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Christopher Wilson

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Things Being Equal, the Monarchy Should Survive

Posted: 29/10/11 12:29

An angel of mercy has descended upon the House of Windsor in recent times, and its name is David Cameron. In the space of a few short months since achieving office the Prime Minister has broken the stranglehold over constipated royal finances, and reversed the royal house out of a constitutional cul-de-sac.

The announcement from the Perth Commonwealth Leaders' conference that there will be no gender bias in the choice of the next monarch-but-three is the latest in Mr Cameron's modernising plans. Earlier this month, the Sovereign Grant Act passed into law under the premier's signature allowing the Queen and her successors to avoid going cap-in-hand to Parliament every few years to top up the Civil List grant.

Too much to hope that Mr Cameron will now complete his modernising crusade by removing the royals' regrettable immunity from Freedom of Information requests, their protection from criticism in the House of Commons, and their exemption from scrutiny when it comes to tax-paying arrangements.

But, for adherents to the royal cause, Cameron's coup is nothing short of miraculous, given that eleven Prime Ministers over nearly six decades of the Queen's reign have paid lip-service to their Sovereign - but done little to ease the pickle she's been in.

Rewriting the law to allow female royal children equal claim to the Throne should have happened in the wake of her 1953 Coronation - but was not even considered. The lift on the bar to royals marrying Roman Catholics should never have survived into the twentieth century - let alone the 21st - yet, through inertia and prejudice, it did.

Similarly, the shyness about discussing the first family's need for money to fund their public duties led, over the years, to a succession of angry debates simply because nobody put in place the machinery to take account of inflation.

It is a fact that Buckingham Palace, a world-famous public building which plays host to many members of the British public and to foreign dignitaries and heads of state, is in a pitiful state of repair because of the way royal finances have been structured. By contrast, all principal Government buildings have enjoyed, during the Queen's reign, a rolling plan for refurbishment.

So Mr Cameron's zeal - not, we hope, motivated by his own lineal descent from King George III, nor from the supportive telephone calls said to have emanated from the Palace when he went in search of political preferment - should not stop there.

If he wishes the monarchy to remain a constant in our fast-moving landscape, he must now address other fundamentals. We have moved from an age of deference to a place where respect is earned on merit, and where some of the traditional trappings and adornments look way overdue - like the Palace - for a refurb.

Honours should no longer boast of an Empire which crumbled before the Queen came to the Throne. Their automatic dispensing to civil servants is a shockingly outdated anomaly which can only generate cynicism and resentment. The royal court, bastioned by old soldiers and members of hereditary aristocracy, surrounds the monarchy with a self-aggrandising, protective and defensive oligarchy which benefits none but itself. While these remain, so will the social divide for which this country has long been notorious.

Most significantly, Mr Cameron's energetic new broom should sweep into the closets where royal secrets are hidden. Nobody can have confidence in a future monarchy which allows its junior members a privileged life on the taxpayer, without responsibility, and without account.

The recent activities of the Duke of York - details of which have been suppressed by Government departments - can only undermine the moral high ground our first family is supposed to inhabit.

Some of the above changes may well emerge under the new administration of King Charles III but it is inevitable that as we age, we see less need for change, and therefore it behoves Mr Cameron to lay the ground for a future monarchy - as only a reforming politican can - rather than leave it to chance.

Not everybody agrees, in the cyber-age, on the continuing need for a royal family. David Cameron's recent actions have shown that, in monarchy's best traditions, it can adapt and change with the help of a sympathetic political administration. But the job is at best only half-done and, if he cares for the institution, he must roll up his sleeves and plan for more radical reform ahead.