As this month’s issue reminds us, this year marks the 350th anniversary of the Restoration of the monarchy in the colourful figure of Charles II.
Few periods of British history have more of a hold on the collective imagination, thanks to the vibrant reputation of Restoration comedies, the poetry of Dryden and Rochester and of course the hedonistic personality of the king himself.
To mark the occasion, the Royal Mint plans to issue 150,000 commemorative £5 coins. But of course the Restoration of the monarchy was never inevitable.
Had Oliver Cromwell lived longer, had his son Richard been made of different stuff, or had the New Model Army’s generals worked more closely and coherently together, Britain might even now be a republic.
So modern-day republicans’ hearts must weep when they flick through the pages of Samuel Pepys’s diary recounting Charles II’s triumphant landing at Dover on 25 May 1660. After years of austerity and a brief spasm of disturbing instability, many ordinary people were clearly ecstatic to see the return of the king. Charles greeted a vast “crowd of people, and the horsemen, citizens, and noblemen of all sorts” who came to see him. “The shouting and joy expressed by all,” Pepys wrote, “is past imagination.”
Three and a half centuries on, however, we are often told that the monarchy’s place in British life is less certain than ever. Recent polls suggest that only four out of ten people are keen for Prince Charles to succeed his mother, while a similar proportion would prefer Prince William to take over.
And beyond that lies a lingering sense among some people that Britain should do without its most famous institution altogether. Search the Guardian messageboards (a depressing experience, admittedly) for the words ‘monarchy’ and ‘irrelevant’ and you find enough examples to fill a book.
For those expecting the second half of this column to predict the monarchy’s demise, however, I bring disappointing news. For one thing, it is a myth that the royal family is particularly unpopular. Not even at their lowest point, around the death of Diana, did they have to put up with the kind of scatological criticism directed at the grotesquely overweight figure of George IV.
Even Victoria went through a period of deep unpopularity after the death of her beloved Albert, reaching a climax in 1871 when pamphlets attacked the royal finances, and the Liberal meteor Sir Charles Dilke publicly called for a republic. We often forget, in fact, that many monarchs have been loathed by most of their subjects: by these standards, Prince Charles is a national treasure.
The other republican delusion is that since the monarchy is less ‘relevant’ today than before, it is doomed to a slow but inevitable death. And yet it is almost impossible to think of a historical precedent for a monarchy simply withering away. In almost every case where people got rid of their native monarchy, they did so after defeat by a foreign power or armed revolution – and neither seems likely any time soon.
For Britain to abolish its monarchy, the House of Commons would have to approve a government-sponsored bill to scrap it. Quite apart from the sheer implausibility of the modern Labour party upsetting patriotic working-class voters with such a controversial measure, it is hard to see why they would squander their legislative energies on such a complicated reform. If the monarchy is so irrelevant, why waste so much time and effort trying to get rid of it?
The truth is that when other countries kicked out their monarchs, they did so precisely because they were not irrelevant. Nobody in revolutionary France or Russia doubted that Louis XVI and Nicholas II were politically relevant; that was why they had to die. Even the Italians booted out Victor Emmanuel because of his political associations with fascism.
By comparison, our royal family’s lack of political relevance is its greatest asset. Scrapping the monarchy is not an election issue in 2010; indeed, it has never been an issue in living memory. My guess is that it never will be. The republicans had their chance 350 years ago, and thank goodness, they blew it.