Thank you Ma’am

Photo: Joel Rouse/ Ministry of DefenceDerivative: nagualdesign, OGL 3, via Wikimedia Commons

When I ended my last post nearly three weeks ago, I said that would be away for two or three weeks. How dramatic these weeks have turned out to be! The biggest event in news coverage terms, here in Britain, was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who was buried earlier this week. Whether this is as important those many other stories in actual terms is harder to say. But I want to say something about it.

I am an apathetic republican. I don’t think that the head of state should be monopolised by one family, and decided by heredity. But I am open to more pragmatic arguments about the monarchy’s usefulness – and there is no perfect democratic alternative. This apathy, whether one is for or against the institution, seems to be widely shared. It is remarkable how many supporters use its attraction to tourists as one of their principal reasons – talk about damning with faint praise. A lot of our feelings are tied up with the holder of the top job. Like most I have been impressed with Elizabeth’s towering sense of public duty, and the way that she has preserved the institution’s dignity over the 70 years of her reign. And a feeling that I owe her thanks.

Many have reported being affected by association with their own families. This has affected me too. She was born about a month before my mother (who passed away in 2009), and about six months after my aunt, who is still with us. It is as if she was a distant member of the family – and her passing marks the disappearance of that generation. Which leads us to contemplate our own mortality.

Looking back on the period of mourning, it was a remarkable ten day storm – one that arose very suddenly, and which has passed just as suddenly. On the Saturday following her death I read a Guardian headline suggesting that BBC leaders were struggling to balance their coverage with other events. That puzzled me a bit, though not enough to read the article. I had not observed any balance in the BBC’s coverage whatsoever. On Friday night the BBC aired an extended programme referred to as “News and Weather” in the schedule, lasting an hour. We did get a short weather bulletin at the end. But not so much as a second of “other news’. We kept watching in anticipation that they would gives at least a little new, but nothing came. There was little enough actual news about the Queen’s death and the royal succession – just endless circling and dredging through history. And those royal correspondents dripping complacency. The BBC became pretty much useless and I stopped viewing or listening. Until the funeral – most of which I watched. The coverage of that was good – mainly because the commentators said very little, and allowed the ceremony to speak for itself. Funnily enough all that processing in and out was more moving that the service itself.

What of Elizabeth and her legacy? She held completely to the doctrine that the monarchy should be non-political. She simply stood for general goodwill to all. In practice that meant doing whatever her prime minister advised her to do. As a constitutional model, it is a weak one. Democratic systems work best when there is tension, forcing people to justify their actions, and creating a dialogue through which people can work through the issues. Instead, our system depends on the prime minister not asking for anything improper. Its failure was evident in 2019, when she appointed Boris Johnson as prime minister, simply on the advice of his predecessor (Theresa May), who followed Conservative Party rules. Mr Johnson did not have any parliamentary mandate until the general election of December that year. Meanwhile he inherited all the formidable executive powers of that role. This reached its climax when he decided to suspend the troublesome parliament without any clear constitutional reason. The Queen went along with this outrage – it was only stopped by the Supreme Court. But the Queen probably did not have a choice, as she had no democratic mandate of her own and was tied to a particular set of precedents – the culmination of the decades of her rule. A head of state should have forced Mr Johnson either to get his parliamentary mandate, through a confidence vote, or let somebody else try, or call an election. A serious flaw was exposed in Britain’s constitution.

I think that episode was the only serious political blemish in the Queen’s reign. Her interventions in the affairs of the Royal Family were less happy, from vetoing her sister’s marriage to a divorcee, to manoeuvring her heir Charles away form his love, Camilla, leading on to the disastrous marriage with Diana Spencer and its still reverberating after effects. All to no avail as Camilla is now the Queen Consort. In this, though, the Queen was following advice from her family and courtiers. It would have required immense will to resist these forces. That was not how she saw her role. Her one serious act of individual will – her choice of husband – was accomplished before she took the crown.

What happens next is hard to say. It cannot be the same with King Charles, even if he tries to make it so. We have been so used to Elizabeth as the sovereign that it is very difficult to understand how things have changed. The safest prediction is that the constitutional monarchy will go on. It will require a crisis to change it. The period of mourning showed a yearning from the bulk of British people (even the Scots) to stand together after the divisions of Brexit – and it will take a major crisis to bring the monarchy into doubt.

If the monarchy goes, it will be as part of a wider crisis in the British state. The main threat to the constitution came from Boris Johnson. That has been removed (though he has one potential last, damaging act in appointments to the House of Lords) – but other dangers lurk – not least the independence movement in Scotland. That is for the future.

Meanwhile I just want to record my thanks to Her Majesty for a long life of loyal service to my homeland, and, indeed, to the wider world.

The Queen understands the nature of privilege

The weather may not be cooperating, but the Jubilee weekend ploughs on.  So far I have attended a Jubilee parade at the local primary school where I am Chair of Governors, and a barbecue hosted by a north London friend.  We are on our way to a damp riverside party in Docklands, where we may see some ships passing by on their way to and from the Thames pageant.  The are street parties in neighbouring streets, and the Tube lines are full.  There is a party mood about.

I have stood up to the National Anthem and toasted the Queen.  But amongst my fellow party-goers almost everybody is sceptical about the monarchy as a system, though respectful of the Queen herself.  We are definitely not a representative group, though to call us part of the “elite”, as many do of anybody who shares our liberal outlook, is a stretch.  None of us runs anything bigger than a primary school.

Meanwhile, much nonsense id being pumped out in the newspapers and on the radio (I’m avoiding the television, as usual).  The Queen has not let us down, claimed an article in the Evening Standard, unlike all those prime ministers – something that says everything about our expectations of the respective roles, and nothing about the competence and intent of those holding them.  The Queen is a human presence amongst all the stiffness and pomp that surrounds her says Matthew Parris.  Like Napoleon wearing a plain hat and coat amongst the splendour of his aides.  One of the worst features of the monarchy is pompousness and obsequiousness that it attracts.

The truth is that the Queen is something of a blank canvass, upon which we project our prejudices.  Right now these prejudices are all positive, but it has not always been so (remember Diana?).  We know very little about her – which is something of an achievement on her part, it has to be said.

What do I project onto this blank canvass?  To me the Queen represents the meaning of privilege, in all its good and some of its bad senses.  In modern usage, privilege has come to mean exclusive rights acquired purely through your status, and, implicitly, undeserved.  This one-sided meaning has taken hold in post-class society (and people who say that class is as rampant in current British society as ever have no idea what class is).  It may have originated from classless America, where Harry Truman railed against the “Republican gluttons of privilege” – which would have been back in the 1940s.

My late mother (who was the same age as the Queen to within a month) always hated this usage of the word.  She was by no means aristocratic, voted Labour at the first opportunity in 1945 and hated Toryism.  But her upbringing, as the daughter of a senior churchman and professor, and being brought up on a cathedral close, was certainly privileged.  To her privilege was a two-sided thing.  It implied responsibilities.  You would hesitate to accept it.  We have caught a sugar-coated version of this on the popular TV series Downton Abbey.  And I don’t think I am stretching my imagination too far to suggest that the Queen embodies this understanding of privilege.  She puts duty first.  She maintains a busy schedule of state commitments (somewhat in contrast to her one diamond predecessor, Victoria), and is never undiplomatic.  People I know who have glimpsed the royals in the flesh are struck with the, well, professionalism, with which they carry out their role.  And if the Queen despises some of the lesser of her subjects (which I doubt), she never, ever lets it show.  That would not be within the meaning of privilege.

The Monarchy, at least in England, will survive a long, long time provided that its incumbents remember that this is what privilege means.