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The Monarchy and Mr Paxman.

On Royalty. Jeremy Paxman. Viking. [pounds sterling]20.00. v + 370 pages. ISBN 0-670-91662-5.

For readers within the United Kingdom the author needs no introduction. For those overseas, his name might not resonate. Mr Paxman is one of BBC Television's luminaries, a journalist skilled as an interviewer of politicians who ruthlessly searches for the truth. He is also something of a writer about politics, fishing and the English. By printing his name in letters about one and a quarter inches high on the dust-jacket (the title is about half that size) the publishers obviously hoped to capitalise on that fame rather than on his fitness to write about 'royalty'. Indeed, one is never quite sure what his fitness for writing on such a wide topic is other than a penchant for the telling phrase and the sarcastic aside. (He follows the example of the late and great tele-don, A.J.P. Taylor, who never let facts or historical objectivity stand in the way of a witticism, let alone a sneer.)

One difficulty with this book is that it tackles such a wide topic. It discusses various monarchs and monarchies, from that of The Netherlands to that of Albania. Indeed, for several pages the author seems to have become obsessed with ex-king Zog and his consort. Mainly he is concerned with the British Monarchy. Because Mr Paxman is not an historian or a constitutional lawyer or a biographer, his basis for writing this book boils down to a desire to let others follow him as he sits in judgement on monarchy, royalty, the British Monarchy, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, and the Royal Family in general.

From the outset Mr Paxman makes his aim clear and it is an aim which is restated frequently--all too frequently, perhaps--throughout the book. He seeks to understand, as a frightfully well educated and most intelligent chap, why 'the kings and queens of Britain and some of the other monarchies of Europe have come to exercise the hold they have upon our imagination' and by 'our' he means even his own. Elsewhere he states that 'Monarchy is mumbo-jumbo' (surely a rather racist remark for an employee of the politically correct BBC), that it is a system of government that offends members of the intelligentsia, such as himself, and that it has no place in what he calls, a 'proper democracy'.

A second theme on which he adumbrates is the power, or powerlessness of the Queen, because in the end the book is about the Queen and the British Monarchy. The difficulty here is that the Queen's powers as head of state and part of Parliament require a subtle treatment at the hands of someone who is an expert in the history and development of the Monarchy and Parliament, as well as in constitutional law. Mr Paxman is none of these, but he does understand the workings of British government today and the very nature of power. Political power is shared among so many people--civil servants, ministers, newspaper editors, the Queen, pressure groups, lobbyists, wealthy supporters of political parties, and sometimes even MPs. Above them all sits the E.U. and its bureaucrats. Influence is a form of power and experience enhances influence. The Queen's work is in private so when Mr Paxman makes his assertions they are nothing more than the thoughts of an observer.

From time to time the author rejoices that, in his mind, the Queen 'has no power' and yet he sometimes seems to criticise her for not having more power, not being more outspoken in the day to day operation of government. He seems to want his constitutional cake and to eat it as well for he would be among he first to howl if it came out that the Queen had, for example, forced the Cabinet to change its mind in foreign relations or if she alone had responsibility for all honours (not a bad idea). Because the discussion about power lacks subtlety and information it has a somewhat petulant tone.

One other aspect that should be mentioned is the alarming number of errors. Fiji is a republic, not a kingdom; William III did not 'seize' the Throne; there was no 'very long history of Papal encouragement ... to overthrow English kings'; the Queen is not a Presbyterian when in Scotland but merely attends the Presbyterian church; only Bishop Juxon celebrated Holy Communion, not he and Charles I; William IV did not 'defy Parliament' when he chose his own Prime Minister but merely exercised his rights as understood at the time; the Queen is not 'head' of the Church of England; the title, 'Defender of the Faith' has nothing to do with the Church of England; the Greek Monarchy was created in 1832, not on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; Henry VIII did not 'create' the Church of England; sovereigns were canonised recently when Charles I was given his own collect and readings by the General Synod, when the Russian Church canonised the last Czar and Czarina and when Rome beatified the last Austrian Emperor, Kaiser Karl; George V not only called for a national government in 1931 but, before the Great War called a conference to sort out the Irish problem; the Queen has never 'signed bills' as this is done by Royal Commissioners; there are no 'German origins' for the Royal Family; Edward II was not 'disembowelled'; the modern royal funeral began not in 1910 but in 1901; young criminals are no longer held 'at Her Majesty's pleasure'; the Bavarian and Austrian thrones were not 'toppled' in 1848; and so on.

One learns nothing new from this book and reads much that has been written over and over again. The author set out to shine the brilliant light of dispassionate reason on what is to him an unreasonable institution and in the end only illuminated his own prejudices and limitations. If one is interested in the private opinions of Mr Paxman on the Monarchy then this is the book to read. The snide comments, the sweeping and

often sarcastic judgements, the assertions with no supporting evidence, the sneering condescension of a man firmly rooted in his own self-esteem, the lack of historical perspective and understanding of constitutional procedures before 2006, all make this a book to miss. Instead of analysis Mr Paxman, like so many others, falls back on interviews and chit-chat about what the Queen eats for breakfast or whether or not Prince Philip has or has not had extramarital affairs. We still await a balanced and full discussion of the work and role of the British Sovereign within our Parliamentary system. This is not it.

Dr James Munson is the author of Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV and of Victoria: Portrait of a Queen.
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Title Annotation:'On Royalty'
Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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