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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.