A prince, too, can do his bit

K.D. Reynolds

  • Power and Place: The Political Consequences of King Edward VII by Simon Heffer
    Weidenfeld, 342 pp, £20.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 297 84220 X
  • A Spirit Undaunted: The Political Role of George VI by Robert Rhodes James
    Little, Brown, 368 pp, £22.50, November 1998, ISBN 0 316 64765 9

Attached as the British have been to their monarchy (even when disliking individual incumbents), they have been curiously reluctant to admit that the institution has any effective powers. At some point, the argument goes, British kings and queens threw off the mantle of political authority and became constitutional figure-heads, leaving politics to the politicians. The date of that moment of emasculation remains vague, but it is always a long time ago, reinforcing the view that the present monarch is a political innocent. The Hanoverian kings were considered in their time to be constitutional monarchs, their powers fettered by Parliament and contrasted with those of their Stuart predecessors (and, naturally, with their Continental counterparts, despots and tyrants all); Victorians tended to view George III as the first constitutional king (disagreement from across the Atlantic notwithstanding): his reign and especially his insanity and confinement were seen as marking a shift of political power towards Parliament. Commentators in the early 20th century took Victoria to be the first constitutional monarch, a view derived in part from Bagehot and the Queen’s own campaign to present herself as a simple widow bearing responsibilities beyond her strength and suffering pomp out of necessity. More recently, there has been a move towards viewing Victoria as the last unconstitutional monarch – so the moment at which the monarchy divested itself, or was stripped, of its political functions carries on rolling forward.

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