The House of Windsor has always had my utmost respect. The Queen has a flawless reputation, and she is all that is truly British (her German and Danish ancestry notwithstanding). I have a portrait of her on my wall, I feel I should bow when I pass Buckingham Palace, and she inspires a strange kind of awe that is rivalled only by the grandest kinds of religious ceremonies stage-managed so impressively by the Orthodox Church. Majesty and mystery are encapsulated in one woman, one symbol, and a few decades ago the British people lapped it up. The royal family were the Royal Family, and they were above criticism or complaint. None of us dreamt of seeing the Queen in the privacy of her own home, and her private life simply wasn't our business.
The first seeds of Royal voyeurism were sown back in 1969 when the BBC televised its ground-breaking documentary called A Royal Family. Then in 1992 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Queen's accession, the BBC screened the documentary Elizabeth R: a Year in the Life. BBC cameramen had been invited to follow the Queen's public and private activities for a year, and the result was a carefully edited look behind the scenes of royal life. By then, cracks were already beginning to show in the jewel-encrusted facade of our royal family as one appalling disaster followed hard on the heels of the last. Many people probably thought that in her speech at the Guildhall in late November of that year the Queen was describing the immediate situation of the House of Windsor; however, with hindsight one has to wonder if she was showing us a hidden talent for predicting the future. "1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure," said Her Majesty with a croak in her usually regal tones (the result of a severe cold, apparently). "In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis." First there had been the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of York were to separate. Then came the divorce of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, which, set against a background of toe-sucking and demands that the Queen start paying income tax, did not make for pleasant afternoons. And to make things even worse, the Queen's favourite residence, Windsor Castle, suffered a destructive fire and the Prince of Wales became the third of the Queen's children to announce his separation from his spouse. So we could look back on it as a nasty 12 months - or we could look at it as a year that set the future of the Royal Family.
The York separation not only gave us scandalous paparazzi shots of Sarah Ferguson indulging in holiday hi-jinks, it also gave us the media brand that became Fergie, and it has yet to go away. The Duchess of York may have been a comedian's dream, but she was the Queen's worst nightmare, and it seemed that she had an almost erotic preoccupation with telling the most intimate details of Royal life to interviewers like Michael Parkinson, who could hardly believe their luck. To this day Sarah is still talking, and though we recently saw her attend Garter Day at Windsor, things aren't looking any better than they were in 1992 because now we have an unofficial Sarah Ferguson: at least when she was the Duchess of York with those ghastly yellow ballgowns and flaming red hair, one could politely ignore her. People's taste for information about royal life was given a boost by the BBC documentary Elizabeth R, and Sarah Ferguson fuelled the public interest. When Princess Anne divorced, she simply carried on in her usual style, which seems to be "head down, get on with it." But the separation of Charles and Diana was in another league altogether. Suddenly the Royals were fair game. Stanley Baxter had mocked the Queen for years with his Duchess of Brenda sketches, and Spitting Image had been anything but deferential; however, this was different - this was serious and was actually directed at the Royal Family. Real questions were being raised by ordinary people, and MPs shuffled nervously while it looked as though "that debate" was about to be unleashed on a Tory Government that was still trying to make it appear that Humpty Maggie had had her great fall without any help from her colleagues.
The Queen weathered the storm with her usual dignity and wisdom, but it would lead to five years of "he said, she said," conducted through our newspapers and TV screens as we sat agog and asked our nearest and dearest who was this Camilla Parker-Bowles woman and was it really true that the Queen still called the Queen Mother "Mummy"? When Diana died in 1997, there was a sudden explosion of hysteria, and people who in the past had never given the Royal Family a second thought were gathering outside Buckingham Palace in tears, holding photographs of her (kindly provided by members of the media who were covering the tracks of a planned hatchet job on Diana in the tabloids that very morning). What did the Queen do? Nothing. Well, eventually she did, but it took time, and during that silent period when the world watched the House of Windsor dance the Gay Gordons on the brink of disaster, we all wondered what would become of Britain. Would this really be the event that brought the monarchy to an end? Ten years have passed and the monarchy has survived, but thanks to the Daily Mail and a horde of faithful fanatics, Diana is still with us although we have lost the beacon of sentimentality that was the Queen Mother and the racy Princess that was Margaret Rose.
