Queen Elizabeth II, who died yesterday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland at the age of ninety-six, became monarch in the early hours of February 6, 1952, while on safari holiday in the then British colony of Kenya. That she would reign for seventy years, becoming in the process the country’s longest-serving monarch, was a fact no one at the time could have foreseen.
Since her death, much has been made of the scale of social and political change that occurred in the years after she ascended the throne, as well as the modernization she oversaw in the institution of the monarchy itself — even if, for the most part, she merely acquiesced to the changes rather than driving them herself. She was, to hear the eulogies, that most oxymoronic of things: a “modern monarch,” who dragged the archaic institution into a new century.
The role of the monarch has undoubtedly undergone a profound series of changes in the past seventy years. Already a purely ceremonial role, it has retreated further from the everyday realities of political power in Britain; rare has been the occasion on which the queen’s mask of impartiality has slipped. Yet one of the enduring truths of British politics is that, as the political role of the monarch has declined, the constitutional — and ceremonial — one has increased, sometimes enormously.
As the historian David Cannadine observed, it was once a commonly held opinion that, as the population became better educated, “royal ritual would soon be exposed as nothing more than primitive magic, a hollow sham.” Would that were so; for now, the royal family is second only to the papacy in tawdry theatrics and magical ceremony, and the popularity of the recently deceased monarch is far in excess of any of the fifteen prime ministers who have run her various governments.
The question raised in all of this is then, of course, just what role does the pomp and circumstance of Britain’s top family actually play in the life of the British nation? To see the tearful crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace is to realize that the passionate embrace of the monarchy is no mere elite imposition but a popular enthusiasm. The monarchy, and Queen Elizabeth II more than any other, is so thoroughly encrusted into the psychic life of the nation that it is at times difficult to disentangle the two.
A Diligent Understudy
April 1926 was to prove an auspicious month for Britain’s ruling Conservative government. With the long and bitter dispute in the coalfields reaching its climax, the deadlock between the Miners’ Federation and the mine owners seemed to be moving inexorably toward open confrontation. “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day,” declared the miners as the national crisis escalated. So a call in the early hours of April 21 to the home secretary, Sir William Joyson-Hicks, to attend a royal birth was hardly the good news expected, not least with the meeting between coal owners and the prime minister due to take place the following day.
Still, he went along to the residence at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, London, and was at the scene when at 2:40 AM the child, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, was born. Less than two weeks later the general strike began, in which some 1.7 million workers walked out, threatening not just to bring Britain’s economy to its knees, but the very constitution itself.
Elizabeth was, at the time of her birth, third in line for the throne, and never expected to be more than a minor member of the royal entourage. Her father, the Duke of York, was the second son of the reigning monarch, George V, and it was his older brother, Edward, who was due to take the throne at their father’s death. Still, the birth of a young royal was met with both establishment and popular enthusiasm.
That the King’s death came so soon, when the young Elizabeth was just ten years old, shocked everyone, despite George’s long-precarious health. In his place came Edward VIII for his short and ill-fated rule. He was to last less than a year before the constitutional crisis caused by his planned wedding to the twice-divorced American socialite, and Nazi sympathizer, Wallis Simpson forced his abdication.
It is a testament to the royals’ powers of reinvention that, less than a century on from the abdication, a leading member of the royal family can not only wed, with much fanfare, another American divorcée — and a mixed-race one, to boot — but that Elizabeth’s once-divorced son, now happily married to his long-time mistress, will soon have his own coronation, placing him at the head of an Anglican church that only accepted remarriage in 2002. Such are the storms that Elizabeth has weathered over her long reign.
The Glamor of Backwardness
Her early years were cloistered, and her education insured, either by accident or by design, that she was uncommonly well qualified to be a royal figurehead. She never went to school nor to university: private tutors trained her in history and constitutional law. At the head of society, her social sphere was narrow: she mixed with the offspring of Britain’s aristocratic elite, otherwise her only brushes with the common folk were with the various servants and members of domestic staff that made up the royal household.
That the Queen was born in a private residence in London, and that her early walks, pushed in a pram through St James’s Park by her nanny “Crawfie,” were met by crowds of well-wishers offering gifts to the young royal, is nearly inconceivable. Today the royals are as removed from public life as the average Hollywood celebrity. Yet, the mediatization of their lives came to rival that of the film stars and television personalities whom they have come to emulate.
Elizabeth’s reign, of course, began with the first publicly televised coronation of a monarch. She, along with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was initially opposed to the idea of broadcasting the coronation, fearful that one wrong move, viewed by millions live on television, would ruin the ancient mystery of the monarchy. In this, they had nothing to fear. If anything, the vast media spectacle that is contemporary royalty has only served to heighten the mystique.
