“LUCK is a synonym for ruthless adaptation.” When the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878–1911) wrote these words, Europe’s clutter of imperial houses commanded the fate of peoples not only across the continent but also in much of the world beyond. Most would fall in the cataclysms of war and revolution to come, though a handful of small-state northern variants (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium) survived by remaining on the right side of their compatriots through the century’s traumas.
Britain’s monarchy alone appears to have performed another trick in the face of recurrent social and political convulsion: finding in it material from which to carve new roles and rationales (including even a name), while continuing to live and breathe in the grand manner of old – and retaining along the way, even through its worst of times, broad public support.
So at least runs a plausible summation of the fair outlook Queen Elizabeth II might observe as she waves from the Buckingham Palace balcony to the crowds assembled in The Mall during the centrepiece weekend of her “diamond jubilee” in early June 2012. By strange alchemy or divine grace (and the Queen is a believer as well as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”) – and backed in any case by more than a touch of steel – the celebrations of her sixty years on the throne find the House of Windsor in as favoured a condition as could reasonably be wished.
All is becalmed. The long crisis of the 1990s – the agreement, under pressure, to pay income tax, the Windsor Castle fire, media disasters, marital troubles, and above all Princess Diana – is a receding memory. A once-in-an-aeon constellation has appeared: promising marriages (notably that in 2011 of handsome Prince William, second in line to the throne, to the comely Catherine Middleton), youthful replenishment, quiet modernisation of the “royal household,” skilful PR, an indulgent media, unthreatening political circumstances (including inert republicanism), and welcome freedom from scandal. Each of these would be encouraging in isolation, but their coincidence – and blessed reinforcement in the warm public sentiments that cluster around a major anniversary – make 2012 close to the best of times for the institution.
Yet if this is indeed the view from the balcony, an astute monarch with a strong sense of family history will also be aware of how much “The Firm” has had to change to secure this position – and how rare and fragile such moments of grace can prove to be.
AFTER all, the early years of the Queen’s reign were bathed in a similar hue. Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne by virtue of the “abdication crisis” of 1936–37, had become sovereign at the age of twenty-five on her father’s death in February 1952 and was crowned in an elaborate ceremony in Westminster Abbey in June 1953. The atmosphere of the coronation spoke of the profound determination of the high Anglican and royal establishments to reassert their legitimacy and power after the unsettling post-war years of austerity, a reformist Labour government (1945–51) and the modernist aspirations embodied in the Festival of Britain (1951). But if the heavy armoury of “invented tradition” was deployed in the cause of conservative reassertion, the event entered popular awareness thanks to a modern vehicle: television.
The crowding of families and groups of neighbours around the communal set, many bought specially for the occasion, made the 1953 coronation Britain’s first “shared national experience” through the medium. Thus, in the terms of David Cannadine’s pioneering analysis, television became entwined with royal ceremonial and sprouted another invented tradition. What lodged in the collective memory was less the cod-medieval rituals than the glittering procession, “the dress,” the exotic colonial guests defying the London downpour. The framing of a new kind of pact between royalty and people, mediated by ever more powerful broadcasters, began at that moment.
The spectacle of a young, female monarch at the head of an old, imperial state invited talk of a “new Elizabethan age.” The phrase may never have caught on, though it did express an implicit longing for social regeneration that other indicators of the early 1950s – the end of food and fuel rationing, slum clearance, a consumer economy – seemed to herald. But Britain was also a “great power,” carrying the heavy burden of wartime debt, colonial responsibility and Cold War military expenditure, and this increasingly constrained its capacity to remake itself. The exercise of royal diplomacy as British statecraft acquired its modern form in this period, notably in the Queen’s epic tour in 1954 of the Empire-becoming-Commonwealth. The enormous crowds in Australia in particular made the tour “by far the biggest event ever in Australian history,” according to the scholar turned broadcaster Jane Connors, who saw it as a test case of “popular monarchism.”
