the heart of Britain.
As the Prime Minister and long-time poster boy for the republican movement canvassed the idea of having a postal vote about the potential style of republic that Australia might be interested in instituting — in a distinct stage before putting the republic referendum question itself — British republicans were cheering.
Graham Smith, chief executive of the British group Republic, became involved in the cause after spending time in Melbourne during Australia’s failed 1999 republican referendum.
“I was a spectator to that (1999 referendum), living in Melbourne, but when I returned to Britain it was reverse culture shock,’’ he says. “You don’t see the daily sycophancy in Australia, but in Britain the language, the interminable royal stories pervade the news agenda, and it struck me how it needed to be tackled.”
Smith’s organisation — the only significant republican voice in Britain — is advocating a republic with a non-political leader who “can represent the changing times, speak to the nation’s hopes and fears, and play umpire-in-chief in the political process”.
Monarchists claim this is what the Queen does, but Republic protests that “she keeps the chair warm” and remains mute on issues of national importance.
Yet it is believed that Prince Charles, when he becomes king, will be more inclined to speak out.
And it is the personality and popularity of the monarch that may be a far more decisive factor than the mechanics and tactics of a republican plebiscite.
Republican activism has been low-key during the Queen’s reign of 6½ decades and there is little sense of any momentum for change at the moment despite Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s staunch republicanism causing difficulties in respect of his admission to the Privy Council.
Technically, advocating republicanism is still a crime punishable by life imprisonment, or worse, in the Tower of London.
Republicans declare that Charles and his wife — and before that his long-time paramour — Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, have been their best recruiting agents at a time that the monarchy is riding a wave of popular support. Those who back the republican cause — and there are about 40,000 supporters — insist that affection for the monarchy is exaggerated and most Britons really couldn’t care less. They are poised to capitalise on such ambivalence when Charles takes the throne, an increasingly likely prospect given the hints the Queen offered in her Christmas Day message about standing aside.
Smith and his small group of fellow activists find that in polling, about 20 per cent of people are fierce monarchists and 20 per cent fierce republicans, with the rest confused about the implications of an alternative set-up.
“The polling has shown the same support for the past 20 years, and the only change has been about Prince Charles, with only 44 per cent approving of him as king,” Smith says. “He is a big problem for the monarchy and he will be very different to the Queen. People will sit up and take notice and ask, ‘Is this something we want?’ ”
At the moment, it’s only when the royals are seen as exploiting the public purse — such as Princess Beatrice enjoying 15 holidays in 2015 (she’s off again at the moment in South Africa), or Prince Harry killing six wild boars during a lads’ weekend away in Germany — that there is a surge in criticism.
Harry’s new fiancee, Meghan Markle, also misjudged the mood by wearing a $56,000 Australiandesigned gown in the pair’s official engagement portraits, which attracted comment from Conservative-leaning voters about celebrity grandstanding and being out of touch with Britons who are struggling financially.
But the rebels are up against a well-oiled royal publicity machine.
When Charles emerged from the Ritz Hotel alongside Camilla in 1999 — two years after the death of his ex-wife, Diana, the princess of Wales, and three years after their bitter divorce — the carefully scripted moment was captured by 200 photographers and camera operators.
This did not involve any spontaneity, as the gradual acceptance of Camilla into Charles’s public life went through decades of carefully orchestrated stages. One photographer from the tabloid The Sun had booked a room at the Ritz a fortnight in advance to ensure he could get an aerial shot of what was considered adventurous and daring: Charles in the same space as the woman for whom he had declared his undying love in the leaked and uncomfortable Camilla-gate tapes.
It was another three years before the two were pictured holding hands in the back of a taxi, and six years before they were married at the Windsor Guildhall, near Windsor Castle; the Queen chose to stay away from the ceremony but attended the subsequent reception.
