I wonder whether our Prime Minister is historically minded enough to have compared himself lately with Stanley Baldwin? When Mr Blair was told that the Prince of Wales intended to marry Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, would his first thought have been of what starchy old Stan went through in 1936, when a King of England wanted to marry his divorced mistress? Would he have recalled that, then, such a thing was deemed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and respectable society to be impossible? Would he have considered advising the Queen that, like Edward VIII, Prince Charles could not be crowned King if he chose to marry? I doubt it.
Or, Mr Blair might have seen Baldwin as an aberration, and himself as moving in the best traditions of the English constitution in advising the Queen to approve the marriage. Even if the Church of England had a serious primate (which it manifestly does not), he could comfortably be told to go to hell were he to raise any objections about the intentions of his future Supreme Governor. After all, the Church of England was invented to allow a divorced king to marry his mistress: if that isn’t a precedent, what is? Moreover, the people of England are usually not in a periodic fit of morality; it has subsequently been shown that Baldwin and Archbishop Lang’s interpretation of public opinion was either wilfully or accidentally wrong. Letters released in 2003 showed an overwhelming clamour from the public for Edward to have been allowed to marry Mrs Simpson. Indeed, there was not really any constitutional bar to it, merely a bar formed by prejudice.
That, too, was what had held back the Prince and Mrs Parker Bowles. The public’s prejudice about her is preposterous, hypocritical and canting. While many of them desert the mothers or fathers of their children, break up other people’s marriages and generally make a mockery of their own, they revile the Duke and future Duchess of Cornwall for similar misconduct. They do this, of course, because of their hysterical attachment to the memory of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, whose sainthood cannot be long postponed. No: none of the impediments to the marriage was constitutional, but merely concerned with that most unconstitutional of forces, public opinion. And, since the question hinged upon public opinion in its most bigoted, ignorant and deranged state, no doubt it was felt that the time had come when a risk could justifiably be taken.
Indeed, the only bending of the constitution came in the Prime Minister’s agreement — or, for all we know, suggestion — of the titles by which Mrs Parker Bowles is to be known after her marriage. Legally, she will be Princess of Wales, and it is to be hoped that sticklers for propriety and intellectual rigour will refer to her as that. The morganatic marriage remains, after all, alien to our law. The Duchess of Cornwall nonsense — which I revealed to Spectator readers three years ago as her likely handle after a marriage — is purely to appease a public for whom there can only ever be one Princess of Wales. Mr Blair himself presumably couldn’t give a stuff what a member of what he regards as an increasingly irrelevant royal family is to be called. But he will be glad to have helped the Windsors through a difficult passage (as he so memorably did in 1997) and will be even gladder that, at no cost to himself, he has once more put them in his debt.
Nor, one must suppose, will it trouble Mr Blair whether the intention to style Mrs Parker Bowles Princess Consort on her husband’s accession is fulfilled. He will be long gone by then, and it will fall to one of his successors to finesse that difficulty. The Prince’s so-called friends have hinted ever since last week’s announcement that, once the time comes, there will be no obstacles to a Queen Camilla. What they mean by this is that, with the present Queen displaying her late mother’s robustness, it may be another 20 years before the question has to be broached. Much can happen in that time, including the public warming to Mrs Parker Bowles and forgetting they ever thought she was the spawn of Satan, or, at least, finding another target for their irrational and impertinent narrow-mindedness. Certainly, it is a constitutional absurdity that Mrs Parker Bowles should not be Queen when the time comes. But whether she is or not will depend on what the Prime Minister of the time advises the new King is politically possible.
Meanwhile, since this government never does something for nothing, what has Mr Blair hoped to gain by endorsing the constitutional contortions deemed necessary to let this union take place? For a start, he has bought the goodwill of the Prince of Wales, at least for the medium term. He will no doubt subtly erode the remaining authority of the monarchy by applying an invisible brake to the Queen’s willingness to exercise the powers invented for her great-great-grandmother by Walter Bagehot. With some measures that relate to her Coronation Oath coming up — notably the European constitution — that could be very useful to Mr Blair. To judge from Her Majesty’s bizarre Christmas broadcast two months ago, which seemed to be addressed to about 3 per cent of her subjects and to reflect a country peopled entirely by ethnic minorities, Mr Blair has already got the Sovereign pretty well onside. This latest episode will not have harmed him in that direction either.
With the Deputy Prime Minister losing no opportunity to sneer at the Prince of Wales and his bride — as in his elephantine remarks about the marriage leaving them less time to go fox-hunting — and other members of the Cabinet overt republicans, Mr Blair now has an opportunity to impose the final emasculation upon the monarchy. There has long been a debate even among moderate leftists about the Queen’s reserve powers. Why, they ask, should she have the right to grant or refuse a dissolution of Parliament? And why is so much still done in the name of the Crown, when the trend is for extensive politicisation of hitherto impartial public institutions? Doesn’t modernisation, which has already destroyed the House of Lords, have one final and inevitable demand? Mr Blair should seize his chance while the public is still foaming about evil Camilla. For once they realise she is a perfectly good sort, and would make a superb Queen, it will be too late to put the Windsors in what New Labour thinks is their place.
Simon Heffer is a Daily Mail columnist.