Historians of the future will find Britain an odd place. Here was a country which many loved and yet where displays of overt patriotism, let alone tub-thumping nationalism, made them uncomfortable.
To circumvent this, they projected all that patriotic feeling, all that flag-waving and ceremony and ritual, onto one family — who weren’t even British originally. So instead of days commemorating national independence, or great military victories against rivals, which would all feel a bit foreign and vulgar, they celebrated the birthdays, weddings and funerals of this one family, who they both venerated and sort of tormented (their loutish media even hounded a princess to her death). What a strange country.
It’s testimony to the British monarchy’s continual survival and relative strength that the decision of an Oxford College common room to take down the portrait of the Queen feels significant.
While it’s sad on the one hand, it also seems strange and archaic that they even had a picture of the Queen in the first place. It would be like finding out that real-life prison crime lords had pictures of Her Majesty in their cells, like Noel Coward in The Italian Job. Or that they were still playing the national anthem before gigs, as in the Beatles’ day. A cultural revolution has swept the country, and the monarchy remains the last vestige of the old order.
Despite our common disagreements over life at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, the monarchy has so far largely avoided entanglement in our culture wars, possessing a fairly impeccable record on race and espousing a more general British Niceness that covers most ranges of opinion. (It’s telling that the Queen’s removal was spearheaded by an American student, unironically protesting “colonialism”.) Yet that will start to change, and as we live through the final chapter of the second Elizabethan era, more trouble lies ahead for the Royals.
The monarchy’s great skill is to build a narrative, in particular to preserve the fiction that the nation is an extended family, with the Windsors as its representatives. Their life cycle is celebrated as the nation’s, their joy is our joy, their sorrow is the same as the blows and hardships we endure.
Royal weddings become a symbol of the nation’s hope and optimism, and the family’s most recent high point was the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Even I was rather surprised by how much I enjoyed the day, watching with four generations of in-laws; because modern life so unnaturally starves us of the endorphins produced by group activity, it can feel exhilarating when things are done together.
It even got me ruminating on the meaning of monarchy and its role within a hyper-social species such as ours, as well as the importance of ritual. Although in fairness, I had started drinking at 11am on a Friday, which might have had something to do with it.
Even in my area, one of those pleasant London inner suburbs where luxury beliefs are the norm, there was a pile of unsold Guardians the next day while all the copies of the Mail and Express had gone. (The only other time I’d seen that in Haringey was after the riots that summer, reflecting the most basic of human instincts – venerate the chief and protect the tribe from violence.)
More recently, we shared in the family’s sorrow at the funeral of Prince Philip, who would have turned 100 today. As well as his work with charities and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, much of the funeral television coverage featured married couples who, like the Queen and Duke, had enjoyed or endured decades of marriage together, and so the royal union came to represent their own. The Royal Family’s suffering was theirs, just as their joy was, which is why Britain’s small band of eccentric republicans always have such a hard time not appearing mean-spirited.
Yet the royals are not ordinary people; indeed, in some strange way they are throwbacks to the pre-Christian world where the separation between divine and mortal was ambiguous. It’s well known that Prince Philip was worshipped as a god on one island, but as a reader on The Rest is History podcast pointed out, Philip was the closest modern equivalent to a hero from legend. Like Aeneas he had to flee his homeland following a war in the land of Ilium, and came to wander the sea like Odysseus; he fought heroically in war, was a great chariot racer (he was even a pilot) and married a foreign queen before achieving divine status.
This is Britain, though, and unlike the ancients we don’t like boasting about great deeds of war and renown. So he just became known as Phil the Greek who liked insulting foreigners.
The thing is, we aren’t at all like these people — which is why the system works. Meritocracy is, to mangle Churchill’s famous quote, the worst system except all the others. It’s better we reward people for gaming the Oxbridge system or making a pile in finance rather than for their ancestor’s ability to swing a sword on horseback. Yet it also creates numerous problems of its own, some of which are eased by monarchy.
Chiefly, there is the quite serious problem of runaway status-anxiety, which manifests itself in all sorts of problems, ranging from mental health to over-spending to political radicalisation.