Of course, the Royal Family has its dedicated stalwarts who may not appear in the newspapers every day but certainly have the respect of most Britons. I doubt anyone would question the sincerity and hard work of Anne, the Princess Royal. And the ever-popular Princess Alexandra of Kent is the personification of everything that a Princess should be, whether she twinkles regally in a tiara at a state banquet or opens a garden fete in a pretty hat. Alexandra once impressed the crowds at a function in Australia by sitting erect and alert through a lengthy welcoming ceremony despite the intense heat. When asked how she'd kept the Windsor grin firmly in place, Alexandra replied, "Upbringing. Don't forget, Queen Mary was my grandmother." Nevertheless, a turning point for me came when Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, died in 2004 and her death was scarcely noticed by the popular media. Here was a Royal of the old school who did things Queen Mary's way and had the decorum and elegance of a genuine blue blood. Her death marked something important for me as a monarchist - it was the beginning of the end of real British royalty. All the Duchesses and Princesses who had attended the grand banquets of colonial Britain, bedecked in their tiaras and grand-sounding gongs that glittered like stamps of authority on their perfectly designed couture gowns, were gone, and every Royal trait they had personified was on its way out.
You'll notice, however, that I say it was the beginning of the end of real British royalty. Britain isn't the only country to have a monarchy, and other nations seem to have dealt more successfully with the relationship between the Crown and the people. King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway gave an interview to the BBC in 2005 in which they explained that they could go to the cinema if they wanted to and that if they fancied a McDonald's meal, it was unheard of for them to have to send someone else to collect the Filet-O-Fish. It isn't that Norwegians don't respect their monarchy, it's just that the House of Oldenburg has more successfully moved with the times; as a result, it's much more popular than its British counterpart. Their future Queen Consort was a single mother before she married the Crown Prince, and the King's grandson doesn't even have an HRH - it's all very un-British. Queen Margrethe of Denmark often wanders the streets of Copenhagen with just a bodyguard to keep her company. It isn't only Scandinavia, though: in The Netherlands the relationship between Queen Beatrix and her subjects is one of great respect and - dare I say it - love. Her approval rating must make her cousin Elizabeth drool with envy, and the Dutch monarch enjoys such a special relationship with her people that her Silver Jubilee was more a case of "We just called to say we think you're bloody marvellous" than "Oh well, I suppose we'd better do something for it." Not that the British don't have their moments. Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee was a spectacular display of admiration, but was it for the institution itself or, as I suspect, actually a display of affection for a lady most of us have grown up with?
The Queen won't abdicate. Of that I am almost certain, and I think she's right. She'll be Queen until she draws her last breath. Her funeral will be vast and elaborate, and I'll be genuinely devastated to see her gone. She's been a model of composure, level-headedness, and intelligence, and those qualities have earned her the respect of the British people. In the haze of the funeral march, we shall offer our comfort to her son Charles, the King, with Camilla, his Queen Consort - and here is where the grand egg-timer of Royal shelf-life gets turned over and we enter the twilight years of the House of Windsor. I have absolutely no doubt that Charles and Camilla will be amazing as a team, because they are now. Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, call her what you like - but admit that Her Royal Highness really does deserve those three little letters before her name. Every engagement has been handled with a style and a professionalism that reminds more than just Gyles Brandreth of the late Queen Mother. Whether it's a state banquet or Royal Ascot, Camilla shines, and she makes the Prince of Wales more acceptable to us because he has lost the surly, sulky image that was presented to us during the Diana years when he found himself fighting for the spotlight. Charles actually looks as if he could be King now, and he appears ready for the job. Camilla seems able to support him in that role, and his many years of experience, coupled with her unaffected charm, will make them excellent ambassadors for our nation. But bounce another branch down the family tree, and if you can see them through the beer bottles, you'll find the real reason I'm no longer hopeful for the monarchy and why I think it better for the House of Windsor to go out on a high note after King Charles III has shuffled off the ermine-trimmed coil of royal life.