Five years after her coronation, in 1957, she recorded the first of her annual Christmas speeches to the nation; and in 1969, there aired a behind-the-scenes documentary about the life of working royals. It was, however, during the 1980s that the once deferential relationship between the royal family and the media began to change. The various scandals that resulted from the royal children’s bad behavior — from Charles’s much publicized affair with Camilla, to the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, only recently separated from her husband, Prince Andrew, being caught having her toes sucked by a lover — became just more tabloid fodder, splashed across the front pages of Britain’s red-top newspapers. If the Scottish historian Tom Nairn could once confidently pronounce that what the royals offered the nation was the “glamour of backwardness,” then it is one to which a distinctly modern sheen is frequently applied.
It was of course Nairn who did more than any other to excavate the meaning of the monarchy for the modern British nation. He, along with Perry Anderson, anatomized the British state in a series of penetrating essays during the 1960s and ’70s. The arguments they developed there — which came to be known as the “Nairn-Anderson” thesis — traced the roots of Britain’s postwar crises to the country’s early, and aborted, bourgeois revolution in the mid-seventeenth century.
Yet if Britain was early in entering the modern world, it was to pay a harsh price for being the world’s first modern capitalist state. For Nairn and Anderson, the result was a hybrid social-political system in which, rather than overthrowing the old feudal aristocracy, the nascent bourgeoisie held them in a long-upstanding alliance. The post-1688 political system was, in a word, a “bastard form.”
The place that the monarchy in general, and the Windsor clan in particular, have played in this has been pivotal. As Nairn wrote, in 1977:
It would be a much happier situation if Queen Elizabeth were functioning as an opiate to forestall the coming socialist revolution. The truth is many degrees more dismal. She and her pyramid of lackeys constitute a dead-weight repressing — so to speak — the revolution before last in Britain. Their ideological force is built upon a now ancient loss of radical nerve by the bourgeoisie itself — upon the inner capitulation of last century, most strikingly expressed for us by the virtual disappearance of middle-class republicanism in Victoria’s reign. The “magic” of our monarchs is the sweet odour of decay arising from this mountainous dunghill of unfinished bourgeois business.
For those of us of a Marxist persuasion, seeing the groveling deference and cloying sentimentality of many, even in the labor movement, to the news of Elizabeth’s death has been a disheartening sight. Yet, few on the Left have truly attempted to wrestle with the royal family’s enduring popularity, even among the country’s working class. In light of this, many on the Left have found it congenial to hold one’s hands up and proclaim that the monarchy never really mattered all that much after all. Others make the argument for a republic on financial grounds; as if the question of the “parasite in chief” sitting atop the throne at Buckingham Palace, as well as the hundreds of chinless hangers-on who continue to bleed the national purse for all they can get, could be reduced to a simple cost-benefit calculation.
One of the more intractable problems for any nascent republican movement in Britain is that, in the words of the novelist Martin Amis, “As in all matters royal, we are dealing here not with pros and cons, with arguments and counter-arguments; we are dealing with signs and symbols, with fever and magic.” And what the Monarchy reminds is that, even when empty, such magic has real material power. As Nairn councils: “There is little value in abusing the Monarch herself, in isolation from the decrepit Cathedral-State where she is enthroned. When this edifice is at last shaken down it will bury her dynasty in its ruins.”
If the symbol of Elizabeth represented anything at all over the past seventy years, it was stability and constancy. In this, the crises she and her family have faced — perhaps the most extreme coming in the months after Princess Diana’s death in 1997, where the Queen’s refusal to remove herself from her summer holiday in Balmoral and come to London to meet the grieving millions spurred even the usually supine tabloid, the Daily Express, to demand across its front page: “Show Us You Care” — have accentuated, rather than diminished, the institution’s appeal. In her blandness and neutrality, she has become a cipher for millions; an empty vessel into which the nation can lovingly pour whatever content most suits the moment.
The new king, Charles III, will have no such luck. Long unloved, not least following his tumultuous and ultimately tragic marriage to Diana Spencer, Charles will, as he himself has made clear, be a very different monarch to his mother. Politically opinionated where Elizabeth made great show of being above politics, he is known for his pet enthusiasms — not least his feudal Disneyland at Poundbury, a village built on his estate from the early 1990s and meant as his answer to the horrors of modern planning, and his advocacy of the quack medicine of homeopathy.
In recent years, he has been embroiled in a number of political scandals involving the selling of access to the royal household and honors to a Saudi billionaire, as well as the infamous “black spider” letters (so called because his childish scrawl resembled a series of black spiders) written by him to various government ministers, quizzing them on matters of policy — a fact that was only revealed by the Guardian in 2015 after a decade-long legal battle.
As the Labour minister Hugh Dalton recorded in his diary following Charles’s birth in 1948, “If this boy ever comes to the throne . . . it will be a very different country and Commonwealth he’ll rule over.” Now that his time has finally come, and Charles is granted the promotion for which he has been waiting for seventy years, to say that Britain is a changed country from the one his mother ruled from the years immediately following World War II is somewhat trite. The question of what it will be when it ends is still to play for.