There were already faint shadows on the crown in these early, golden years. Many in Scotland beyond the ranks of historians and nationalists were angered that the routine use of “Elizabeth II” elided the fact that the realm of the sixteenth-century Elizabeth had been England alone (and, by the way, that the “virgin queen” had chopped off the head of Mary, Queen of Scots). Some red pillar-boxes with the offending crest were blown up to make the point that, north of the border, the young queen was “Elizabeth I.” The shadows lengthened in November 1956 with the exposure of Britain’s deceitful collusion with France and Israel to attack Nasser’s Egypt and seize the Suez, precipitating a shameful retreat and a convulsive political scandal (as well as giving the Red Army a free hand to pulverise Hungary’s revolution).
The “Suez crisis” was a generation-forming moment. In dividing the country and shocking millions out of an unquestioning belief in the integrity of Britain’s institutions and the men who ran them, it seeded much of the creative dissent that was to emerge in cultural and intellectual life over the ensuing decades. When it first touched the monarchy in September 1957, though, the initial spasm of criticism took a somewhat baroque form: a peeved anatomy of the Queen’s personal failings (including her voice) and the stuffiness of her court in the conservative National and English Review by its proprietor-editor Lord Altrincham (who later renounced his peerage to become again plain John Grigg). This was followed two months later by an article for the New York Observer in which the pontifical journalist Malcolm Muggeridge presented a similar case.
It was mild stuff by later standards, but a taboo had been broken and the reaction was fierce. (Grigg was assaulted by a choleric member of the League of Empire Loyalists, an incident caught on live television.) It took many years for a later cohort of royal advisers to admit that Grigg was right to lambast the Queen’s men. But how far did his scorn reach at the time? Richard Hoggart’s innovatory book The Uses of Literacy, a richly textured reconstruction-memoir of the working-class settlement of Hunslet, in the Yorkshire city of Leeds, was also published in 1957. Hoggart observed that “as an institution, [monarchy] is scarcely thought of by the working-classes; they are not royalists by principle. Nor do most harbour resentments against it…”; and that mature working-class women especially “think of the members of the Royal Family as individuals, caught up in a big machine manipulated by ‘Them,’” and thus feel “well-disposed” towards these unfortunates.
The monarchy was in the background of people’s lives, if always there. It was a source of public news (the “Queen’s speech” opening a new session of parliament, a state visit by an overseas dignitary), familial announcements (Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to her Greek royal suitor Philip in 1947, the birth of their children) and occasionally sensation (the pressure in 1955 on Margaret, the Queen’s sister, not to marry a divorcee). There was little academic interest, with Edward Shils and Michael Young’s sociological essay on the coronation in 1953 a rare exception. (“About this most august institution there is no serious discussion at all,” it began.) A few surveys by constitutional historians (Ernest Barker, Robert Blake, Harold Nicolson) and journalists (Anthony Sampson’s path-breaking Anatomy of Britain) filled the unperceived gap. The young denizens of the early 1960s “satire boom” preferred to ridicule the privileged-steeped manner of Conservative grandees such as Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home (prime ministers in the second half of the Tory hegemony of 1951–64), though the fortnightly Private Eye was later to extend its clubbable savagery to mocking “Brenda” and her brood.
The hopes of a cathartic modernisation that fuelled Labour’s return to power under Harold Wilson in 1964 barely encompassed the palace, though the award of MBEs (“Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”) to the Beatles betrayed a certain awareness of the need to show willing. The six years of Labour rule were characterised by occasional spats (an attempt by the postmaster-general Anthony Wedgwood Benn to remove the Queen’s image from stamps was thwarted) and cabinet complaints (those of Richard Crossman, like Benn a prolific diarist, survive), though Wilson himself fitted a broad pattern whereby Labour leaders have seemed to enjoy a more congenial working relationship with the sovereign than have Conservative. At a deeper level, a decade of transformation in which social barriers (of class, especially) were being questioned made some sympathisers and insiders question the monarchy’s public profile. Was society leaving the monarchy behind?
