The Queen Mum is dead

The Queen Mum is dead. She passed away some time in the early 1990s, probably in the wake of what the Queen called the annus horribilis. The royal family, after consultation with the security services and senior members of the Conservative government, decided not to announce the fact and, instead, having buried the body on an uninhabited Scottish island, to substitute a double. With royalty reduced to a farce of adulterous liaisons, fantasies about reincarnation as a Tampax and appearances on TV game shows, the Queen had concluded that the monarchy could not afford to lose its only remaining asset: a woman who, by the simple expedient of smiling and waving for half a century, had managed to retain almost unqualified public affection. (The British, noted by Aneurin Bevan for the poverty of their expectations, are easy to please.) Further, Her Majesty feared that the elaborate preparations that the terrestrial TV channels had made for her mother's death - days of solemn music, pompous lectures by Norman St John Stevas, the suspension of regular programmes such as Coronation Street, and the like - would bore the nation rigid and create a climate of near-insurrection.

Although the fate of the alleged Queen Mother has been kept under constant review, the moment to "retire" her has never seemed quite right. In the mid-1990s, republican sentiment re-emerged with a force not seen since Victorian times; but the monarch was advised that the prospect of a frail old lady being expelled from her castles and palaces would prevent it gaining irresistible momentum. (The British do not much like old people, preferring to shut them away in special "care" institutions, but they are nevertheless very sentimental about them.) Then came the Princess of Wales's death in 1997, and the realisation that the mourning (or lack of it) for a member of the "old firm" would present a most embarrassing contrast to that for the People's Princess. From there, it was a short step to the decision that the Queen Mother should "live" to celebrate her 100th birthday, in the hope that this, with its memories of wartime heroics (gosh! she actually smiled at the common people in London's East End after they had been bombed), would restore the monarchy's fortunes. Besides, the double was reluctant to go, what with all the gin, the racegoing and the deferential footmen.

Royal advisers know that the pretence cannot be kept up for much longer. Not much is required of the double - the smiling and waving are easy, she need speak only rarely (and in public not at all), and any failure to recognise a former equerry or children's nanny can be put down to the forgetfulness of old age. But she refuses to act like a centenarian. The plausibility of a woman in her second century who appears relatively healthy both physically and mentally, and who suffers nothing worse than colds, awkwardly lodged fish bones and broken ankles, must soon be challenged.

The present plan is for the Queen Mother's death to be announced in two to three years' time, when Prince William, now the last great royal hope, is ready to make a full entry into public life. Courtiers are divided on whether or not the royal family should then admit the truth. Some argue that the date of the real Queen Mum's death should be kept a state secret, protected by the full rigour of the law. Others, however, think that the nation won't care, given that it already accepts that reality has virtually disappeared from the public arena, with almost everything spun, packaged, marketed and commodified so that nothing is quite what it seems.

Far from being angered by a fake Queen Mother, it is argued, the public may well acclaim a supreme act of sustained postmodern irony. The royals have made fools of us for several hundred years, and we have lapped it up. Why should we mind if they make fools of us again, in a new and diverting way?

Some may think this a silly article, the work, perhaps, of an editor about to leave for his summer holiday. Yet it is no sillier - and scarcely more far-fetched - than most of what has been written elsewhere about the Queen Mother in recent weeks. One of the more desperate arguments used by defenders of the monarchy is that it gives the common folk harmless entertainment, allowing them to fantasise about the lives of the royals. Why should we republicans not have our fun, too, and invent our own fantasies?

If you want the arguments for republicanism, you can find them all on pages 8 to 16 of this special issue. The Queen Mum is dead (metaphorically, if you prefer). Long live the republic!