Why we need the Queen

What's unusual is the role the monarchy plays as part of the national brand.

 

The Queen, we are told, is more popular than ever. And why shouldn't she be?  Thanks to her longevity (and her father's premature death) there's an extra holiday next week.  And cake.  The streets are festooned with bunting.  There are spectacular spectaculars for us all to enjoy: river pageants, horse-drawn carriages, a concert featuring Jools Holland, Gary Barlow and even Shirley Bassey, who has been around for almost as long as the Queen has.  Which is to say, forever.
 
In such an atmosphere of innocent merriment, it seems churlish to point out that awarding great privileges and pseudo-medieval deference to members of an otherwise undistinguished Anglo-German family ill befits a nation that wants to see itself as democratic, meritocratic and modern.   When pressed, many people can trot out what sound like good arguments for the monarchy.  It's said that it guarantees stability, that it provides a unifying symbol above party politics or that the Queen and other royals do a "good job", turning out to cut ribbons, launch ships and wave at cheering crowds.   
 
No one seriously pretends that were the country to be invented from scratch it would be as a monarchy.  It's often claimed that other countries envy us our hereditary rulers, our inhabited palaces and occasional jubilee glitter.  But if that were really true, the French, Germans and Americans would be clamouring to introduce or restore monarchs of their own.  Fairly obviously, they're not.  There was actually a referendum in Brazil around fifteen years ago on restoring the monarchy; the proposition attracted very little support.
 
On the other hand, recent history suggests that a well-established monarchy has to be quite spectacularly stupid or unlucky to get itself abolished.  Japan's emperor Hirohito managed to survive presiding over a genocidal military dictatorship, losing a major war, mass starvation and having his country nuked by the Americans.  Queen Elizabeth II's crises have been on a lesser scale.  Her worst moment came in 1997 when some tabloids thought she was a little slow coming down from Balmoral to acknowledge the crowd's grief at the death of Princess Diana.  Prince Charles has been more divisive and controversial.  What his critics tend to forget, however, is that when he talks nonsense about architecture or alternative medicine he makes himself more, not less, popular.
 
What is most striking about the British monarchy is not that it exists, but the extent to which the country has come to be defined by it.  British royalism feels different to what is found in places like Denmark or the Netherlands.  It is bound up with how the country feels about itself and how it presents itself to the world.   Republicans in Britain can find themselves in a situation similar to that of atheists in the USA, being widely seen as eccentric or obsessive, or even as downright disloyal.
 
This is a relatively recent phenomenon.  After all, Britain was the first major country in Europe to depose and execute its king, and ended the 17th century with one of the most limited monarchies around.  The Hanoverian kings were all, to varying extents, objects of suspicion, indifference, pity or contempt.  The Times began its obituary of George IV in 1830 with the observation that "there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king."  Even Victoria experienced periods of enormous unpopularity and had to contend with republican movements far more serious than anything seen during the present queen's reign.  
 
But whatever the unpopularity of individual monarchs, it was during this period that the monarchy became an expression of national distinctiveness.  I would single out some key events.  In the 18th century, it was the limited nature of the British monarchy, in contrast to the absolutist regimes of continental Europe, that seemed worth celebrating, rather than the monarchy as such.  Then came the French Revolution.  As France went from absolute monarchy to violent republicanism and then military dictatorship under Napoleon, Britain's "stable" constitutional monarchy became a point of differentiation as well as pride.  The events of the Civil War were by that stage a long way in the past, and the Whig myth of harmonious constitutional progress had become well established.
 
To that, the Victorian age added empire.  The 1897 Diamond Jubilee was first and foremost a vast imperial pageant.  I suspect that for imperialists, 19th century British expansionism seemed a little less aggressive and self-interested when it was being carried out in the name of a little old lady.  What Victoria didn't do - hated, in fact - was pomp.  The glittering processions and magnigicently choreographed ceremonial which we think of as being typically British and intrinsic to our monarchy was largely a 20th century invention, set to music by Elgar.
 
By the time the present queen came to the throne, the collapse of other major monarchies and the use of the royal family as a rallying-point in two world wars had cemented the institution's position in national life.  Ironically, the end of empire may have strengthened the monarchy, and not only because of the Queen's desire to play a world role as Head of the Commonwealth.  
 
Put simply, the monarchy is what Britain has left - along, perhaps, with a couple of nuclear warheads and a seat on the UN Security Council - now that the empire has gone and economic pre-eminence is a distant memory.  Having a monarchy helps the British differentiate themselves from the Americans (as not having a monarchy once helped the Americans differentiate themselves from the British) and from the French.  Hence the unshakeable belief that our monarchy is somehow bigger, better and grander than any other in the world.  Hence, too, the fervent conviction that it is a great national asset, attracting business and tourists to these shores and exciting envy in foreign hearts.  
 
At times like these, when Britain's place in the world seems more uncertain than ever, celebrating the Queen is, first and foremost, a way of telling ourselves that we are still special.
 
A Queen Elizabeth II portrait is displayed during a photocall at Asprey. Photo: Getty Images
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.