WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: Sir Bernard Jenkin says that despite rocky relations with MPs, it is Brexit that cements Boris in power Copy
Sir Bernard Jenkin MP asks why do the Brits retain a monarchy, and how should we be judged?
At the time of writing this article, the Oprah Winfrey interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle already feels like recent history, rather than a current event, despite the fact that Buckingham Palace issued their response barely more than a week ago.
It still touches profoundly on the question of not just our own national identity, but on what other nations feel about the history and nature of their relationship with the United Kingdom. It has fuelled the debate in the Commonwealth about the role of our Queen as head of state.
Let’s all start by agreeing that monarchy is something of a historical relic from a past age, something that feels to be fundamentally an anachronism in the modern world. It seems to be the antithesis of democracy and contrary to the principle of equality. So why are we Brits so attached to our monarch?
The Royal Family is generally loved by a large majority of the British people, and Her Majesty the Queen has herself acquired an almost mythical status in her own lifetime. Her personal integrity and values are evident from the way she has conducted her entire life, which she has devoted to this nation and its people. While in future, the succession may raise some questions, her influence on the institution of the monarchy, and the affections she has inspired for it, will remain more indelible than many republicans hope.
There are far more important things for UK government to be doing than to embark on a journey of reform into the constitutional unknown. It would open up far more problems to resolve than presently exist. With what would we replace our Sovereign? A political appointee, like Germany? Or an elected president like the US or France. Either would be a profound change most Brits would prefer not to contemplate. Members of the Royal family have failings like every family, and they are painfully punished by public scrutiny of them, but selfless public service is ingrained into most them, at least far beyond what is seen in most politicians.
For the new global UK, the monarchy is a mixed blessing. It promotes a false image of a romantic but backward-looking nation that the modern world has left behind: of steam engines, Hogwarts magic and the fantasy of James Bond. It reinforces a negative image of inherited wealth and privilege, and an imprint of empire on many countries that understandably stirs the deepest resentments.
Conversely, other world leaders who meet Her Majesty are profoundly struck by the depth of her knowledge, her wisdom and her sharp perception of those she meets. Prince Charles will bring different qualities, but there is no reason why his reign should not also win respect and loyalty: for his lifetime commitment to the environment, for example.
Every citizen of the Commonwealth and every nation will have to decide for themselves whether Meghan Markle’s comments should have any lasting consequences. It is typical of the Royal family that they should be reticent about being drawn into public comment about it, but I am glad Prince Harry’s older brother, Prince William, insisted, “We are very much not a racist family.” This exemplifies the attitude which the vast majority of Brits aspire to reflect in our own behaviour.
Fellow citizens of the world, you do not need to take that from just him or me. Just read the words of Trevor Philips, descended from black slaves in Guyana, born in the UK as the youngest of ten children, who has pursued an outstanding career in politics and journalism. He was awarded OBE (Officer of Order of the British Empire) in 1999, appointed Chair of our Commission for Racial Equality in 2003. He wrote in The Times on Friday about the Oprah interview.
While the UK is now accused of being a racist country, he points out, “Most of the finger pointing comes from the United States, a country where young black men are frequently gunned down by white police officers; where black families on average have one tenth of the wealth of white households; and where, outside work, people of different colours seldom mix.”
While the UK has been accused of being a racist country, he remarks, “As for our European neighbours, aside from tiny Malta, people of colour in every EU country are more likely to report racial harassment than here in Britain; rates are over twice as high in Germany, Italy and Ireland.” He laments, “Meghan and Harry blew the chance to normalise diversity within the royal family — an epic fail in a country where we have more people of colour in high ministerial office than the whole of the European Union put together” – and the favourite for the next PM is our Asian Chancellor.
He wants us to accept that “the reality of our modern world is a struggle for understanding between the past and the present, of failed attempts at reconciliation, of trade-offs between justice and tribal self-interest.” He quotes Nelson Mandela: “let your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” I hope you and your government can judge the UK in that same spirit.