Prince William has got to be the most boring thing to grace our TV screens since Sir Patrick Moore said, "I think I'll buy a telescope." Boring can work - the Queen isn't exactly lively, and the contrasts between Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret can also be made quite convincingly between William and Harry - but something just doesn't sit well. The question has to be asked - what does William actually do? He isn't really learning to be King yet, and he isn't doing anything particularly useful in the Army, because as we now know, the change in the way of world warfare has rendered it impossible for our senior Royals to go into active service in battle zones. The same goes for Harry, who seems to be taking the whole "We won't be sending you to Iraq" thing very well by getting rat-arsed every night and falling out of a variety of nightclubs without so much as a "Well actually I was looking for Osama Bin Laden." My problem with the boys first originated from their complete uselessness combined with a sorry lack of direction. But recently things have got even worse with the ghastly interview churned out by Channel Five in which they seemed to adopt a Harold Wilson-type "We're men of the people" attitude. News flash, guys - you're not men of the people. William is apparently going to be King one day, and Harry......well, we like Harry. But liking them and giving them our allegiance are different things, and some of us will begin to look elsewhere for our future leader.
William and Harry may not have a lot to offer, but compared to their relatives who seem to be taking on a distinct Paris Hilton air, they're possibly the best of a tired bunch. Princess Beatrice has well and truly marked her cards by stating that she wants to be a "mini-mummy." Beatrice, dear, your mummy wasn't that mini, and she had all the diplomacy, tact, and charm of a boiled whelk; that's why she was unpopular with the British people. Aiming to be Fergie Mark II spells disaster. Eugenie doesn't promise much either. Peter is about to marry a Catholic. Zara tries her best but seems to have shacked up with a regular from Only Fools and Horses - will she be racing greyhounds next, we ask ourselves? With no really decent monarch material, where else can we look? Is it really time for Britain to become a republic?
If Britain did become a republic, I'd be genuinely sad. It would be an end to tradition, pomp, and pageantry, and of course we'd lose the safety net of the constitutional benefits the monarchy brings. Or at least, that's what I've always believed. Recently, though, I've been looking more and more closely into the workings of the European Union. And I saw a possible future for Britain in one tiny country - Latvia.
The outgoing President of Latvia is a lady called Vaira Vike-Freiberga; her typical Baltic build and chestnut coiffure have earned her the affectionate title of "Latvia's Queen." She has been President for ten years, and with her smart two-piece outfits and imposing hats, she has racked up an impressive trophy cabinet of foreign gongs from esteemed heads of state such as King Albert II of Belgium, as well as earning the adoration of the Latvian people. When I showed my grandfather a picture of her greeting King Albert, he asked me, "Is that the Queen of the Netherlands?" On the contrary, she was the president of a Republic: an elected Head of State with the bearing of an Empress. The only snag is that we can't be assured of securing our very own Vaira Vike-Freiberga, and it's here where I waver. How could we be sure that we get the leaders we want? Well, we'd use the ballot box. Instead of having a House of Commons, we would have a unicameral Parliament; there would be no Lords who have paid their dues to get their bums on the soft red plush in order to delay legislation. There would be just one legislative body with one elected Prime Minister, who in turn would appoint the Cabinet. Parliament, in turn, would elect a President who would serve five-year terms. But unless we want a re-run of megalomaniac Mayor Ken Livingstone, I believe there would have to be term limits; otherwise it defeats the object of having a republic, and we revert to having a Head of State who serves a life sentence in the role. There would be a constitution for which the people have voted.
The whole thing seems very appealing and workable. It therefore pains me to declare that my allegiance to the House of Windsor has suddenly been stamped with a sell-by date. With the younger royals behaving like third-rate celebrities, I see that the old royal ways personified by Princess Alexandra and Princess Alice are sadly dying. This is the perfect opportunity to call it a day with dignity - and, being English, I like things to have a little dignity. Charles has been trained for the job, it's a job he'll do well, and it's something he's spent his whole life being prepared to do; to me, it would be unfair to deny him what looks increasingly to be a very short reign. If a referendum were held after the death of King Charles III, I'd plump for Baltic-style democracy any time. I never thought I'd actually see the day when I became a republican, but it looks as though that day has come. Once the House of Windsor loses the two iconic monarchs of the previous 50 years, their duties carried out well and their affairs put in order, I believe it'll be the right time to move on. Until that time, all I can say is - God Save the Queen!
Queen Elizabeth: Reprinted with permission from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Princess Alexandra: Photo by Mark Stewart, reprinted with permission.
Princes William and Harry: Reprinted with permission from HRH The Prince of Wales.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga: Public domain.