Royal Bounty makes a strikingly original contribution to a well-worn subject. Most books on the monarchy treat it in connection with the world of high politics and the constitution. Frank Prochaska, however, understands that the civic functions of monarchy, hardly noticed by Bagehot, are as crucial to its working as is its constitutional role. Indeed, as the power of the monarchy has declined, so it has come to emphasise an alternative role based on an alliance with voluntary causes and charities. In 1994, there were nearly 2,000 charitable engagements in which members of the royal family took part. The Prince of Wales alone is patron of 400 organisations and undertakes around 400 engagements a year.
The organisers of charities believe that a single royal appearance is worth around 10 per cent of their annual income, and the monarchy raises far more for charity than it receives from Civil List payments. It is doubtful whether this kind of work could survive translation into a republic.
Linda Colley in Britons traced the origins of the modern monarchy to George III. Prochaska finds the origins of the charitable monarchy to lie also with that much-maligned sovereign. For it was at the end of the 18th century that the habit of giving came to be based less upon individual charity and more on collective effort based upon civic associations.
By the 20th century, the voluntarists were, in A. J. P. Taylor's words, "a great army of busybodies - the active people of England and provided the ground swell of her history". Over the centuries, the crown has become inextricably linked with that "great army of busybodies". "Has there ever," Prochaska asks, "been a more dynamic alliance outside politics in British history?"
In the immediate postwar years, charitable giving and philanthropy seemed to be rendered unnecessary by the development of the welfare state. By the end of the 1960s, Richard Crossman, social services minister in Wilson's Labour government, probably summed up the spirit of the age when he described the philanthropy of the interwar period as an "odious expression of social oligarchy and churchy bourgeois attitudes".
State control, however, failed to solve the problem of welfare; and it has led, Prochaska believes, to a decline in mutual aid and indeed in the whole idea of civil society as a barrier between the individual and the state. State planning, moreover, has been the great ideological casualty of postwar politics, being replaced in the 1980s by a market philosophy which, however, had just as little space for the notion of civil society. Margaret Thatcher, admittedly, once declared of her government that "the voluntary movement - lies at the heart of all our social welfare provision". Yet civil society remains, in Prochaska's words "a half-way house of free associations, which mitigated the atomising effects of arbitrary, bureaucratic government, whether of the left or the right. In this half-way house between state and society, between socialism and the market, the monarchy had a room with a view."
Royal Bounty opens up a topic which has, until now, hardly been noticed. It is beautifully written and has been lavishly illustrated by Yale University Press, a true prince among publishers. This is a book which will survive long after the current furore over royal revelations has been forgotten. "Barring cataclysm or self-destruction," Prochaska concludes, "the monarchy is only likely to be in real danger when the begging letters cease to arrive at Buckingham Palace." He has written the best book on the monarchy to have appeared for many years.
Vernon Bogdanor is reader in government, University of Oxford.
Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy
Author - Frank Prochaska
ISBN - 0 300 06453 3
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 315