When Charter 88 was founded, six years ago, the issue of the monarchy was conspicuously absent from the programme of political and constitutional reform which it put forward. The omission was deliberate and could hardly have been otherwise. To embark on a campaign to modernize the archaic but formidable British state without considering what to do about the headship of that state would have been impossible. The response was firm and clear. The Chartists looked this problem straight in the eye and passed by on the other side. Marina Warner, in this new collection,footnote＊ explains frankly what happened:
The founder members wanted to campaign for the reform of British democracy, they were acting on the urgent need to rebuild institutions, but the taboo surrounding the royal head of state was keenly felt. It was important to wait for the right moment. . .(p. 212).
By May 1993 it seemed that that moment had come, and Charter 88 staged its conference on ‘The Monarchy, the Constitution, and the People’. Most of the usual suspects were rounded up, together with a sprinkling of royalists, and most of their contributions are brought together in this book.
That the climate of opinion about the monarchy had changed so dramatically in less than five years owed little or nothing to the constitutional reformers who had so carefully avoided the issue. Still less was it the work of the tiny minority of avowed republicans in Britain. They, if anything, were even more pessimistic about the likelihood of any really significant shift in the position and standing of the British monarchy. Little more than a year before Charter 88 was launched, Tom Nairn had published his brilliant study of ‘Britain and its Monarchy’, The Enchanted Glass. It is a thoroughly republican work, but in it, as in so much contemporary radical writing, aspirations are sharply separated from expectations. ‘[I]n an immediate sense, one might as well demand a lowering of the British annual rainfall as ask for “the abolition of the
[O]ne thing about it is obvious, and unchallengeable: its popularity. Its unique place and appeal depend upon a strong popular support going far beyond mere acceptance. . .Permanent and almost unshakeable adoration. . .seems to be the happy lot of the British Crown.
But in 1993 he told the conference: ‘We are only debating the future of the monarchy because it has none’ (p. 151)—as resoundingly firm an opening for a speech as you could hope to hear.
What had happened in between to produce this remarkable volte-face? In a sense the answer is: nothing at all. The Queen was still on her throne, still opening hospitals (occasionally—closures being more common in the 1990s, but not usually marked by a ceremony), still visiting Canada and Australia, still reading the Speech From the Throne. There had been no uprising, literal or even metaphorical, against the monarchy, and no formal change in the monarch’s ‘constitutional’ position. But Tom Nairn put his finger on the real change that had taken place: