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The case for more royals

This is no time for a slimmed-down monarchy

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I was a High Sheriff a few years back. The ancient office is held now only for a year in each county as the Crown’s representative to all aspects of law and order, as well as the fire service. You can prioritise whatever you want, being in theory answerable only to the Crown and the law, but traditionally it means visiting every fire station, police station, law court, remand centre, prison and morgue in the county, as well as giving dinners for the judges. There was, in my patch, much ceremonial, which I thought hugely enjoyable. Rather than being outmoded or superfluous and arrogant, these occasions were inclusive and seemed to cheer everyone up.

The costume — sorry, uniform — of a High Sheriff does seem silly and is worn for the ceremonials. Court Dress, including a ruff and tights, is Black Rod without the inherent dignity. But at least you get a sword and it is remarkable how many ladies like to stroke the velvet on your chest. Its otherness is the point. When so attired, any people you approach in any circumstance become silent. I found that useful, even if they look bemused.

I have worn it only once since my year of office ended, for a friend’s party. He muttered as I entered, “Typical, I host a fancy dress and bloody Leavesley comes as himself.”

Being a Deputy Lieutenant is to concentrate on all other civic aspects of county life and at my level is less intense. I wear that uniform mainly at Citizenship Ceremonies to hand over the certificates and then have my photograph taken with our new citizens alongside a Union Jack and a large picture of the King. These events were introduced by the Blair government and are perhaps the only constitutional reform it introduced that is any good. Everyone feels proud and smiles broadly. It is a privilege to witness.

Regardless of the outfit, one usually acts as the eyes and ears of the Lord Lieutenant in your designated geographic area, keeping up with news and passing it on. One sees how busy the Lord Lieutenant and the Vice Lieutenant are. Requests and demands for royal and even just local Lieutenancy patronage are frequent and insatiable.

With our royal family one gets “The Firm”, a plethora of working royals

The Lord Lieutenant is the public-facing glad-hander. The Vice usually delivers the messages of what can and can’t be done. Both spend considerable time in meetings and on admin. Every community in the country has public services and volunteer groups eager for royal patronage. Whether the monarchy itself is currently in vogue or is enduring one of its periodic bouts of controversy, it is a symbol of both national and local unity that is perennial and appeals across class, county and race.

There is also an undeniable, yet difficult to pinpoint, romantic élan to its status and longevity which, regardless of its incumbents, partly explains why, say, a local charity in an impoverished backwater will want to seek an association.

The monarchy would not have survived were it not apolitical and were it not able, through the spread of the royal family, to be meaningful nationally. An appointed or elected head of state that was not hereditary — a president (or, as we suffered once before, a Lord Protector of the Commonwealth) would inevitably be London-focused because there would likely only be one of them. And they would likely be an elderly politician or a “national treasure” celebrity. Oh dear.

By contrast, with our royal family one gets “The Firm”, a plethora of working royals. Except that these days there are fewer of them. When once there were 16 who might be called upon to visit your school or show interest in your business award, now there are effectively just nine.

Also, the King has cancer. Please God that he recovers swiftly. It was clear long before he became king that he was going to be a dutiful, thoughtful and, in his own way, inspirational monarch. While he receives treatment he is abstaining from public-facing tasks but feels able to continue with the papers and meetings of his constitutional duties.

Then there is the Princess of Wales, who is recovering from surgery. As well as being a mother, she has done her share of official engagements and not put a foot wrong since joining the family. She is the embodiment of the perfect princess — unlike the other recent entrant, now in exile. The institution is fortunate she agreed to engage with the role so wholeheartedly, as are we. We need her back.

You might well be the highlight of their year, even if you are feeling tired or bored

To be a working royal is to be kept very busy, usually on visits which after a short while will seem to be somewhat repetitive. And you are not allowed to make a mistake or be in an unconducive mood, not ever. Consider this: you rise early in your well-appointed house (which may or may not feel like home; it might not be where you usually reside), breakfast hastily whilst reading your daily briefing. You travel to a distant part of the country to be amiable during, say, seven official engagements, meeting several hundred people. These will invariably include the local Lord Lieutenant, a High Sheriff, several councillors wearing chains of office, schoolchildren, police and many other earnest, nervous, sincere people.

Meeting you might well be the highlight of their year, even if you are feeling tired or bored. You travel home to eat a late meal with your spouse, who has undertaken separate duties in another part of the country. And the next day you both do similar things elsewhere, sometimes together but often apart. It may sound like a cushy number, because surely anyone can cut ribbons, shake hands and deliver a few anodyne remarks? But done well, day after day, it is hard work. Many people would feel trapped, yet the country needs them to carry on.

The King has long wanted a “slimmed-down monarchy”. Uncertain of his own popularity as the late Queen’s reign drew towards its close, and sensitive to charges of extravagance, this impetus towards reduction must have seemed compelling. Fortunately, he is popular. YouGov’s latest figures have the King at 60 per cent approval, with the Waleses at 72 per cent and the institution as a whole at 62 per cent. For what it achieves nationally and its worldwide reach, the monarchy is a bargain, costing £2 per person per year. That is paid for many times over from tourism alone.

Is the real question now whether the Crown has been pared down too much? The slimmed-down monarchy model seemed plausible so long as the surviving “working royals” were fit and able. Yet having lost the services of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as well as the Duke of York, one can’t help but ask whether there are enough spares?

One argument for abolishing the monarchy is that it is an expensive anachronism. But the best case for keeping it is precisely because it is an anachronism, a point of colour in a monochrome world. It’s the unifying embodiment of our national identity which remains relevant because “The Firm” puts in so much work around the country and the world.

This is no time for retrenchment, Your Majesty, we need more working royals.

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