BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 24.11.02

Film: Film on the monarchy. Gloria de Piero reports on a survey of Labour MPs. Does the monarchy need radical reform?

GLORIA DE PIERO: It was just a few months ago that the nation celebrated the Queen's fifty year reign over us. But a poll last week showed even lower public support for the royals than at the time of Diana's death. An embarrassing court case, allegations of rape and rumours that you're raising cash on the side, are bound to spoil the festivities. PAUL FLYNN MP: It's an extraordinary end to a wonderful year when the royal family, the monarchy, had been promoted and the press and public had been very kind, but suddenly it all collapsed in ruins and we had these stories that are more reminiscent of events in a porn movie, or of the fencing that takes place in an Arthur Daly shop than a group of people that we are meant to look up to and respect. DE PIERO: On The Record asked 101 back bench Labour MPs "how much, if at all, do you believe that recent events have damaged the royal family?" 56 said a great deal, 36 said a little, just 9 said not at all. Even the best parties have to come to an end and this one ended pretty abruptly, aided by the lurid headlines detailing the unconventional comings and goings at the House of Windsor. It's not just members of the public that are getting fed up, many on the government side of the House are now saying the monarchy has to change. We asked our sample of Labour MPs "which of four options comes closest to your preference for the future role of the monarchy?" The 'no change' option was favoured by just 7 of the 101 and some of those supporting the status quo seemed to do so for pragmatic, rather than principled, reasons. KATE HOEY MP: I don't find any appetite for any constitutional change relating to the monarchy in my constituency. Most of my constituents would much prefer us to be worrying about, you know, they're worried about how to get a job, how to get their children educated, how to get round London, that kind of thing, it really isn't an issue, DE PIERO: The level of support for the Jubilee led the Prime Minister, privately of course, to express his unease at such enthusiastic embracing of a deferential age. The Jubilee year provided the perfect stage to explore ideas about a modern monarchy for the Labour affiliated Fabian Society. They're discussing all the options - leave it alone, make cosmetic changes, restrict it to a ceremonial role or declare a republic. MICHAEL JACOBS: I do think that people will look at this and over the last few weeks and think maybe reform is the option that at least we should be properly debating now. I think some people will feel there simply needs to be some kinds of cleansing process, that something rather serious has happened, and there needs to be, something has to be done and that I think a lot of people in the public, but also a lot of parliamentarians will now be feeling. DE PIERO: Yes it was spectacular but it was expensive too. Some of the cost of the Jubilee - nearly half a million pounds - was borne by the civil list - that's the �7.9 million a year we give to the Queen. One of the options we asked MPs to consider was cutting this back which in turn would reduce the money available for the Queen's extended family, for her staff and for a suitably regal lifestyle. This might help to modernise the royals but it would leave untouched the Queen's constitutional role. Asked if the monarchy's constitutional powers should remain but the civil list be reduced significantly, 15 of the 101 MPs we spoke to agreed. JACOBS: It's essentially the kind of reform that would leave the monarchy more or less unchanged, so it would be things that would gain the monarchy some degree of public support that it may have lost, for example, over the last few weeks. So for example, reducing the number of members of the royal family who receive the so called civil list money, money from the tax payer and clarifying their duties and roles. DE PIERO: Laws devised in the 16th Century still govern the way the monarch reigns and that's what prompts some MPs to say the royals must move with the times TONY WRIGHT MP: We've known for years the kind of things that we needed to do to the monarchy to bring it up to date, and make it work in a democratic age. I mean I can give you the whole list, I mean it means stopping the discrimination against women, it means stopping discrimination against Catholics, it means culturally sorting out the, you know, the double barrel flummery that surrounds the royal family. DE PIERO: A large number of the MPs that we spoke to expressed a desire to reform the monarchy radically and strip away the Queen's Constitutional powers. Among other things that would mean no royal assent to laws, no Queen's Speech to announce the legislative programme, and no Parliamentary oath of allegiance - keep the pomp and circumstance but lose the political power. PROFESSOR STEPHEN HASELER: The monarchy in this country is above the law in the sense