In the years since, royal courtiers have worked tirelessly to re- calibrate British public opinion of Charles to a concerned father and benevolent leader of The Prince’s Trust charity, and to transform Camilla from the wicked “other woman’’ into the wife of the future king. At the time of their wedding it was put about that Camilla would never be queen but instead would be known as the princess consort. Such an idea now seems absurd. Yet back then she was also handed the title of Duchess of Cornwall, rather than the one to which she was entitled, the princess of Wales, which was inextricably intertwined with memories of Diana.
Just how effective the delicate public relations campaign has been, particularly in the context of a woman who has been central to the Prince of Wales since he was 23, could well determine the future of the monarchy.
It is often noted that Charles is seen as a political meddler, passionate about architecture and the environment, yet increasingly an elderly irrelevance. Instead, it is clear that the public adoration skips his generation and focuses on the Cambridges, Prince William and Catherine. The community cooing over the royal offspring, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, will spike again in April when the Cambridges’s third child is born.
Camilla is now perceived as inoffensive but immaterial, and Britons appear resigned to, if not happy about, her becoming queen. There is little prospect of the Queen overlooking Charles and his wife in terms of the succession, no matter how popular that idea may be. Nor is Charles likely to abdicate early in favour of his son William.
Then there is Meghan-mania. The Queen has welcomed Markle into the family enthusiastically, both to indulge her beloved grandson Harry and to invite a new contingent of royalists into her fold.
At Sandringham last Christmas, the crowd swelled to unpre- cedented levels as several thousand fans delayed their turkey lunch to catch a glimpse of the American actress who has so charmed Harry.
As the media gathered in their special pen off to the side for the arrival of the royal family, one of the Queen’s secretaries spoke from behind, informing them of the Queen’s arrival, along with the Duchess of Cornwall, in the royal car at the front of the church. Not one member of the media turned around, as all eyes were on Markle’s approach, holding hands with Harry and cosseted by the Cambridges on her other side.
However, republican campaigners believe the hype around the younger royals should be irrelevant, as should Camilla’s social standing.
“The debate is not about who the royals are married to but the constitution. We should be questioning whether Charles would be a wise king and what the democratic alternatives are,’’ Smith says.
“Support for the monarchy is high, but it’s also shallow. The public tolerance is short and (it would take only) a jolt to scupper that support.’’
The royal family understands this well, having only to look at 17th-century history — when Oliver Cromwell established the Commonwealth of England, the monarch was abolished and the Rump Parliament created — for a lesson in shocking public rebellion. A snapshot of how sentiment can quickly change occurred just 20 years ago when the Queen was rocked by the sharp demands for her to return to London and fly the Buckingham Palace flag at half mast immediately after the death of Diana.
During the same period, the royal family had even bowed to public anger and started paying taxes and scrapped the royal yacht Britannia.
Charles has sensed the disgruntlement about the cost of the royals, hinting that he wants a slimmed-down monarchy where only the direct line and their offspring are on the civil list.
At present the Queen draws money from the Duchy of Lancaster and a percentage of the money from the publicly owned crown estate, while Charles receives an income from the Duchy of Cornwall.
In addition the Queen will draw down about £76 million ($131m) this year — but Republic says that doesn’t include the duchy incomes, the high costs of security for the royals or the costs involved in family members attending functions across the country, which are picked up by local councils.
“We calculate the annual figure is more like £354m,’’ Smith says.
So far, the British public generally thinks that represents value for money, particularly given how strongly the monarchy draws in international tourists.
For now, the royal family is regarded as a potent but irreplaceable symbol of soft power in action.
‘Support for the monarchy is high, but it’s also shallow. The public tolerance is short and (it would take only) a jolt to scupper that support’ GRAHAM SMITH CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF REPUBLIC
Clockwise from left, Prince William, Catherine, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry head to church on Christmas Day; Malcolm Turnbull with the Queen at Buckingham Palace last July; Prince Charles and Camilla on her 70th birthday; the royal family on Christmas Day