An argument thatâ€™s often put forward by people who support the institution of the British monarchy is that the monarch and his or her family are apolitical; that is, they can rise above party politics and lead through dint of example and charisma. An elected presidential figurehead, by contrast, would inevitably be drawn into party politics. Names would have to be put forward; manifestos drawn up. We are better off without any of that, monarchists argue. The monarch and her family are popular, well liked; a force for national unity.
The fact that the occupants of a royal limousine were recently mobbed – and, allegedly, to some degree physically assaulted – surely does severe damage to that argument. The relevant counterfactual is this: if last Thursday that car had contained a figurehead president, would he or she have been mobbed in the same way? I reckon many people will find themselves answering yes to that question. And if thatâ€™s what you believe, then Iâ€™d suggest you jettison any belief you might have had that a royal family is better at unifying the nation than an elected president would be. At least consider the possibility that a president wouldn’t do worse.
There are some other things to think about as well. The second-in-line to the British throne is getting married next spring. The government wasted no time in deciding that this event should be celebrated with full spectacle: the location is Westminster Abbey; an extra national holiday is planned for the day. It seems very unlikely that a nation would do any of this for a president, let alone his or her grandson: the thinking has to be that the royal wedding will be bread and circuses popular; a unifying event. But will it be? Thereâ€™s some polling on this. Only one in four thinks that the government should spend any extra money on the royal wedding. Plenty of people think that the monarchy should modernise. The most interesting figure in the Independentâ€™s recent piece on the popularity of the monarchy is that around about two thirds of the D and E socioeconomic groups now say that the monarchy should modernise. I donâ€™t see much bread and circuses potential there, given that ‘modernising’ is code for shrinking the spectacle. And one illusion about the royal family – that it can command at least a minimum of deference wherever it goes – has been shattered. Those who want to maintain the illusion will probably make an effort to show that the paint can throwers were asocial hoodlums, and altogether unrepresentative. Iâ€™m not sure itâ€™ll work.