Sun 23 Apr 2006
Queen of our time
EIGHTY years on; 54 of them as reigning monarch - the Queen is assuming an iconic status independent of her image on coins and postage stamps. Even in today's era of increasing longevity, turning octogenarian is not an experience anyone can take for granted; it still commands a degree of awe, more especially when accompanied by a constitution so healthy as to deny the calendar.
There is an important distinction to be made between the atmosphere surrounding the Queen's 80th birthday and her recent Golden Jubilee. The jubilee was a commemoration of half a century of public service, in which the nation was celebrating its own identity as well as the sovereign. The birthday celebrations of the past few days simply mark the passing of time in the life of one woman, made significant by the fact she is Queen.
Behind the hilarity and good wishes, there is a reserve of gentle melancholy about this occasion, not on the part of the Queen but among her subjects, confronted by evidence of the subtle but relentless advance of time. When any private citizen - even a celebrity - reaches 80, the impact is limited; but because the Queen has been a universal presence in all our yesterdays, her ageing impinges on the consciousness of her subjects in a personal way.
This is the beautiful young woman we saw crowned - do we remember Coronation Day? For a particular generation of Britons that event had the same landmark significance as recalling where one was when John F Kennedy was shot. And so many other public occasions since - where did the time go? The majority of her subjects have known no other monarch. So there is a personal, almost selfish, dimension to our reaction to this birthday. History has been fast-forwarded and it is disturbing: for all but the young, a reminder of our own mortality.
British chronology is reckoned in royal reigns; epochs of history are named after kings and queens: the Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian ages. It is startling to realise how deeply the monarchy is embedded in the nation. We do not have a British Navy, other than colloquially: we have the Royal Navy. When politicians and the media so often underestimate this symbiosis, they betray the shallowness not only of their comprehension of the monarchic institution, but of their own roots in British society.
"The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable." Those words, written by a journalist, actually refer to Queen Victoria. It seems incredible that, in this state without a written constitution, we once allowed a journalist to compose the nearest approximation - and to acquire a kind of quasi-institutional authority. Yet Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist, wrote a treatise on the constitution that is routinely quoted today with as much respect as Dicey or Erskine May.
It was Bagehot who so concisely categorised the royal prerogative as "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn". Whether or not constitutional lawyers would accept that as an accurate definition, it is the one that enjoys popular currency. Bagehot's authority derives from his instinctive feeling for the constitution, as when he observed: "Royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A Republic is a government in which that attention is divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting actions."
That is a perceptive remark, as was his view that "Royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to understanding". Therein lies the lack of credibility of the Fabian, republican grumbling appendix to British public life. The obsession with "equality" (except in matters of personal finance) among the politically correct, the hatred of "pomp", the relentless drive for grey uniformity tell us more about the neuroses of their proponents than about any imagined benefits.
The vociferous republican fringe likes to denounce monarchy as an "anachronism". Not like republics, eh, which only date back to - er - 1000BC and beyond? And who would be president of a putative British republic? A widely despised party leader, put out to grass? Ken Livingstone? The winner of some contest on reality television? Can you name the president of Germany? Then we had better not venture to enquire about the heads of state of Greece, Turkey or Iceland. On the other hand, most people have heard of King Juan Carlos of Spain and other monarchs, partly because they have been around longer than any presidents.
That reflects one of the great strengths of the monarchic system: continuity. The Queen has more political experience than any of her prime ministers, even on the day they demit office (Churchill being the exception). A monarch is also disinterested, whereas a president will either have a party political background or, at the least, be indebted to certain interest groups that secured his elevation.
Why should someone rule by an accident of birth, the disaffected may ask. In fact a British sovereign reigns, rather than rules; and the accident of birth is defensible as a happy compromise that reflects our cultural heritage and removes any controversy from the issue of who should be head of state.
Those who dislike the monarchy harp on about wealth and privilege. Yes, the Queen is one of the richest people in the world; but what good does it do her? When did she last sun herself on a tropical beach? The self-indulgent lifestyle of the celebrity nouveaux riches is as far from her experience as it is from any wage slave in a tedious job. While Michael Douglas and his wife may jet off to any exotic destination that takes their fancy, the Queen is engaged in conversation with the mayor of Scunthorpe or the supervisor of a widget factory.
We have been bombarded with a great deal of nonsense about the monarchy during the Blair years; but the Diana hysteria has run its course. There is a mood now that favours stability, even restraint. The pendulum is beginning to swing against a spill-your-guts emotional incontinence, Oprah-style. The kindly, but reticent demeanour of the Queen represents all that is best in the British character. With prime ministers assuming presidential pretensions, we need the monarch more than ever as a constitutional bulwark.
The problems that have preoccupied the media in the past 20 years have not related to the monarchy, but to the Royal Family - a separate entity, as Bagehot recognised: "A family on the throne is an interesting idea also. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life." Writing in 1867, Bagehot was clearly hoping for a lasting reform of lifestyle from the recently married Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), but saw this as a peripheral issue.
The purpose of the monarchy is to maintain the constitution, not to furnish a paradigm of family life. If it does so - as under Victoria, George V, George VI and the present Queen, until woefully let down by a younger generation - that is icing on the cake. With the institution of the family so beleaguered, it would be highly desirable for the reigning House to set an example. For the sovereign, however, the basic priority is the constitution. That is why the future status of the Duchess of Cornwall poses a more serious problem than any royal mistress: personal life here confronts the constitution. Our best hope is that the Queen enjoys similar longevity to her doughty Scottish mother. Long may she reign.
This article: http://news.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=609092006
Last updated: 22-Apr-06 00:16 BST