When Moroccans in Britain asked how they should mark the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2002, the answer from Buckingham Palace was “in a Moroccan way”. Balloonists, gay rights activists and Zoroastrians got involved in the festivities back then. An even wider range of partygoers will celebrate the diamond jubilee and, when it comes, the coronation of Charles III.
The monarchy is removed from public opinion, but gradually more responsive to it. Its crucial role in reflecting and articulating shared national emotion is most obvious on formal occasions such as
Trooping the Colour or Remembrance Day. It is most effective when unscheduled – on the day after 11 September 2001, for example, when the Duke of York stood with the US ambassador outside Buckingham Palace as a regimental band played “The Star-Spangled Banner”. My most sceptical American friends emailed their appreciation.
The royal family can of course get things wrong. Pedantic traditionalism stopped flags being flown at half mast when the Princess of Wales died. But lessons are learned. Three years later, when Donald Dewar died suddenly, the flags were lowered without fanfare.
Like that minor historical icon, the Marmite jar, the institution of monarchy has been modified so gradually over the course of the Queen’s reign that the changes get little attention. As princesses in the 1930s, Margaret and Elizabeth were educated at home; Prince Charles and his sons attended independent schools; their children may yet go to comprehensives. King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate in order to marry a divorcee. Today the heir to the throne can divorce and remarry. Primogeniture and barring Catholics from the throne will go in time – but these are in fact matters for the monarch’s ministers, not the Queen.
Early in my time at Buckingham Palace, I received a letter from a patient in a hospice who had just been visited by the Earl of Wessex. He wrote simply that it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. That is not how everyone would feel. But I was immensely moved that an elderly man, far from the cosmopolitan mainstream, had his last days cheered by a few minutes with the Queen’s youngest son.
The Windsors may not last for ever, but it will be some generations before they fade into the genteel obscurity of Europe’s dethroned royal families. In the meantime, to focus on monarchy is a distraction from the class and social issues that rightly command attention. These, not the royal family, should form society’s big debate.
Simon Walker was communications secretary to the Queen from 2000 to 2002