The result, in 1969, was another television hit: Royal Family, a documentary series that would portray the leading members in their everyday roles but also aimed to reveal the ordinariness behind the mystique. Such spectacles as a family barbecue, however stilted the accompanying conversation and controlled the format, were riveting to a national audience many of whom had “grown up” with the Queen (a ten-year-old who had watched the coronation in 1953 was but twenty-six). It was another stage in the evolution of that mediated pact, which in principle carried great potential rewards (familiarity breeding more popularity and loyalty) but also brought risks (familiarity breeding questioning and a corrosion of “allegiance”).
“THE monarchy’s mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic,” wrote Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution (1867), still the fons et origo of almost all political discussion of the subject. There was little immediate sign in the 1970s that the monarchy had been harmed by ignoring his advice, and much at that stage to suggest that the crown would suffer more by following it. Britain had other things to preoccupy it during that troubled decade: inflation, strikes, a faltering economic model, Scottish nationalism, the Northern Ireland war. A Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath (1970–74), had taken the country into the European Economic Community, but his government swayed then sank under trade-union pressure; his Labour successors, Harold Wilson (again) and James Callaghan, faced the same problems with shrinking resources.
In the midst of it all, the Queen’s “silver jubilee” of 1977 was marked by a hot summer of street parties and big crowds, with the punk-rock explosion providing the court-jester chorus. Her address to both houses of parliament in May contained a rare, explicit statement of position, on the Scottish debate: “I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.” In the event, the abortive referendum of March 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher two months later would scotch for a generation the threat of Britain’s “break-up,” as well as inaugurating a decade in which Thatcher’s combination of “free economy and strong state” would change the terms of political debate.
This turbulent process, to which a fervently partisan (and in the spirit of the age, decreasingly deferential) media was fundamental, dominated the 1980s. It would at times bring elements of the monarchy closer to the real political heat: notably over Prince Charles’s environmentalism (which briefly made him a hero among parts of the left) and the Queen’s commitment to the Commonwealth (an institution near-openly scorned by her prime minister). The ensuing controversies caused brief embarrassment, then deflated and left little trace. They were eclipsed by the greater story of the 1980s, the Charles–Diana marriage, in which the effort at media projection begun in 1969 was revived only to escape from the control of its putative managers. The wedding in July 1981 of the thirty-two-year-old heir to the throne and the nineteen-year-old ingénue Diana Spencer was to fulfil its chief function of securing the next generation, but the marriage’s dysfunction and protracted breakdown – played out in semi-public between increasingly embittered camps, recycled by a voracious (and now global) media, consumed by an audience ever less inclined to grant automatic assent to “the royals” – caused strategic paralysis in the institution.
The cycle that began with an orchestrated “fairytale” (in which millions wanted to believe) and ended with the princess’s death in a car accident in 1997 also spanned the eighteen years of Conservative rule under Thatcher and (after her resignation in 1990) John Major. Two, and then three, election defeats from 1979 shook Labour from the dream of a return to a pre-Thatcher idyll and forced much of the intellectual left to engage with the roots of the misgovernance exemplified by single-party hegemony. The search for a new constitutional settlement (as opposed to a mere change of government) as the route to a revived democracy was to take diverse forms from the later 1980s, among them the pressure-group Charter 88 and a lively sub-culture of pamphlets and reports from think-tanks such as Demos and the Fabian Society; in Scotland and Wales, there was a parallel mobilisation of energies behind campaigns for a national parliament or assembly. It was inevitable that this new phase of thinking about the way Britain governed itself “as a whole” would address the question of the royal system, and as it did so the background of discord and institutional infirmity propelled both the reformers’ sense of urgency and their self-confidence.
Indeed, the growing attention to the monarchy in this period suggests that a wider intellectual and even psychological unlocking was taking place. An influential contribution was Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass (1988). Nairn’s argument – in a bravura if also complex read – is that the crown’s appeal, rooted in the “glamour of backwardness,” extends to the political order of which it is the apex, itself a consequence of England’s early state-nationalism and postponed political modernity. In analysing the royal system as the work of history and ideology, and thus paying it the rare respect of taking it seriously while sustaining a majestic scorn, Nairn’s book remains radical and its ideas fertile. While a new edition in 2012 highlights its force, the vigorous contrarianism of others of the period, such as Christopher Hitchens’s “Counterblast” booklet The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish (1990), has aged far less well.