that power and authority technically flows from the crown downwards, the government is Her Majesty's Government, the courts are Her Majesty's Courts, judges take oaths of allegiance to the Queen, so in a very theoretical sense, power flows down and authority flows down from the crown, and that is quite important in the way the country is run. DE PIERO: Political power in this country is formally exercised by the monarch through Parliament. It's Her Majesty's Parliament and that's why she announces the government's legislative programme. It's this constitutional power that grates with a large number of MPs. ACTUALITY. DE PIERO: We asked "should the monarchy's constitutional powers be cut but the ceremonial role remain?" and 44 out of the 101 Labour MPs agreed. JANE GRIFFITHS MP: We live in a parliamentary democracy and I find it difficult to see why a hereditary monarch should have political power effectively, which is what she does have. I have no difficulty with the way she exercises the power she has as head of state but I'm not sure that as she's a hereditary monarch she ought to be doing so. It's old fashioned in its feel and I certainly find as a Member of Parliament, I feel slightly demeaned by having to trot along and listen to her majesty. Her majesty I'm sure is a wonderful person but I have to trot along and listen to her, it' not the government. DE PIERO: Exercised through the Prime Minister, the Queen has prerogative powers - remnants of the immunities and authorities possessed by feudal lords - so in some matters the Prime Minister can act without consulting parliament. PROFESSOR HASELER: Two aspects of the royal prerogative powers are extremely controversial actually, but are there and are real. One is the ability for the Queen to declare war without reference to parliament, another is the ability of the Queen or the monarch to ratify, not only sign, but ratify treaties. FLYNN: We are in an extraordinarily unhappy position about declaring war and making other major decisions. We flatter ourselves that we're a sophisticated democracy, but in these most important of all decisions, MPs have no voice and no vote and that is a nonsense and a constitutional outrage that we have to correct, if we're going to become a modern democracy, DE PIERO: This concern about the constitutional role of the monarch is compounded by the fact that the Crown is handed down the generations, through the male side of the family of course. A surprising number of Labour MPs are prepared to commit an Act of Treason by calling for a Republic. They believe it's simply unacceptable to choose a head of state by birth rather than election. In our survey of 101 Labour MPs we asked if they felt that the monarchy should be abolished and replaced by a republic - 35 said yes. FLYNN: What we need as a democratic country is the ability for everyone to have the chance of being head of state and to have a head of state who will take on a Prime Minister who is acting in her or his own interests and against the interests of the country, so we do need this strong character, but I believe choosing it on the hereditary principle is all wrong DE PIERO: This feeling is intensified by concerns about the next in line to the throne. On the weekend of the Countryside March a letter to the Prime Minister was leaked in which Prince Charles agreed with the Cumbrian farmer who said "if we as a group were black or gay, we wouldn't be victimised". MPs are concerned that the heir to the throne has a habit of expressing views - particularly on rural issues - and that this blurs the line between head of state and political participant. FLYNN: I think Charles is a well meaning but deeply unhappy man who's had a tortured marriage and now spends his time as Mr Angry of Highgrove, writing letters, some of which are very sensible, some of which are eccentric and some of which are barmy and unfortunately he's put himself in a position where he cannot be monarch and be both above politics and be intimately involved in dozens of political issues, the two things are not compatible. WRIGHT: He strikes me as being someone who is both you know decent and dotty in equal measure. Now that's what happens when you have a monarchy, you take what comes along. I think you get in to dangerous waters though when people do start thinking they know what you believe in and when you do start sounding off about issues of the day. So I'm not surprised that it was said, whether true or not, that the Queen was not amused by some of those letters from disgruntled of Highgrove, because if you go down that route, you put the monarchy into peril. DE PIERO: Labour MPs seem convinced that the party's over for the royals. In our survey of 101 backbenchers a massive 79 said that the monarchy should have no constitutional power or even be abolished. With this level scepticism about the monarchy brought to a head by the recent royal revelations it could be a while before the Windsors need to get the party poppers out again.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.