After 70 years on the throne, Elizabeth II is a global figurehead, family ructions notwithstanding. How will any of us fare without her?
“Normal Queen’s Christmas Day speeches are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy might have written had he lived 150 years later and 1500 miles further west, “[but] every abnormal speech is abnormal in its own way.” And the speech the Queen gave at the end of 2021 was nothing if not abnormal.
Nine times out of ten the speech and its contents are forgotten later that afternoon when people slump drunken and stuffed in front of James Bond, another long-running and quintessentially British franchise whose instalments can seem interchangeable.
But this one was different. It came at the end of a gruelling year in which her husband of almost 75 years had died, her favourite son’s involvement in a sex trafficking scandal had become ever more damaging, and her grandson had turned his back on the family before publicly criticising them in an interview shown round the world.
These things bite hard no matter who you are, and the strain was evident. No wonder the Queen looked tired and drawn. She has for so long seemed almost ageless, even while stepping back from some of her frontline duties, and her eventual demise has consequently appeared rather theoretical and distant. But no longer.
It is, I hope, neither disrespectful nor ghoulish to say this. It’s certainly not intended to be: quite the opposite. But it would be mulish to pretend that a 95-year-old has unlimited time left, and even more mulish to do so when her death will have a more profound effect on this country (and in some ways on the world itself) than that of almost anyone else.
Any death can be in various measures tragic, shocking, resonant and sad, but in almost all cases the waters soon close over again and the river of life rolls on. The Queen’s death, however, will entail not just the usual short-term shock, it will also have medium-term ramifications for the monarchy and long-term ones for the country.
It will force us to confront fundamental national questions of who we are and what we value, questions sprung from social fault lines to which her own splendid example has helped us turn a blind eye. She has not so much papered over the cracks as slapped wallpaper across the San Andreas Fault.
The immediate impact of her death will be broader and deeper than many people imagine. It is tempting to make comparisons with the death of Diana 25 years ago, but there is no real equation. The reaction to Diana’s death was informed in various measures by its suddenness and her youth, by two young boys losing their mother, by the soap opera that had been her life, and by the sheer divisive nature of her character.
I was working in Victoria at the time and cycled past Buckingham Palace twice a day; even a quarter of a century on I clearly remember not just the size of the crowds but their mood too – sometimes quiet and subdued, at other times simmering with an anger which felt piquant and performative in equal measure. That emotion, those pleas to the Queen herself to “show us you care”: they flared up hot and fast, but then faded just as quickly.
The reaction to the Queen’s death will be deeper and broader. There will be little shock and less anger, for what will there be to get angry about? Some mourners for Diana said they felt they’d lost a member of their family, but with the Queen it may feel we’ve lost a part of ourselves.
For seven decades she’s been the symbol of the nation, an integral part of our communal daily lives in so many ways we hardly notice them. Her head is on our coins and stamps, we pay tax to her Revenue and Customs Service, we see defendants tried in her name, our best barristers are called her counsels.
No one under the age of 80 will have many, if any, memories of a monarch other than her. She has seen fourteen separate men and women serve as her Prime Minister and, if rumblings from Westminster are to be believed, she may soon make it fifteen. Her personal life is our national life and vice versa.
That national life will be turned upside down in the days and weeks after her death. Work will be disrupted, if not officially then certainly through the mass sharing of news and discussion, for this will be a collective event if ever there was one.
It will ostensibly be all about her, but actually it will be all about us and our communal desire to bear witness and participate. Combine Clap for Carers and Euro 2020, raise that to the power of ten, and you will still be nowhere near.
For a brief period there’ll be an outpouring of patriotism, enough to sweep up even doubters like the eighteenth-century satirist, Samuel Johnson, who famously labelled patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel”.
Television schedules will be radically altered at short notice. Both Houses of Parliament will be recalled. The former Prince of Wales, now King, will tour the four home nations. World leaders will come to London in their hundreds; only two other incumbents, the President and the Pope, could attract such a stellar cast to their send-offs.
The funeral itself will see central London locked down and the nation glued to its screens. These events have of course been planned for decades, and those plans are regularly updated. Under the catch-all of “Operation London Bridge”, the relevant parties – government departments, the military, the police, transport operators, broadcasters, the Royal Parks and of course the palace itself – meet two or three times a year. Few countries do pomp and ceremony like the British, and those involved are understandably determined to make this not just good, but perfect.
For Charles, of course, this period will be exponentially more dislocating than for anyone else. Of the eight-day no-man’s-land between his father George V’s death and funeral in January 1936, Edward VIII said: “I had the uneasy sensation of being left alone on a vast stage.”
Charles will be dealing with the death of his mother and trying to follow the hardest of acts while taking up a position for which he has waited his whole life. How many people get to fulfil their destiny only when they’re considerably past retirement age? What a strange situation in which to find oneself.
This is where the medium-term ramifications begin, for the manner in which Charles chooses to reign will be crucial to the monarchy’s future. That he will not be as popular as his mother goes without saying, for no one could be.
The Queen’s genius, by accident or design, has been to render herself a blank canvas onto which each and every one of us (the word “subjects” feels too archaic here, albeit technically correct) can project exactly what we like. She reflects back to the British many of the ways in which we like to see ourselves: practical, sensible, industrious, uncomplaining, good-humoured and devoted to animals.
“I declare before you all,” she said on her 21st birthday in 1947, “that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
The paradox of the Queen is that she is at once both stupendously famous and totally unknowable
Since then, she has rarely if ever said anything controversial or even especially interesting, at least in public. This is not a criticism: interesting statements invite debate, and debate is something the monarchy likes to leave to other people.
