John Humphrys: The Price of Privilege?

February 09, 2024, 2:58 PM GMT+0

This column thrives on controversy – in one sense at least. I suggest a proposition and invite your views in the hope that you will argue about it. Unlike many people who are probably much nicer than me, I have to confess that I do not regard arguing as a disagreeable concept. Quite the opposite. I believe it is not just desirable in any democratic system worthy of the description: it is vital. And feel free to argue about that if you will! But what I really want us to argue about this week or (if you prefer) discuss is the disclosure that the King has cancer.

Even as I type those words I sense the reaction of many of you. Perhaps most of you. After all, what’s to discuss? Cancer is a horrible disease and we should all feel great sympathy for the many who fall victim to it whether they be king or commoner. And, of course, you’d be right. So where does the controversy lie? What is there to argue about? And the answer is equally obvious. Charles is more than just a victim. It’s because he is the king and that makes it more than just a big story. It makes it the biggest and any editor who failed to acknowledge that would have been looking for another job before his paper hit the newsstands. Or the websites.

So far… so entirely predictable.

Just as predictable was the huge outpouring of sympathy and good wishes for a speedy recovery from millions of people. It was summed up in a column written by Simon Heffer and published – most unusually – on the front page of the Telegraph under the headline “Knowing he has the support of his people will strengthen his spirits”. Heffer wrote that the king’s diagnosis “has come as a profound shock to his people and can only deepen the bond of fellow feeling that they have developed with our sovereign … The tsunami of goodwill on which the king will be borne during his … battle will be enormous”. Its royal editor Hannah Furness went even further: “In a matter of hours yesterday, the royal family’s world shifted on its axis, and Britain with it.” And the headline over one Mail column read: “Charles, we need you to be OK so that we’re OK”.

Even the reliably left-wing Guardian was sympathetic, though it did allow a letter writer this barbed observation: “News that the king is being treated for cancer has led to an exuberance of royal purple prose, challenging any suggestion that Britain has become less deferential since the death of Queen Elizabeth II.” At first glance its Nicola Jennings cartoon might have seemed deferential too. It showed the King and Queen being driven past a long line of loyal subjects with Charles saying to Camilla: “How nice to see so many people coming out to show their support for me.” On closer inspection it was clear that what the people were actually doing was waiting outside a hospital for an appointment and the placard read: “Long live the King” but “Long live the. NHS”.

That turned out to be a rather prophetic cartoon. In fact, according to Quentin Letts in the Mail it had taken only 25 minutes for “the Left to start politicising the King’s cancer.” In his sights was a political activist called John Smith who had used X (formerly Twitter) to complain that the monarch had not been stuck on an NHS waiting list went on “ to denounce the ‘defunding of public healthcare done by neoliberal governments to enrich the 1 per cent, who the King belongs to’”. In another post he described the monarchy as a ‘cancer on the body politic’.

Also in Letts’ sights was Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror, who had pointed out that two in every five cancer patients urgently referred by a GP do not start treatment within the NHS two-month target and added: “ I wish King Charles a full recovery but there should be no ignoring that many others are not as privileged or fortunate.”

Letts conceded that the pressure group Republic, which campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy, “responded decently, saying ‘cancer is an awful disease and we’re sorry to hear of Charles’s diagnosis. We wish him a speedy recovery.’ “ But he also quoted other Republic online followers who said ‘it’s time he abdicated for the good of his health’ and he posed this question: “Does the very prevalence of cancer not, in fact, legitimise critical scrutiny of the King’s private treatment?”

And this is where the debate seems to have solidified. On one side are those who readily concede that King Charles is clearly entitled to the sympathy and well wishes of everyone but are deeply uneasy that he has been given the sort of privileged treatment that the vast majority of his “subjects” can only dream of. On the other are those who argue that it is preposterous that he should be treated “just like everybody else”.

Should he really be kept waiting for hours on a hard chair in a hospital department for his name to be called? Obviously not. The very suggestion is preposterous.

But is it fair that he should be treated so differently from everybody else? Even Quentin Letts, who has himself lost a brother and a sister to cancer in the past few years, concedes that it is not. Here’s how he puts it:

“I suppose it isn’t fair if by fair we mean that everything must have an equal outcome. But life isn’t fair. Life can be hard. Why did my super-fit siblings die of cancer while I, fat as an old labrador, still live?”

And he accuses the Left of seeking to make political hay out of a diagnosis: “ A physician tells a 75-year-old sovereign that he has cancer and these people accuse the supposedly wicked Tory government of ‘defunding’ an NHS that has never received more money. They spit at Charles’s ‘privilege’. Sorry, but this outrage is forced. It is almost unhinged in its incessant devotion to electoral ends.”

He concedes that “politics matters” but argues that the best politicians understand there is more to life and he quotes Ecclesiastes. When a loved king has been given some rough medical news it should be “a time to cast away stones”.

Many will agree with that but may also point to a rather more hard-headed statistical reality that might concern those who support the very concept of a monarch. YouGov’s figures show that 45% prefer a monarchy, while 31% opt for an elected head of state, and 24% don’t know. Older voters are more emphatically monarchist in both polls. Among younger voters, however, there was a clear preference for replacing the monarchy with an elected head of state.

We can all hope that King Charles makes a swift and full recovery from his cancer. But how will we look back on this period when many conflicting emotions have been so stirred? Will there be a lingering sense of unease about a system that grants such privileges to one individual even when we may find ourselves suffering in a similar way? Or will we accept that there is no realistic alternative?

Do let me know.

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