Robert Gray is impressed by a book that adds to our understanding of monarchy
Royal Bounty:The Making of a Welfare Monarchy by Frank Prochaska.Yale University Press, £19.95
FRANK PROCHASKA HAS achieved what one might have thought impossible: a book that sheds new light on the British monarchy.
His subject the involvement of the royal family in charitable endeavour over the last 200 years may have seemed too dull for popular writers on royal affairs, and too unpromising to attract academic historians. Prochaska, though, is both engaging and scholarly. Moreover, as an American (though living in London), he is able to contemplate the monarchy without missing the glaringly obvious.
He is, for example, curtly dismissive of the notion that the Crown exercises any significant influence on affairs of state, and equally sceptical of Walter Bagehot's emphasis on the monarchy's appeal to the imagination.
The dazzle of the throne, Prochaska argues, has obscured the more essential workaday contacts between the Crown and its subjects. Faced with the decay of notions of Divine Right the practice of touching for the King's Evil was abolished by George I the royal family discovered its practical raison d'etre in its association with voluntary good works.
On the one hand royal patronage of charitable societies has unfailingly delivered increased subscriptions; on the other it has cemented an alliance between the monarchy and what AJP Taylor called "the great army of busybodies" who have been the motive force of national life.
It was the uncalculating benevolence of George III and Queen Charlotte which first suggested the possibility of a new relation between Crown and subjects. And if their sons, Queen Victoria's wicked uncles, were a good deal less benevolent, at least they recognised that the furtherance of charity had become an inescapable duty.
George IV spent more on horses and stabling and of course infinitely more on building than on good works, but he understood that the association of his name with charities brought rich dividends of loyalty at minimal cost and effort. In the next reign Queen Adelaide turned King William IV, formerly an unblushing defender of slavery, into a philanthropic exemplar. Of the other brothers, none was more aware of the reciprocal benefits of charity than Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent. "Few men could have had more free dinners," observes Prochaska, "Few men were more in need of them."
The Duchess of Kent brought up the young Victoria with a sense of social obligation which never slackened, not even in the period after Prince Albert's death, when she withdrew from state duties. Politicians fretted because her absence reflected badly on them; the Queen rested secure in the cheers that greeted her charitable appearances. In this she remained faithful to Albert's vision, for the Prince Consort, alarmed by his sense of the fragility of the monarchy's position, had driven himself into an early grave through his dedication to the people's welfare.
Queen Victoria's Jubilee, Diamond Jubilee, and then the Coronation of Edward VII were all treated as opportunities for special charitable effort. If Edward VII was hardly open-handed in his own more donations than George IV Prochaska notes that his stud fees cost him more than his charities he was still an active patron, who proved adept at extracting funds from rich friends such as Ernest Cassel and Thomas Lipton, both of whom he rewarded with knighthoods. Beginning while he was still Prince of Wales, he was able to marshal the whole nation to support the King's Fund for London hospitals.
King George V and King George VI, still more their consorts Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, enlarged the philanthropic tradition; and the present royal family has not failed in this duty. Scandals notwithstanding, the Princess of Wales and Duchess of York have remained in demand as patrons. It is only strange that Prince Charles appears to believe that he is forging a new role for the monarchy, when so much of his thinking echoes that of Prince Albert.
Significantly, the only monarch who proved unreliable in his dedication to charitable work was Edward VIII. As Prince of Wales he expressed doubts about the value of voluntary activity; and showed his impatience by kicking the superintendent's dog on a visit to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary.
As King he was too preoccupied with his mistress to find time for beneficence. He created the worst possible impression when he refused to open a hospital in Aberdeen on grounds that he was in mourning for his father, only to be spotted meeting Mrs Simpson in the town on the day in question. As Prochaska observes, when Edward VIII said "Something must he done" about the unemployed, it was perfectly clear that someone else would have to do it.
There have always been pure souls to object to the snobbery and social climbing associated with Crown patronage of charity. In the 19th century the radical John Wade railed against the philanthropy of George IV as mere ostentation; the Crown itself, he insisted, was the first beneficiary of the nation's charity. In the 20th century the socialist Beatrice Webb despised voluntary work as an establishment ploy designed to hold up an inevitable and necessary collectivist advance.
By corollary, the visceral fear of "Bolshevism" manifested by George V and George VI betrayed their awareness that the crown would lose its main practical role if the state assumed total responsibility for welfare and the arts. The national Lottery presents another threat though the Duke of Edinburgh's lobbying on behalf of the National Maritime Museum suggests that the royal family may influence the expenditure of the proceeds.
Prochaska points out that the welfare state implies a patronage every bit as pernicious as the concept of noblesse oblige. It encourages dependence without fostering humanity, whereas voluntary work, however insufficient to the task in hand, promotes contact between affluence and need.
Today, as the financial and moral limitations of the NHS and social services become increasingly apparent, so that even the leader of the Labour Party speaks of "the citizenship of contribution", the royal family may discover fresh opportunity to occupy the middle ground between the government and the governed. Better a flawed benevolence than no benevo lence at all.
Frank Prochaska's analysis is always fair, and consistently leavened by good anecdote and sharp comment.
His book, beautifully produced by Yale University Press, is essential reading for anyone interested either in the past or the future of the monarchy.