Master of his subjects;Book of the week

11th June 1999 at 01:00
ROYAL EDUCATION: Past, Present and Future. By Peter Gordon and Denis Lawton. Frank Cass. pound;25. Edward VI started Latin and Greek at the age of four. How should monarchs be educated today? In the final count, does it make much difference? asks Vernon Bogdanor.

This book, written by two professors of education, asks: how, in a democratic society which values equality of opportunity, should a future sovereign be educated? Unfortunately, however, Royal Education provides no effective answer to this fascinating question.

Instead, we are given an undemanding gallop through the history of how heirs to the throne have been educated from Tudor times to today. The last chapter, which purports to draw "lessons", devotes only 11 pages to the education of the future sovereign. Royal Education is organised on the scissors-and-paste principle, telling us in some detail what we already know. This missed opportunity is a pity, since the issue is of real importance in a society in which the aims of monarchy are once again coming to be questioned.

The education of the future sovereign has probably always reflected the social assumptions of the day. The Tudors were given a rigorous academic education, Edward VI beginning Greek and Latin at the age of four, and displaying promise in philosophy, logic, music and astronomy in his early teens. The story since then is one of declining educational aspiration. The Hanoverians sought to educate their sons as gentlemen, an aim they did not always succeed in achieving. In the l9th century and much of the 20th, the educational programme of the future sovereign became even less demanding.

Any answer to the question of how future sovereigns should be educated must begin, clearly, with a view of where the monarchy is going. During the 20th century, monarchy has been constitutional, the sovereign acting on the advice of ministers, but retaining the Victorian constitutional expert Walter Bagehot's famous trilogy of rights - the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn. The performance of such a role requires that the future sovereign be given a training in state craft.

As the 20th century comes to an end, however, there are signs that the sovereign's constitutional role is gradually being eroded; and, in the 21st century, more emphasis may well come to be placed on the welfare role of the monarchy. With parties of the left increasingly appealing to the affluent majority, and the welfare state being unable to provide for all contingencies, it might, paradoxically, be one of the tasks of the monarchy to ensure that the concerns of underprivileged minorities, ignored by the politicians, are not entirely forgotten.

The Prince of Wales has already done much towards this end, highlighting the problems faced by the young unemployed and by ethnic minorities, while Princess Diana drew attention to the needs of those suffering from Aids and leprosy. The sovereign and the heir to the throne will be increasingly involved in "filling the democratic deficit", in the words of Ben Pimlott, the Queen's biographer. Thus the education of a future sovereign must be education for a welfare role as well as a constitutional one. How is this to be achieved? Royal Education mentions the problem, but then passes on, giving not a clue as to how it is to be solved.

Gordon and Lawton suggest that, in addition to being taught history, economics and theology, future sovereigns should be given a sound moral education, and taught the principles of decision-making. But this raises fundamental questions which are nowhere developed. What, for example, is moral education? How is morality inculcated? Is it best taught or caught? The two pages which Royal Education devotes to the appropriate syllabus for a future sovereign are quite inadequate.

What is clear, however, even from Gordon and Lawton's potted history, is that an academic education is neither necessary nor sufficient for a future sovereign. Perhaps the best educated sovereign England has ever known was James I, a man of real and genuine learning. The outcome was disaster. For, as one commentator has noted, his "theories of hereditary Divine Right plunged his dynasty into darkness and death", while, "The Prince of Wales of his day (Charles I) inherited from his father notions that delivered him to the execu-tioner in Whitehall".

In the 20th century, the future Edward VIII and the future George VI were educated similarly, but with very different results. George VI turned out to be a model constitutional monarch, while Edward VIII not only failed to understand the constitution, but refused to take advice from those who did.

Perhaps the truth, difficult though it is for an academic to admit, is that education makes little difference one way or the other. In the words of that old cynic, Lord Melbourne, tutor to the young Queen Victoria:

"Be not over solicitous about education. It may be able to do much, but it does not do so much as is expected from it. It may mould and direct the character, but it rarely alters it."

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University

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