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.