Elizabeth the Last
The Queen, who is 80 today, is the best thing about the monarchy: constant, reassuring and one of the most accomplished politicians of our age. But the institution is finished, says Jonathan Freedland, and Elizabeth could well be all that’s keeping it alive
Friday April 21, 2006
The Queen has a habit of leaving people she meets tongue-tied. They are overwhelmed by the moment and either say nothing or babble things that make no sense. So it must have been for the bewildered member of the public who, faced with the monarch, could only remark that the lady before her looked a lot like the Queen. “How reassuring,” Her Majesty replied. The rock star Ozzy Osbourne, meanwhile, recalled that when he met the Queen, his only thought was that he was face to face with “the world’s biggest £20 note”.
And somewhere in these two stories lies the essence of our relationship with the woman who turns 80 today, and who has represented us as our head of state for 54 years.
For the Queen is ubiquitous in our national life in a way unmatched by any other human being. Her silhouetted profile is on our coins and stamps, her face on our bank notes; we all see her every day, more often than we might glimpse the face of our own mothers. And this is how it has been for the entire lives of most of us, and for most of the lives of the rest.
Her life is intimately bound up with what now constitutes Britain’s living memory. A newborn baby before the General Strike of May 1926, she was present during the abdication crisis of 1936. She was already a visible public figure, a princess and heiress to the throne, during the second world war. As Queen, she has received no fewer than 10 prime ministers: when Winston Churchill, a figure as remote from most young Britons as Horatio Nelson, served his final term at 10 Downing Street, his weekly audience was with the young Elizabeth. From Suez to the Beatles, the Sex Pistols to the miners’ strike, from Lady Diana to Big Borther, she has been there throughout – a kind of blue-blood Zelig, present in the background (and sometimes foreground) of most of the major events of the British 20th century and beyond.
So much has changed over these years, she may well be the only constant we have. Think of anything else that has been around as long – from the BBC to the Labour party – and they are all utterly transformed. Watch a movie set in 1960s London and all of it has vanished: the red telephone boxes, the Routemaster buses, the Hillmans and Austins. But she is still here. She was the Queen before there was Elvis, when computers were the size of a large room, when a third of the nation believed she had been handpicked by God. From the age of the steam train to the era of satnav, she has been on the throne through it all.
It is no wonder that she is in our dreams (one survey reportedly found that the most common British dream was of taking tea with the Queen). She exists somewhere deep in our collective consciousness, a sole fixed point in a world that has changed beyond all recognition. If she finds it reassuring that she looks like the Queen, then so do we.
But it is not just length of service that makes her feel like a permanent part of our landscape. It is also the way she has done her job. She has served in a demanding role, that of head of state, for half a century and has barely made a mistake. The job requires her to be politically neutral and, despite 54 years of attention to her every utterance, that is precisely how she is perceived. Scan through newspaper clippings of the second Elizabethan era and you will not find gaffes and crises, leaks of private remarks and subsequent denials. Instead she has played it straight, watching the dismantling of the British empire, the cold war, the industrial unrest of the 1970s and the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, letting slip barely a breath of an opinion.
That is no easy feat. Think of her uncle, the short-lived Edward VIII, and his flirtation with Adolf Hitler; think of her own mother, and her sympathy for pre-war appeasement; think of her husband’s regular, ethnically themed “jokes”. Or, more immediately, think of her son, with his constant interventions in public affairs – on complementary medicine, architecture, organic food, religion, foot and mouth – typified least flatteringly by his bombardment of government ministers with long, exasperated letters. Angry of Highgrove. Not the Queen’s style, not one little bit.
The truth is that, by the usual measures – namely, sustained popularity and an ability to avoid trouble – Elizabeth Windsor would have to be judged one of the most accomplished politicians of the modern era, albeit as a non-politician. There is only one substantial blot on the copybook: her failure to read the public mood after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. Her belated response, the televised address to the nation once she had finally broken off her summer holiday in Balmoral, had the visual grammar of a hostage video – as if she was compelled to read the words in front of her in order to save her skin. Which, in a way, she was.
For monarchists, this astonishing record is something to celebrate. For republicans it is a cause of decades-old frustration. For more than half a century, it has been impossible to get traction on the question of how we choose our head of state simply because the present incumbent has performed so effectively. Reformers have been left making abstract arguments, each one a blunt arrow bouncing off the steel armour of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Yet this week’s 80th birthday could, paradoxically, begin to turn that logic on its head. Republicans could admit the obvious – that the Queen has done a near-faultless job – but nevertheless start to raise the wider questions about the merits of monarchy. And those questions would have a relevance now that they might have lacked before, for one simple reason: mortality.
Yes, the Queen has done a grand job, republicans can argue; but she will not be around to do it for ever. Surely when any holder of a senior position turns 80 it is fair to start thinking not only about their successor but about the manner of their selection. And it is on this ground that the notion of royalty is most vulnerable. For no matter how admired the Queen is as an individual, there are few strong arguments for the defence, in principle, of the set-up that she embodies. The common-sense view of the whole matter can be summarised very crudely: nice lady, shame about the institution; great Queen, shame about the monarchy.