Edgar Wilson’s rationalist study, The Myth of British Monarchy (1989), examines the subject from first principles and every angle to discredit its intellectual basis, though its occasional note of exasperation with the populace’s stubborn reluctance to embrace the anti-royalist case hints at the spectre of “false consciousness” that overhangs many such arguments. The proportion of British people favouring a republic fell from 16 to 10 per cent in the Queen’s first decade on the throne, rose towards twenty per cent by 1971, receded by the time of the 1977 jubilee, and would remain near-constant at around a fifth of the population over the next two decades. (The historic variations are explored in Antony Taylor’s valuable Down with the Crown: British Anti-Monarchism and Debates about Royalty Since 1790.) Any modest accretion was welcomed by hopeful advocates of a new domestic commonwealth – though such moments also tended to expose both the separate agendas of doctrinal anti-monarchists and less reliable media-populist antagonists (as well as the dependence, to a degree, of the former on the latter), and the way that core sentiment seemed impervious to arguments and events alike.
Nonetheless, if the later 1950s had inaugurated a period of criticism and institutional introspection, mainly among the elite, the later 1980s were to open another and more broad-based one. In both cases the process unfolded in the context of larger changes in society and politics to which the monarchy itself was only rarely seen as central by much of the population. This singular combination of elements had the effect of provoking an awareness within the royal household of the need to adapt and also giving this little-scrutinised body – effectively a department of government – space to do so.
In both cases, the difficult times were to have approximately the same lifespan. Richard Weight, in his fine study Patriots: National Identity in Britain, 1940–2000 (2002) describes 1992–97 as “the crisis years” for the monarchy. In retrospect it is clear that they lasted a further half-decade and that his book was published at their end-point. The encroaching wave, signalled by several low points of scandal or embarrassment (such as a mock-medieval TV game show in 1987 featuring younger royals), broke over the palace in 1992. John Major’s unexpected election victory in April, the Conservatives’ fourth in a row, had quickly turned sour with a series of humiliating policy reversals and incipient recession. The palace then wandered into the line of fire over the festering issue of the Queen’s non-payment of income tax, an inferno at Windsor Castle (and an eruption of popular fury at the expectation that we, the people should pay for the repair), and the confirmation that the fairytale marriage was over.
In a speech to the City of London in November 1992 marking the fortieth anniversary of her succession, the Queen (through a stinking cold, which somehow accentuated the point) referred to an “annus horribilis” and struck a rare vulnerable note: “There can be no doubt, of course, that criticism is good for people and institutions that are part of public life. No institution – City, monarchy, whatever – should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don’t… Forty years is quite a long time. I am glad to have had the chance to witness, and to take part in, many dramatic changes in life in this country. [But there is] one unchanging factor which I value above all – the loyalty given to me and to my family by so many people in this country, and the Commonwealth, throughout my reign.”
THERE were more low points to come in the mid 1990s. The continuing dramas of marital disintegration (two of the Queen’s sons divorced in 1996), the raw material of millions of news reports as well as of a burgeoning celebrity gossip-and-rumour industry, tarnished The Firm’s brand in ways that had few modern precedents. The existence of competing factions and agendas fuelled the bewildering media carousel and locked the palace into a defensive and reactive stance. In politics, the infirmity of Major’s government and (from 1994) the invention of New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – self-consciously modern and impatient, if also anxious to reassure – gave inchoate expression to the sense that an enfeebled, anachronistic establishment was in the way of necessary renewal.
Some, at least, of New Labour’s leading figures, before and after the movement’s landslide election victory in May 1997, regarded its “modernisation” mantra as bearing too on royalty’s composition, expense and formal prerogative powers. In the event, Diana’s sudden death four months later altered the horizon by binding the “efficient” and “dignified” parts of the state (in Bagehot’s formulation) into a temporary partnership where the uncertain authority of the new was entrenched by being seen to buttress the suddenly threatened legitimacy of the old.
