I can’t get my head around the photo of Queen released this week. It is, in multiple senses of the word, epic. Flanked by two identical white ponies and sporting a majestic cape of forest green, the Queen, 96, looks like she is starring in a sequel to Lord of the Rings. There’s a sinister undertone to the serenity with which she surveys the world from under a blossoming magnolia tree: one can’t help wondering whether the ponies are in fact palace staff transformed into beasts for displeasing Her Majesty – or possibly Harry and Meghan.
Did the Queen choose to be photographed this way? While not released by Buckingham Palace directly, the photo depicts the world of the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which she has apparently attended every year since 1943. Previous photos of the Queen from the Royal Windsor Horse Show are less surreal, but still serve as a reminder that this is a woman whose fierce love of horses is so ingrained in the British consciousness we don’t think it remotely strange that images of her celebrating her passion make the front pages of national newspapers. The Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Express all splashed on the portrait on Thursday (22 April). It is, apparently, more worthy of our attention than the Prime Minister’s wrangling over whether or not he broke his own Covid laws, the growing cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine.
I mean no disrespect at all, but this is weird. It’s bizarre to pretend a nonagenarian’s equine obsession is newsworthy – just as it’s deeply unsettling that the toymaker Mattel has decided that what the kids (who are we fooling, the girls) of today really need is a Barbie doll of Queen Elizabeth II that looks like a prop for a horror film. Apparently it’s part of Barbie’s project to pay tribute to “visionary individuals with an outstanding impact and legacy”. I don’t think I’m belittling the many notable achievements of the Queen’s 70-year reign when I question whether assuming a position you were literally born into counts as “visionary”. We have no idea what the Queen thinks of being immortalised as a plastic figurine for children to dress and undress, but from the conservative attitude to flair and frivolity she has displayed throughout her life we can imagine she probably finds it a bit odd. As should we all.
By this point, you’re probably assuming that I’m some kind of full-throated republican who can’t wait for the Queen to pass away so we can get on with dismantling the monarchy. Or else I’ll get accused of being on the Sussex side of the “Megxit” feud – an outraged supporter of Meghan and Harry who champions them “telling their truth” about their mistreatment by the royal family. In fact, I am neither. I like the Queen, in a habitual kind of way. The evidence of how various countries manage their politics suggests that the separation between head of state and head of government is constructive for democracy, and while there are of course issues with unelected sovereigns, the UK appears to have greatly benefited from the eccentricities of our system. The Queen works incredibly diligently, and while we can grumble over the cost of the royals to taxpayers, her reputation abroad is positive for Brand Britain in terms of both soft power and economics.
As for Harry and Meghan, I find it difficult to get too exercised about what is essentially a family row, blown up and prolonged by people’s determination to get angry about something. Who said what to whom, who got snubbed at which events, who cried first – do we have to care? Really? It’s just EastEnders in RP accents. And if we didn’t care, if we didn’t watch the interviews or read the gossip, the TV stations would stop broadcasting them and the papers would find something else to write about. It seems unhealthy, not to mention cruel, for the public to egg on brothers and mothers and fathers and sons towards ever-greater distress as a form of entertainment.
There are times, of course, when we must pay attention. The revelations that a member of the royal family was close friends with a convicted paedophile and the allegations that he sexually assaulted a young woman (denied and settled out of court) cannot be ignored. A title and a smart accent must not be used as a shield from justice – and it is deeply troubling that it took so long for there to be any accountability at all. There are lessons there – about power, privilege, safeguarding and consequences – that must be remembered not just by the Palace, but by institutions everywhere in which those with influence and authority abuse their positions. But there’s a long way to go between giving due scrutiny to such matters and getting furious over what a couple chooses to name their baby, or blithely speculating about whether a 40-year-old woman has an eating disorder, or fixating on which of the Queen’s children and grandchildren she loves most.
It’s not like it matters, practically speaking. Favourites aside, we have known for seven decades who the next king is going to be, and the one after that is etched in constitutional law too. One hopes that William and Kate will get a better PR team that doesn’t arrange for them to be photographed waving awkwardly at their black subjects through what looks like a metal cage while on a trip that is supposedly about reaffirming support for the Commonwealth – but everyone makes mistakes and they have time to learn.
So maybe let’s calm down, step back, and leave this great-grandmother to her beloved horses. Let her cosplay being a Rider of Rohan in peace. If we can only tone down our obsession with royal drama, there is every chance the British monarchy will continue under future sovereigns to be every bit as stable and unsensational as the Queen has been for most of her era-defining reign.
[See also: What will happen when the Queen dies?]