by Yuan Yi Zhu
Friday, 3
June 2022
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07:00

The mystical power of the monarchy

The Queen is an integral part of the nation's subconscious
by Yuan Yi Zhu
Credit: Getty

Only four times in recorded history has a monarch achieved seven decades of continuous reign, and barring some extraordinary sequence of events, Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee will be the last platinum jubilee any of us will ever witness. In five years, Her Majesty will be 101 years old, an actuarially unforgiving age, and her longevity on the throne will be so beyond our lived experience and vocabulary that the resulting jubilee — if there is one — will be called a diamond jubilee once again. None of her heirs and successors is likely to be as young as she was on their accession, nor will any of them reign for as long as she has.

Longevity has a mystique of its own, but also brings its descriptive dilemmas. Almost everything that could be said about the Queen has been said since the day she stepped off her plane at London Airport after her father’s death in 1952, a strikingly modern entrance which still has the power to move us even today. 

Though brave efforts have been made to define the essence of this Second Elizabethan Era, as her reign was being optimistically described in 1952, it is hard to find any common theme uniting these seven long decades, except perhaps for ever-present anxieties about national decline.

Celebrations for this Jubilee, modelled largely on the pattern of previous ones, share the same lack of focus. Staples such as Trooping of the Colour and the traditional flypast are supplemented by new tree planting and literacy initiatives, scientifically designed by committees to be as unobjectionable to as many of her subjects as possible. It is even reported that organisers of the Jubilee pageant were ordered by Buckingham Palace to avoid “over-glorifying or over-egging” the Queen, lest British republicans, who count among their ranks some of the most professionally joyless people in the country, should be offended.

But it would be a mistake to overthink such things, as those who make their living with words are wont to do. The appeal of monarchy, even in its most democratic manifestations, has always been a fundamentally mystical one. Queen Elizabeth has many virtues, which are made so much more poignant by their gradual disappearance from today’s public life. 

But as sneering republicans often point out, there are many virtuous old ladies everywhere, and none of them will be celebrated in quite the same way. This misses the point. The Queen is the Queen, and not any old lady, because of the remorseless laws of primogeniture — by accident of birth, in other words, but one “which identified the life of her family with our history, and which made what came of her an exemplar for the country”.

The last line came not from the pen of a court sycophant, but that of Charles de Gaulle, writing to the head of the royal family long deposed by the republic which he headed. It is often said by embarrassed monarchists that one would not choose a monarchical form of government if one built a country from scratch. But de Gaulle understood that he was not building a country from scratch, nor should wish for a tabula rasa even if he could. 

Countries and peoples do not exist on infinitely malleable ahistorical floating timelines, and the Queen, as well as the institution of which she is the head, form an integral part of the vast subconscious of the nation. In an age where so much of that collective body of habits, memories, and manners has been superseded, for better or for worse, it is natural that its most stable — and frankly irrational — element should shine even more brightly.

God save the Queen, happy and glorious.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 months ago

“…lest British republicans, who count among their ranks some of the most professionally joyless people in the country, should be offended”.
Had to have a giggle at that one – how true. I am something of a part-time republican these days – but I think I’d be more enthusiastic about the prospect if there were fewer committed sourpusses among the existing population. Who articulated a positive view of a future state rather than just whining about unearned privilege.
I think mystical is the right way to explain the continued fascination and devotion to the monarchy. It does feel instinctive, a little irrational and quite divorced from the specific person who occupies/will occupy the top spot (although, at 40, I’ve only ever known QE2). It’s rather like the odd feeling of home I get whenever I’m near the sea and get the salt air in my nose.
It’s this basic feeling of belonging that can only be felt and not really described but which not even decades living in a landlocked republic can erase.

Martin Powers
Martin Powers
3 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

ed32

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
3 months ago

Excellent article, great job at putting the ineffable into words.