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1 April 2024

Monarchy is a state-sponsored tragedy

The House of Windsor will survive, but at what cost to the nation?

By Lewis Goodall

The British monarchy has had the shakiest year for decades. The new King is old and has fallen ill, his second son is estranged, and the internet has spent the last weeks concocting, spreading and amplifying conspiracy theories about the previously trouble free Princess of Wales.

Will the monarchy survive all this? Almost certainly. The House of Windsor has been through worse and survival is what it does. The reaction to the sad news of Princess Catherine’s cancer diagnosis reminds us why its roots run deep. Monarchy, uniquely as a form of politics, can embody and personify. The King and the Princess of Wales have cancer; only the darkest of hearts could fail to be moved by it.  As they suffer, they remind each of us how our own families have or might yet handle similar circumstances. Monarchy can elicit rage, like any form of government, but perhaps uniquely, it can elicit personal sympathy and solidarity too, something few of us would ever feel about a cabinet or ministry. Before feminism and the civil rights movement, monarchy has always known that the personal is the political. And that, right there, is the problem.

I’ve long been sceptical about monarchy. I loathe it when people say its pomp and ceremony is “what Britain does best”. I worry about the infantilising effect it has on our politics and what it says about unyielding British attitudes to class and privilege. But constitutional monarchy works. It does provide a through line in our national life. I can see too that an apolitical family (insofar as that can ever be true), on whom all kinds of personal preferences can be projected, is a useful adhesive; a bind between us in an age where not much binds us. If I were forced to reckon with the monarchy’s abolition, I would worry about what might replace it and I would worry about the removal of one of the last British institutions which appears to retain the power to inspire and cohere.

So the institution works for us. I wonder whether the same can be said for them. The Windsors live in luxury, in palaces, with courtiers and planners and servants. But it is a prison of gold. In exchange for opulence and prestige a price is paid – the fusion of family and state. It is a cruel meld, which means self and family and country become indivisible and when division is attempted, chaos beckons. Catherine wants privacy? Perfectly reasonable. Could she have it? No. Because there is no privacy in the cage; she belongs to the state, to us. When she vanishes from the public’s gaze, without an explanation, the (social) media vultures descend. As long as the monarchy remains in its current form – a realm of the state that is no longer partially obscured by mystery – none of this will ever change. Some of those bleating most loudly about the Princess’ privacy are those biographers and royal hacks who make a living intruding on a family’s life and its most personal details. They, like many of us, delude ourselves about what modern British monarchy is – a family circus, for our entertainment, amplified by a media who will, as Tom Nairn once noted, “go on stuffing royalist polyfilla into the cracks as long as they can”.

There’s a section in Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, which illustrates the cruelty. In it he recounts a story where, in some desperation about his declining familial situation, he arranges to return from Los Angeles to speak to The Queen. By his telling, the late sovereign told him she’d love to see him. Upon arriving in the UK he was told, by a courtier, that she was no longer available. The Queen as state, rather than Elizabeth Windsor as grandmother, had prevailed, as it almost always must have done.

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The conception of British monarchy relies on 19th century mores, when in its modern form it was recast as a bourgeois family affair under Queen Victoria. It requires individuals born into it, destined for it, to sublimate their personalities, their personal wishes, their entire essence for the ‘greater good.’ When this happens, for example in the reigns of Kings George VI and his daughter Queen Elizabeth II, the system works. When it doesn’t, when royals are unwilling to bend, as for Edward VIII or Princess Diana or Charles’ insistence on pursuing a woman he loved, the machine breaks down.

In a popular scene in The Crown, shortly after ascending to the throne, the Queen’s own grandmother, Queen Mary, tells her that she must mourn not only for her beloved father, but the woman she was. Fiction yes, but it underscores a cardinal truth – this is what we ask of our royal family. We will never know whether the real Elizabeth mourned the passing of the woman she might have become but we do know that as an aristocratic child of the 1920s, her mores and values were essentially Victorian. Duty was all, individual will largely irrelevant. That was enough for her. Is it enough for her successors? Each generation which has succeeded her has been imbued with the greater emphasis on individual well-being that has come with the values of their own time. We’ve seen Charles, William, and Harry, struggle to reconcile these competing intellectual worlds, a sliding scale of psychology which spans a century. And even if they can reconcile these things, should we?

We are breeding a family to represent our state. They have no choice about it. They cannot opt out of it, even if they try, as Harry has done, they can’t really. Because by the time they do, they are already public property. The history of the family is littered with sadness and lost souls – of state sponsored tragedy and disaster: Princesses Margaret and Diana, Prince Andrew, Prince Harry. How many more lives ruined before we ask ourselves questions about the institution? And about its future? And that individual self-expression could yet manifest in other ways which no-one ever seems to think about. What happens if one day a future King George wants to marry a Muslim? Or is gay? Or is trans? None of it coheres with the constitutional set up we have. As always, we just look away and bury ourselves in the national anthem and the warm fuzz of pomp.

William is by all accounts, a reluctant King. His father, who wanted the throne, may have it snatched away. I look at William, confronted by the prospect and I look at his son, and his siblings and feel pity. How long are we all going to indulge in this collective cruelty? Or stealing destiny, inflicting misery, for duty which need not exist?

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown