We are 12 years into the twenty-first century. We’ve walked on the moon, built the World Wide Web, abolished slavery and we have an app for pretty much everything else. On the face of it, a hereditary monarchy should be anachronism, yet we are also in the year of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And somehow I failed to experience any cognitive dissonance while I found myself ripping some fado CDs to iTunes for my iPad while watching a BBC documentary in which one of best-known historians commented on Her Majesty’s quiet modernisation of the constitutional monarchy.
In last year’s ASK Journal, we profiled 12 leaders who we picked as examples of qualities associated with leadership. Queen Elizabeth II was one of them, and the quality was being wise. Having never granted an interview (which it’s not impossible to argue as an example of wisdom it would have been a relief to see many others follow), quotations from The Queen are not as easy to track down as those from the ‘great men’ of politics and industry. One example shows a humility and wisdom that would also have been welcome from more of her subjects over the last 60 years:
We lost the American colonies because we lacked the statesmanship to know the right time and the manner of yielding what is impossible to keep.”
(The quote also shows an acceptance that authority as a leader is not always undermined by conceding that something must be let go of that would also be a welcome sight if it were more widespread.)
Granted, companies and politicians lack the constitutional guarantee of succession that comes with her role, but the broader sweep of history outside the Commonwealth has ended numerous monarchies elsewhere. Despite which, Britain remains heavily monarchist: an Ipsos MORI poll last year showed steady support over the past few years, and even an increase in those thinking that the monarchy would still be with us in the medium-term future. It’s one of those moments when you wish you had a time machine, so you could travel back to a turbulent year of your choice (the ‘Annus Horribilis’ perhaps, or the time of Edward VII’s abdication) and put a tenner on the monarchy outlasting Woolworths.
Viewing the Royal Family as a company is possibly treason, so don’t be surprised if this blog also ceases trading, although given that we’re led to understand that they themselves refer to it as ‘The Firm’, perhaps my head will stay on my shoulders. But there are some practical reasons for its endurance, one of which presumably is the traditional issue of barriers to entry. Or, to be insurrectionary, to stop having a monarchy we’d have to start having something else.
We could elect a head of state, and the world has several constitutional models to offer. Most of them, however, render the head of state as a politician – something that The Queen has been careful not to be. Lips are sealed with as much tradition as documents and warrants in the royal household, albeit with less wax. And as various polls show, not only do we as subjects prefer the idea of a monarch, but our faith and trust in politicians and captains of industry has suffered rather a lot of Anni Horribiles. Little wonder that a LeftFootForward blog summarising recent polls on the issue quotes Sunder Katwala:
British Republicanism is perhaps the least successful political project of my lifetime.”
Its would-be innovative supplanter – republicanism – rests in a seemingly fatal trap: it wants us to have democratically elected heads of state, but can’t establish a modest majority that would vote for making the change. And as Sunder Katwala points out elsewhere, a view that monarchy is a handbrake on modernisation can mistake tradition for conservatism:
It is said that the Monarchy is a stifling symbol of class and hierarchy. Yet the Monarchy did not prevent the creation of the NHS and the Beveridge welfare state, nor the rolling back of that post-war settlement. Whatever it is that prevents Britain from emulating Sweden and choosing to be more equal, it is unlikely to be the fact of constitutional monarchy, which happens to be a feature of egalitarian and female friendly Scandinavian-style social democracy.”
It doesn’t help the republican case that international comparisons show no clear advantage for dispensing with the services of a royal entourage.
All of which, of course, has little to do directly with the woman in question. It’s highly unlikely that she is about to pass comment – certainly not publicly – on any of these questions. (Although the number of Special Royal Supplements that the daily press would be able to sell if she ever did would probably seal the deal on the economic benefits of her retention in perpetuity.) Andrew Marr’s programme did highlight a raft of areas in which The Queen has changed, or agreed to change, the workings of the monarchy: garden party invitations for the ordinary subject, no more debs’ balls, no more yacht, paying tax … (Although The Economist was surely right in being perplexed at hearing William and Catherine’s wedding described as ‘modern’ and ‘relaxed’.)
Given that my time machine hasn’t arrived from Amazon yet, if I’m going to put a fiver on the future of the monarchy in Britain, I’d pick a different reason – and a different attribute of the queen. Though we are all her subjects, her intense sense of duty means that she sees her role as serving us. Marr’s new biography explains that she views the hereditary principle as humbling: she cannot claim to occupy her position on merit, even if she were to be chosen in a hypothetical public ballot of members of her family. (A mind-boggling thought, if only for the prospect of the electoral broadcasts and billboard posters.) To re-run two further quotations:
I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else – I can give my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.”
And more pertinently as a personal motto for others to contemplate:
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.”
Indeed, reading the comments on innumerable blogs that have covered either the TV series or the book in recent weeks, it’s striking that even the most die-hard republican commentators pretty much refrain from any personal disrespect. The Queen may be a symbol – of our constitution, our country, the Commonwealth, or (as Douglas Herd described her) just ‘Best of British’ – and she may have acknowledged the wisdom that symbols should largely remain silent, but she is also an embodiment of an institution. Perhaps the final words on her performance through hugely changing times should acknowledge the scrutiny of one of ‘those who doesn’t’, from a comment at The Economist web site:
I’m an aetheist, republican Australian and yet I’m in no rush to eject the queen whose poise, knowledge of government, sense of tradition and private reticence is a model for public service. Long,[sic] live the Queen. She represents a quaint, unnecessary institution that is on its last wind but she does an exceptionally good job of it […]”