Universal rejoicing at the news of the royal engagement may not be shared in one corner of the kingdom: Highgrove. In polls commissioned to mark the announcement, Britons now seem to take a leap-frog view of the succession. According to Sunday’s ICM survey in the News of the World, 64 per cent of Britons want Prince William, rather than his father, to become king when the queen dies. ICM also found that fewer than one person in five wanted the crown to pass to Charles and Camilla. Meanwhile a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times found that 44 per cent of people thought Charles should make way for his son to become the next king, against 37 per cent who thought he should not.
Of course, this is very unlikely to happen. Even if Brenda shows the same dismaying longevity as her mother, and pants on for another twenty-odd years, one may expect an octogenarian Prince of Wales to succeed her, assuming that he hasn’t already gone off himself to muse with the great beanstalk in the sky. At that point even William would be knocking fifty, and would quite probably be on the same spiral into pottiness that has marked his father’s long wait for the throne. By then there will no doubt be a new generation of briefly photogenic Windsors to slaver over.
To try introducing democracy to the hereditary ‘principle’, as these polls do, seems as hopeful as trying to cross a manatee with a camel. There is nonetheless a method of determining the head of state that conforms to what the Greeks called isonomia, political equality. Why not select him or her by lottery, on appointment, say, for a three-year term? Sortition was used to staff public offices in ancient Athens, as well as for the past 800 years or so, in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions, for jury empanelment.
The objection will instantly be made that such a system could propel any old tit into the purple. But, of course, ‘any old tit’ is the system we already have. Or rather: anyone within a rather tightly banded demographic. The head of state’s functions are, it is true, largely symbolic, and it is not clear that they could not be discharged by a house-trained basset hound, or a stuffed owl, though there are some areas where the monarch still has real power, such as the issuing of Prerogative Orders-in-Council or appointing a government. Monarchists often flip-flop between arguing that the queen has no real power; and that since she does have power in these areas, any old bozo won’t do. But then, for democrats, these are precisely the areas where accountability rather than a rabbit’s foot seems called for.
At least it’s easy to agree with monarchists that symbolism matters. Charles or William will ‘represent’ the nation as a white, multi-millionaire, Protestant, public-school educated scion of the oldest of old money. And this is the great advantage of a lottery. The unthinkability of a black or openly lesbian or atheist head of state could dissolve before the vagaries of chance. It’s longer odds than Charles staggering on to his coronation. But at least we’d be spared more of his misty eco-feudalism.