ON ROYALTY: A VERY POLITE INQUIRY INTO SOME STRANGELY RELATED FAMILIES
By Jeremy Paxman
PublicAffairs, 370 pages, $26.95
There are many reasons to be ashamed of being an Englishman, but the main one is the continued existence of our constitutional monarchy: Britain is one of the most secular countries in the modern world, yet its people are still reigned over by a queen deemed to have a divine right to do so.
With that divine right, needless to say, comes an awful lot of divine dough. The man who is to be our next king is an ill-tempered ignoramus who has done not one honest day’s work. Yet he can afford to employ someone to squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush—even royal teeth need cleaning after one has breakfasted on whichever of the eight eggs one’s early-morning cook has boiled best for one.
The absurdities of the rich will always be with us, of course. But the big argument against the monarchy is not that they have all the riches, but that their very existence puts a stop to a lot of other people getting rich too. The American Dream may for most Americans be nothing more than a dream, but at least the reverie is available to you enviable lot. For us Brits, the strictures of the class system, which is topped out by the queen and her many hangers-on, ensure that we are far less productive than just about any other industrialized nation. Why try hard, when no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to get to the top?
Nonsense, says Jeremy Paxman in his entertaining, unenlightening new book. A normal child of the postwar settlement years, Mr. Paxman grew up wanting to abolish Britain’s monarchy. But there comes a time, he says, when you must put away childish things, and although his republicanism took longer to fade away than other aspects of his “teenage truculence,” fade away it has. It’s an argument of sorts, though rather less convincing than the one that says Mr. Paxman—a journalistic Rottweiler when it comes to dealing with politicians—has changed his mind simply because the royals have befriended him (or, depending on your point of view, bought him off). Certainly the liveliest bits of his book are those passages wherein he describes amicable weekends at one of Prince Charles’ several country piles (where one’s underpants, no matter how disgracefully soiled, no matter how well concealed from one’s valet’s view, will be washed and pressed and returned pristine the next morning).
But the fact that Mr. Paxman finds the prince likable—just as I warmed to the prince’s father, Philip, when he simple-mindedly let slip to another journalist that his wife isn’t interested in anything “[u]nless it eats grass and farts”—is neither here nor there. That Elizabeth Windsor has worked hard at her job does not mean that the job needs doing. In fact, it not only does not need doing—if Britain is to thrive in the frosty uplands of the global market, it needs not doing.
And Jeremy Paxman’s Very Polite Inquiry is too polite by half.
Christopher Bray, a biographer and journalist, is film critic of The First Post. He lives in London.