Over the 10 years or so that I have been debating this question, I have noticed the same dynamic repeat itself. Make a republican case, and people will rush to defend Elizabeth. But acknowledge the Queen’s remarkable decades of service; declare that she should continue to wear the crown until the day she dies; insist that, when she does, she be given a full state funeral with all the pomp and honour that would be owed by a grateful nation; and suggest that only then should we change the system to allow Britons to choose their own head of state … do all that and just watch how the debate shifts. A room that was three-to-one against a republic will become three- to-one in favour of it.
The arguments are simple and compelling, starting with the very notion of heredity. Even the most strident monarchist will usually dodge that idea rather than attempt to defend it. They can say little to rebut Tony Benn’s well-worn line that we wouldn’t trust the airline captain who announced over the public address system, “I’m not, in fact, a trained pilot – but don’t worry, my dad was.” Nor could they ever tackle Tom Paine, the great, woefully undervalued, British revolutionary, who believed that the notion of allocating positions of state according to birth was as absurd “as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary poet laureate”. We would not choose our prime ministers by bloodline – Mark Thatcher, anyone? – so why choose our head of state that way?
To that, the pragmatic royalist will ask why it even matters. The monarch has no real powers, they will say. She cuts a few ribbons, launches the odd ship, hosts the occasional state banquet: who cares? To which the answer is that the office of head of state matters enough that every country has it, even if it is sometimes combined with head of government. It matters enough that no ardent monarchist would ever countenance its abolition.
And it matters because it represents us, to the rest of the world, but, much more importantly, to ourselves. For better or worse, the head of state is the figurehead, the human embodiment of the British nation. What does it say about us if even now, in the 21st century, our symbol is the child of a single, white, aristocratic family, chosen solely by the blood in her veins? Much of British life used to be that way, when background determined all. We like to think we are different now, that our position is no longer a simple function of our birth. But in this single corner of our collective life, the old rules apply. And it is not just any corner, but the one that symbolises what kind of society we are.
Monarchists cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that this institution does not matter and, at the same time, insist that the core principle at its heart must never be changed. They should be honest about their true belief, that this institution is indeed important. On that, republicans would agree. As the Queen and her enduring place in the national imagination proves, the office of head of state matters a lot: it embeds itself deep in our collective marrow. By preserving it in perpetuity for a single, pampered family we send a powerful, subliminal message to every generation of Britons. You may work hard, we say; you may be full of talent and virtue. But you will never, ever, fill the highest office of the land. Your blood is not the right blood.
Most democracies abandoned such lunacy centuries ago, but here it persists. We talk the talk about social mobility, but on our national ladder, the top rung is always out of reach. Symbols matter and our central one says that Britain is a place where birth still determines rank.
Our politics is warped by this institution too. If we have an over-mighty, over-centralised executive it is because the prime minister is able to rule with quasi-monarchical powers, including the right to dole out seats in the upper house of our national legislature, under the crown prerogative. If we want to reform that, and we should, it will be near impossible to do it without touching the crown itself.
Traditionalists will say that our tourist industry will suffer. Republicans should point to Versailles and the White House in reply: two places that are hardly short of visitors, even though no hereditary monarch is in residence. Royalists will say that the monarchy provides much-needed continuity, with the Queen’s place over the past 60 years an eloquent illustration. This is their best argument, but there is a reply.
For the Windsors do embody a certain continuity, but it is with the history of their own family and their own class. Their ancestors are important, but they do not account for our entire history; there is more to our island story than fables of kings and queens. There is our restless pursuit of liberty and democracy: from Magna Carta to the revolution of 1688, from the Levellers and the Peasants’ Revolt to the Chartists and the Suffragettes. We yearn for continuity with that history too and monarchy will never provide it.
These are arguments that we need to have, and we need to have them now. If genes are any guide – and when it comes to royalty, you would think that they would be – Elizabeth could well live and reign for another 20 years, overtaking even Victoria’s 64-year record. But the way this system works, her successor will be anointed the second she dies: there will be no pause for a debate. If we want one, we have to have it now, so that we might reach a national consensus before the moment arises, not wait until it is too late. So let’s wish the Queen a very happy birthday; let’s hope she has many more to come and in good health; let’s thank her for all she has done. But let’s decide now that, when she goes, we bury this ludicrous institution with her.
On the balcony: which royal does most for the republican cause?
The Diana good looks might have helped, but they’re offset by a truly retro Etonian attitude to class. And his hair’s receding.
Republican rating: 7/10
Who? Invisible son of Anne. Sister Zara is a different story – her pierced tongue could win cred points. Worrying.
Republican rating: 5/10
Wins the party- boy vote but has inherited his grandfather’s knack for racist gaffes. A gift.
Republican rating: 8/10
King Charles III? Three little words which make the republican argument come alive.
Republican rating: 9/10
Still believe that genetics are a guide to ability? I don’t think so.
Republican rating: 8/10
A woman whose idea of public diplomacy was to immortalise the words “naff off”.
Republican rating: 7/10
For reformers who believe the royal family are overpaid do-nothings, he’s the poster-boy.
Republican rating: 8/10
So popular for so long, she’s the ultimate roadblock to reform.
Republican rating: 1/10
With his knack for offending people of all races, creeds and colours, he’s been a prize asset to the abolitionist cause.
Republican rating: 7/10
Eugenie and Beatrice
They might work as collectible dolls, but not quite head-of-state material.
Republican rating: 8/10