The anti-royal impulse, which had seemed to peak in 1992, took unimagined new directions in the ensuing “Diana week.” A vast, potent sigh of collective mourning drew people across the country to congregate, lay flowers and leave messages in impromptu public memorials (notably outside her home, Kensington Palace). Amplified by a press seeking its own anchorage in a confusing situation, this reaction soon morphed into impatient criticism that the Queen was ensconced in Balmoral Castle in northeast Scotland and showing no inclination to return to London (“Where is the Queen when her country needs her?” screamed the Sun’s front page).
The instinctive affirmation of popular subjecthood against the crown was instantly subject to competing interpretation, as variously an incipient expression of a republican imaginary and a reaction whose reverent appeal and emotional investiture was deeply royalist in spirit. The broader context of New Labour’s promises of a new constitutional settlement fuelled reformist optimism that this was – or could become – a perilous crisis for the House of Windsor. But over the crucial days, Blair and his coterie – building on the prime minister’s surefooted tribute to Diana as “the people’s princess” on the morrow of her death – offered artful PR advice to an uncertain palace on how to defuse the charged atmosphere. The Queen travelled south and, for only the second time in her reign (the annual Christmas homily apart), addressed the nation. (“We have all been trying in our different ways to cope… there are lessons to be drawn from [Diana’s] life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.”) Behind the scenes, a concordat between old and new establishments was in overdrive, working to restore the pact between monarchy and people.
The result of the accommodation was on display the next day as the Queen led her family out to witness, and bow to, the passing of Diana’s hearse past Buckingham Palace, followed by a see-it-to-believe-it funeral service at Westminster Abbey where pop culture fused with high tradition. The ceremony was broadcast live to enormous crowds gathered in London’s parks, and their spontaneous applause at the electrifying tribute to Diana by her brother, Charles Spencer, rippled across the city and into the very nave. The event, the climax of an epic week, left emotions frazzled, wounds staunched, an institution relieved – and was followed by a poll measuring support for a republic unchanged at 18 per cent.
Britain, it was widely said, had become a different country: people’s new emotional openness (or incontinence, according to the many critics of the “carnival of grief”) was the harbinger of a search for public authenticity (or evidence of populist derangement, muttered the self-styled “dissidents”), perhaps even a longing for a changed relationship with power (or the perilous flooding of the public realm by celebrity-worship, insisted the contrarians). In the following weeks, the Scots and (by a hair’s breadth) the Welsh voted “yes” in referendums on self-government. The “Diana moment” had suspended campaigning, though the comparable lack of fervour in the two nations during the mourning reinforced the notion that the ghost of a sublimated English nationalism was abroad. In the event, it would take far more to turn Britain from a nation of subjects to one of citizens.
But the crisis, whatever it connoted, left the crown feeling and looking fragile (“the very nadir of our stock market,” said Lord Airlie, then the influential City-trained head of the palace administration). And the unsettlement would continue. The momentum of reform under Labour in the post-1997 years, which included incorporation of the European human-rights convention into domestic law and changes in the composition of the House of Lords, carried in its train the long-term progressive aspiration that the monarchy too would at last be – what? – streamlined, rationalised, reduced, trimmed (“scaled down” was the most frequent jargon-term).
A bicycling, Scandinavian model of the monarchy was much touted. There was opinion-poll encouragement of the option, but any real movement in its direction faced problems both generic (an ambitious new government’s many competing political priorities, and fortified trenches of constitutional conservatism) and particular (the difficulty of disentangling the entire monarchical system – its sovereign possessions, its social depth, its legal foundations, its parallel deep state – from its “royal family” carapace). To take but one example, the perennially floated alteration to the laws of succession to allow direct female inheritance or a Catholic monarch would require a change in the law in all sixteen countries where Queen Elizabeth is the sovereign, and in the case of Australia and Canada all the state or provincial legislatures as well as the federal one. A legal nightmare would inevitably become a political one.
