Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The British monarchy is no longer a game of thrones. Rather, it’s a mundane game of consent. Interesting fact … countries that have Kings and Queens are empirically freer. They also have higher levels of social justice. That statement contradicts rationality. Yet, look at the freest countries. Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Spain, Luxembourg and Great Britain all top the league. All have high levels of freedom, social justice and a constitutional monarchy. Something is going on. The correlation is unclear - but it can't be a coincidence. I know folks on the left - in particular the regressive left - baulk at this idea. They reject the evidence.
You could argue, as some do, that the monarchy as an institution acts as the national glue. It brings together a people. That argument has some resonance. Of course, in the modern iteration, Kings and Queens are above the politics or should be. Although, the feckless Prince Charles is stretching that principle somewhat.
The monarchy can provide a focus for national pride, a vessel for sorrow at times of strife. That unifying force that transcends the sordid business of politicians. Queen Elizabeth II has played that role to perfection. Plus, the pageantry is wonderful. Even Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) of the Sex Pistols acclaims his admiration. But I have to ask, what is the appeal and the purpose of the whole show?
Walter Bagshot, writing in the late 1800s, encapsulated the issue. “The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. You might as well adopt a father as make a monarchy.” Thus, in his view, the monarchy remains beyond rational explanation.
As it stands at the moment, the leader of the winning party in an election travels to see a 91-year old woman. She then invites them to form a government. Convention dictates that she must invite. Further, the leader can’t form a government without having had that invite. All rather farcical.
Further, it is only through Elizabeth II’s signature that laws come into existence. But she only signs what her ministers ask her to. She can't act in a unilateral manner. Moreover, none of this is written down. Convention and practice prevail. This has progressed over time as Parliament asserted itself, with the Monarchy in gradual retreat. In that sense the monarchy evolves, it morphs with the times, adapting. Which is odd because the monarchy's role is continuity, that connection to the past.
Although the Queen has no direct political power, in theory, she remains able to exercise the royal prerogative. She could decline to sign a bill or order parliament to close. Of course, such a move would provoke unforeseen consequences. That could include the end of the monarchy. So her powers are held in check.
In the past, Kings and Queens fought for power, in the process they slaughtered their opponents. Jealously guarding a blood-line. These days soft power prevails. Real political clout surrendered for the right to be consulted. Yet, the motivation remains the same … protect that blood-line.
The PR machine that controls and contorts every image we see of Queen Elizabeth II and her family is a slick operation. It manages all opportunities to greatest impact, never missing a beat. In 2013, Prince Harry sat outside a tent in Afghanistan, giving an interview. Then by serendipity, the scramble alarm sounds. He sprints for his combat helicopter. It’s an image straight out of the Battle of Britain… another young man in a war zone fighting for freedom. The nation gasps in jingoistic delight. Strange we never see the helicopter lift off nor what carnage our prince wrought on the nasty enemy. But the impression lingers. “Harry the lad” is doing his bit. All good stuff you may conclude.
Survival depends on convincing the British public the monarchy is relevant. In this regard, the role of heredity, so scorned by the Republicans, has one distinct advantage. It settles once and for all the issue of who gets the job. There’s no political fighting, no contest. A smooth seamless transition assures stability at a time of potential crisis.
Having said that, a monarchy that exists by consent is fragile and not without inconsistencies. Great legal minds continue to debate the monarchs exact powers and reach of those powers. Nothing remains settled, it's all a muddle and compromise. For all that, Queen Elizabeth II has kept the ship balanced and on an even keel in some choppy seas.
In recent times the only real threat came in the shape of Saint Diana of Harrods. Diana took on the Royals in a PR battle that in bold moves canonized her in the public’s mind. In the process, Charles gets demonized, whilst the Queen Mother takes some flack.
The Windsor PR machine was on the back-foot. Fighting a rearguard action against a wronged woman. Organisations can be slow to change. But a dynasty that has survived hundreds of years wasn't nimble enough on this occasion. Hence, when Diana died in that Paris underpass, the Windsors failed to comprehend the new sentiment game. A paucity of solemn condolences drew swift and unrestrained public bile. The target was the Queen.
Her absence from London, sitting remote in her Scottish Castle, didn't play well. Whilst the nation mourned the public conjured up images of some dark Shakespearian episode. A ruthless Queen, hiding away, deaf to her nation despairing wails. Bit part players included a young ardent Prime Minister. In the shadows a sulking Prince skulked around, fearful for his own life.
The Windsors fell short because the front woman failed to read the mood of the nation. Folklore has it that only the intervention of the Prime Minister brought about a change in heart. Eventually, the Windsor PR machine fired up its engines. The Queen co-opted plans for her mothers funeral to roll out all the public-appeasing pageantry. It worked.
Some of the blame for this episode must rest with the inept Charles Windsor. A man sitting out the longest apprenticeship in history. He’s made some daft decisions that threatened to scuttle the whole enterprise. And for that reason, I suspect his Mum is holding off letting him have the top job.
Except for that one slip up, Queen Elizabeth II is beyond reproach. She’s kept a steady hand on the helm. She reigned through thirteen UK Prime Ministers and a hundred plus Commonwealth equivalents. Her insights are large. No one in history has had that breadth of exposure. Of course, we don’t know her personal opinions nor should we hear these. Sometimes discretion is a virtue.
Aside from the Diana saga, she has suffered occasional bad press. At times accused of being aloof and cold. I heard one anecdote that refutes this. A surgeon who’d served in a war zone invited to the Palace for lunch gets seated next to the Queen. The poor chap is suffering post-traumatic stress. He'd seen terrible things, including amputations on children. The pressure of the event got to him as he started to shake. The Queen immediately called her dogs over. She produced treats from her pocket for him to feed the dogs. She encouraged a dog to sit in his lap. Calm returned. These are not the actions of a heartless callous person, but someone who’d recognised a fellow human in distress.
I was also struck by the way she conducted herself in a visit to Ireland in 2011. This state visit topped the reconciliation process that began with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The next year in Northern Ireland she greeted a man who’d likely had a role in the assassination her uncle. Shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, she transformed the situation by normalising relations. That was a profound moment of rapprochement that signaled things had changed. A politician undertaking the same act could be a cynical gesture. She brought gravitas to the whole process by having no public agenda.
When King Farouk of Egypt was removed from his throne in 1952 he remarked that “soon there will be only five kings left”. The list consisted of the kings of spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs – and the King of England. Only time will tell.
The monarchy will be in a precarious position when Charles takes over. His wife does not enjoy wide support with the public. How this plays out is anyone's guess. Consent to sit on the throne is by no means certain. Fickle public sentiment could again swing against the House of Windsor.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.