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
Getty
Show Hide image

Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.