As New Labour’s radical impulses faltered or were diverted into banning fox-hunting, into the Rubik’s cube of upper-chamber reform, into Afghanistan and Iraq, the palace found space to breathe. A key signal of a changing mood was the aftermath of the Queen Mother’s death at the age of 101 in March 2002, when initial scepticism at the (long-planned) announcement of ten days of official mourning was confounded by the large numbers prepared to visit, waiting for hours if necessary, her lying-in-state at Westminster Hall. This was not “Diana-mania”; but what was it?
A COMPELLING new book by the journalist and royal “insider” Robert Hardman offers some ingredients of the answer. The title, Our Queen, may promise the kind of blancmange-and-fairy-floss confection from “royal experts” that fills bookshops and airwaves in an anniversary year, but its detailed account of how the monarchy has rethought its core purpose over the past two decades makes it a study of the political intelligence of the powerful that should be on the reading list of every republican.
The process began, it seems, in the depths of 1992, was accelerating under the relentless pressures of the mid-decade, and began to see daylight after 1997. The impact of the various shocks was to impress an awareness that in an increasingly democratic and restless age, the old assurances – heredity, deference, spectacle, tradition – were no longer automatic guarantors of legitimacy. Nor was the monarchy able merely to fall back on Bagehot’s pithy formulation of the sovereign’s powers vis-à-vis the government: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.” The institution must find other ways to secure its future. A vital foundation had already occurred in the reform of the “civil list,” the government subvention that had funded the royal household’s official functions since 1760. This was first cleverly renegotiated in 1990 to extend over a decade rather than each year (thus evading political and media controversy), then in 2011 was replaced by a new “sovereign grant” based on the revenues generated by the crown estate, the royals’ property portfolio.
Of equal importance was a comprehensive review process initiated under the auspices of an internal research unit, which began to look strategically at the entire operation and shift the dynamic from reactive to proactive (getting “ahead of the media,” in the words of the Queen’s then press secretary). The recommendations of the “change agenda” went to senior members of the family and their top officials, the “way ahead group.” A mantra of the palace hierarchy, then and later, was a phrase from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard beloved by all aristocrats feeling the chill of progress: “If things are going to stay the same, then things are going to have to change.”
The combination of think-tank and cabinet was informed by a surprising source, the script (later book) of the 1992 documentary film Elizabeth R, co-written by Antony Jay (who had scripted Royal Family in 1969, though is more renowned as co-author of the classic television comedy series Yes, Prime Minister). With clarity and economy, Jay provided a job description for the Queen in a way that took account of changes in society and people’s expectations since the 1950s. He distinguished between her formal constitutional roles, informal functions and required qualities, and concluded – taking a step beyond Bagehot – that a modern queen had to be not just head of state but “head of the nation,” a role in which her personal contribution is crucial.
The palace jumped on the argument and made it its own. (“It was the mid-nineties and we were constantly questioning ourselves about everything. This made sense. We had just never thought of the monarch like that,” Hardman quotes “a very senior official” whose identity may be inferred from his text.) Jay’s concise summation of what the Queen existed to do – including the new title he had invented for her – was “quietly annexed” by her advisers, and now has prominent place on her official website. (“The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.”)
The turning-point took a long time to reach, though out of the traumas of 1997 the clear target of the “golden jubilee” of 2002 emerged. In the latter year, when under-promise (“A lot of effort went in to making it look unplanned” said a royal aide) gave way to over-performance (enthusiastic crowds attended the set-piece visits and events) the change-makers knew that they had closed a dark chapter. “Up until then, it felt like a reign of two halves. Act One: good, Act Two: bad,” Hardman quotes an official. “Then, suddenly, we were into Act Three.”