Royalty takes the pressure off. Prince William is roughly my age, but I am never going to compare myself to him, nor feel like a failure in comparison. In contrast, I might compare myself with that pillock from school or university who goes on to become far more successful than me.
Meritocracy also wears down the sense of noblesse oblige, the idea that elites have a duty to care for those less fortunate, and to feel humble and grateful. There are now almost no mechanisms for suppressing the ego and narcissism of the ruling class, and so the Royal Family are almost a freakish exception in this regard.
The rituals associated with monarchy may seem arcane and even absurd, but they provide a function in drawing prestige and splendour away from the powerful. The unchanging nature of ceremony removes the individual ego, and where people in power innovate, they also reflect their own glory. Tradition is about sublimating narcissism, why is why non-traditional ceremonies — secularised weddings or “naming ceremonies” — make everything about the individual.
The Blairite love of abandoning tradition was a symptom of an extreme lack of humility. When the boss changes the ancient dress-code he may be being nominally progressive, but he’s also asserting his dominance; the new rituals reflect the new lord’s worldview.
The Royal Family remain far more liked and respected than the people who would replace them, but that is the nature of modern democracy, a degrading popularity contest which inevitably leads us to feel contempt for those in charge, often quite rightly. It’s why more democracy is not always a good idea.
There has, in recent years, been quite a bit of research showing the benefits of monarchy in raising social trust and even increasing economic growth. It partly explains why monarchies are associated with political stability, and account for seven of the 10 least corrupt nations on earth. If you were going to live in any country on earth and all you knew about this mystery place was whether it was a republic or monarchy, you’d obviously go for the latter. The worst outcome would be Saudi Arabia; in contrast the depredations possible under a president are limitless – Syria, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan… the list goes on. If you were to expand that test to the last 200 years, then the contrast only becomes more extreme.
Yet all these arguments are essentially utilitarian; that the monarchy has proved its “historical utilitarianism” just as with Chesterton’s Fence. Yet fences may still rot, and all ancient institutions, whether of monarchy, Church or nation itself, depend on some myth-making and targeted amnesia. Like Tinkerbell’s fairies, they only exist so long as people believe in them. If people still think the Church plays a useful role in social capital but don’t believe in the Resurrection, the Church will still die; likewise, with the monarchy.
Few people believe the coronation represents God’s choosing of the monarch, and not that many even care about the national church she leads, but more importantly, few really buy into the myth of their being the nation’s guardians, or that their sovereignty and higher status is somehow natural or justified. Perhaps more seriously still, the 2019 proroguing controversy removed any doubt that the monarch is utterly powerless. The idea that Her Majesty was a check on overmighty politicians may have been a myth, but it was one we all pretended to believe in.
Without that shared belief, the monarchy lacks the moral support it needs to face some rough years ahead, not just with the scandal of Prince Andrew, the fall-out with Meghan and Harry, and the damage to the next king from The Crown. It is quite seriously unpopular with younger people, an age divide that, like many things, is relatively recent.
Despite all this, the Royal Family is in ways well-suited to 21st century politics, in particular the recent fact of multiculturalism. Monarchies are historically more tolerant, and Daniel Finkelstein’s grandmother’s saying, “While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we are safe in Hendon Central”, reflects a real historical truth.
The polarisation problem, too, favours our Queen. The monarchist argument used to be that without her, we’d get President Blair, but more likely Britain would have a presidential figurehead – like in other former monarchies such as Germany, Austria and Ireland – and it would be someone like David Attenborough.
Yet whether even Attenborough qualifies anymore for that role, modern societies don’t produce “national darlings” anymore, neutral figures beloved by the collective nation. Almost no public figure is apolitical today, just as few areas of life are apolitical, because we are going through something akin to a reformation.
That is bad news for the royals, since monarchies have usually found great religious divides difficult because, from the time of the Emperor Justinian onwards, they have sought to be neutral yet often ended up antagonising everyone. At some point the House of Windsor will need to decide on which side of this cultural divide it stands, because a more general British Niceness won’t do anymore. Their predecessors the Stuarts faced the same question – and they chose the losing side.