A DECADE on, the monarchy – and everyone wrapped, willingly or reluctantly, in its embrace – is still living through that third act (though there have, as suggested here, been even more sub-plots in the sixty-year drama). The restorative landmarks of these years included the BBC/RDF documentary series The Royal Family At Work (2007), which brought the calculated intimacy of its 1969 precedent to a far more subtle level. In the early stages of the 2012 jubilee, which reaches its high point in June, the long trough that began in the mid-to-late 1980s looks ever more contingent and less existential than it did for much of that time. From royal tours (notably the Queen’s historic trip to Ireland in 2011, with its moving symbolism and palpable emotional shift among the hosts) to a sophisticated intergenerational policy, from financial security to effective internal management, from a complaisant media filled with courtiers galore to subdued critics with no strategy beyond waiting for something to turn up – the brand is thriving.
It can’t last. For an institution whose real presence (pace Antony Jay) is so personalised and whose public obligations are inexorable, periodic reversal is inevitable. What it would take to precipitate a structural crisis, however, is less clear. Some will look to the emerging politics of austerity to provide an answer (though the depression years of the 1930s or 1980s offer little encouragement here); others to the succession, though this may yet be over a decade (and an unprecedented “platinum jubilee” in 2022) away. After all, few look at the prospect of King Charles III (and a Queen Camilla) with enthusiasm, even if the heir reportedly plans to outflank reformers by halving the number of royals paid from the civil list/sovereign grant from its present sixteen, and not many more would wish on William (via the much-discussed “jump-a-generation” scenario) a curtailment of what remains of his youth and freedom by seeing him enthroned.
Yet in any political scenario, the combination of the people’s confident assumption of involvement in, even ownership of, the institution – alongside their immense, healthy indifference most of the time – and the monarchy’s awareness of this must be taken into account in gauging likely consequences. The modern monarchy seems to have internalised the lesson that it cannot rely on practising mere “equipoise” (a felicitous usage of the historian Charles Townshend in his vital study of public order in Britain); rather, it must work continuously to sustain its part of a contract with the people that entails permanent exposure to an unspoken plebiscite whose informal rules and obligations are shaped as well as understood by both sides.
Here, Kevin Sharpe’s rich study of earlier image-projection, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England (2009) has a contemporary resonance. Sharpe highlights “the gradual enthralment of the monarchy to its subjects” in a way that “underlines, rather than counters, the argument for the centrality of the people in politics.” While “the ideal of the commonweal and developing national sentiment were promoted to enhance royal authority,” he writes, “in so far as they also emphasised the people and the nation (and the monarch’s responsibility to both), they had implications that were, some might say, democratic and republican.”
There are further resonances in arguments for a “welfare monarchy” (Frank Prochaska) with roots in the Victorian era (1837–1901) and for a “democratic royalism” (William M. Kuhn) of ceremony and spectacle in the decades before 1914, and in the trenchant critique by Steve Poole (in The Politics of Regicide in England, 1760–1850) of the framing of republicanism through the lens of “meritocratic liberalism” that misses how much anti-monarchist expression involved “popular belief in contractual accountability.” To a degree, all question (Kevin Sharpe again) “any simple choice between elite history or history from below,” and taken together suggest that the most recent phase of monarchy’s history – with its elements of globalised and touristic appeal, of the accommodation between royalty and celebrity, of the extension of royal patronage to new constituencies, of the emphasis on “service” and “voluntarism” as key to the brand, and of careful reattuning (including in personnel and institutional ethos) to the society beyond the gates – can usefully be viewed through an expanded lens.
The modern story of Britain’s monarchy is one of the end of teleology. At the high tide of 2012, it can seem that those in the inner sanctum have more quickly grasped this, been more adept in keeping pace with complex change, and even – in understanding the importance of building legitimacy through a coherent mix of ideas, alliances, and strategy – been more astute students of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, than their opponents. For a dynastic institution whose internal governing motto is “keep doing the same thing – differently” and which now (according to Robert Hardman) craves a public image as “dutiful, worthy, unshowy,” the political achievement is formidable.
If, in face of this, democratic republicans with all their own distinguished historical precedents are to make any headway, they will need a clearer idea of what kind of change is needed, of what they want and how to persuade people to support it, and of what is achievable and how to get there. A good place to start would be with some ruthless adaptation of their own. •
David Hayes is Deputy Editor of openDemocracy. He writes each month for Inside Story.