The paradox of the Queen is that she is at once both stupendously famous – very possibly the best-known person in the world if the metric is simply how many people could identify her from a photograph – and totally unknowable. Her outer life is recorded in a million ways, her inner one not at all.
Charles is not like this. When he takes the throne he’ll be around half a century older than his mother was. Half a century of a bitterly failed first marriage and an apparently contented second one, a very public affair, endless lobbying of ministers, and the public espousal of causes both reasonable and less so.
Whatever else Charles is, a blank canvas he is not. He comes with opinions of his own, and he certainly comes with other people’s opinions of him. It will be impossible for him to be a neutral symbol. This would be less of a problem if his reign represented a radical new departure, a root-and-branch reboot full of energy, as might be the case were the crown to pass straight to William. But it can’t and it won’t.
Charles is already a reasonably old man himself, and it will be hard for him to avoid the impression that his reign, no matter how long or short, is little more than an interregnum between his mother and his son.
This in turn begs a question that is too often left unaddressed: what, exactly, is a monarchy for? The desirability or otherwise of an institution can primarily but not exclusively be measured by a simple question: if you were building a society from scratch, would you include it?
When it comes to the monarchy, the answer to this question for most people would be “no”. It may have made sense in centuries past when kings and queens were thought to have the divine right to rule, but a family set apart from everyone else and afforded unimaginable privileges in the process is not the stuff of which modern-day utopias are made.
So the next question is: notwithstanding that, can the institution justify its existence? It can only do that if it knows what it is for.
There are four reasons for a monarchy to exist. The first is political: a monarch is a guarantor of neutrality, a head of state held above and apart from the fractious and often petty nature of party politics. It is not so much the possibility of a monarch needing to intervene in government, which is very remote, but more the fact that the person representing the nation is not a politician – a sign that civic society rather than politics is a nation’s lodestar.
The second is historical. The monarch is a link between past and present, the latest incumbent in a line which, excepting a decade or so of Oliver Cromwell, stretches back almost a millennium.
Almost every schoolchild has at some stage been obliged to study the kings and queens of England, and for even the most famous (or infamous) examples the position is more important than the holder. One of the most striking things about the royal family is not how much it has changed over the years, but how little. It’s a theatre: the set and players may change, but the institution does not.
The third is social. Royalty has both the opportunity and the responsibility to promote good causes. A royal patronage is still something that charities keenly seek, not just for the imprimatur of approval, but also for the more practical and financial benefits that increased media coverage brings.
Whether this is Prince Philip and the World Wildlife Fund, Princess Anne and Save The Children or Prince William and Heads Together, the effect is the same: royals give not just their names but also their time and effort to the causes they espouse.
And the fourth is psychological – more intangible than the other three, but in some ways more important too. Jungian psychology holds that we each have within ourselves four archetypes: the warrior (decisiveness, conviction, loyalty), the lover (sensuality, creativity, emotion), the magician (insight, learning, innovation), and the sovereign (coherence, unity, purpose).
These archetypes are what make us respond to narratives about war, love, magic and kingship, and have done so pretty much since men and women first sat round a fire and told each other stories. The ideal of the sovereign – wise, courageous, fair, and above all a leader – dates back to ancient history and beyond, encompassing biblical times, mythology and folklore. Because the attachment to sovereignty transcends culture and country, the British royal family is also to a large extent the world’s royal family.
This is mainly for reasons of history and language; the legacy of empire dies slowly for an institution whose roots are so obviously in the past, and English being the global lingua franca helps with mass appeal. But if the House of Windsor didn’t exist then another house would take its place as the default example.
Up to a third of Britons have dreamt about the Queen, in particular having tea with her
The Queen has long understood this, repeatedly maintaining: “I have to be seen to be believed.” Many people become excited beyond rational measure when meeting royalty, recounting in breathless tones what the Queen said to them on a walkabout or similar.
What the Queen actually said inevitably turns out to be banal, but the import of the moment is of course in the provenance of the words rather than the content. It’s easy to scoff, but these responses come from deep places. Up to a third of Britons have reportedly dreamt about the Queen, in particular having tea with her, because, well, you know, it’s British.
So if you sneer, maybe you’re the one not thinking hard enough about it. Just because it’s hard to articulate doesn’t mean it’s not important. This is the effect of royalty: its very presence banishes the humdrum.
The flipside, of course, is that over past decades an awful lot of light has been let in on the magic. The mystique has inevitably dimmed, not least with the (very welcome) reduction in levels of automatic deference, but in its place have come tabloid exposés and a slavering public appetite for the royal family as reality show.
This is because, as a species, our attitude towards the wealthy and privileged is a curious mix of three Rs: reverence for them and their good fortune, resentment at that same good fortune, and reassurance that despite it all they are just as messed up and unhappy as the rest of us.
That this kind of attention is damaging to those on the receiving end is hardly surprising: in extremis it contributed to Prince Harry jumping ship. Although many vehemently disapprove of what he’s done, to me it has always seemed perfectly logical (though I think there are several ways he could have done it much better).
I daresay if I’d been made to walk for miles behind my mother’s coffin in full view of the world aged twelve, I too would have wanted out of the whole thing. Being the wrong side of “the heir and the spare” equation can’t be any fun, with the sense that one is always casting around for purpose.
It’s revealing to learn that the army was the place he felt most at home, since for the first and last time in his life he was treated for who he was rather than what he was.
But when a much-loved and popular member of the family wants out, it does call into question that family’s place within the future of the country. This is where we get into the long-term national ramifications of a post-Elizabethan monarchy, and it may be useful to glance across at a couple of other European models.
The Dutch royal family is generally popular, combining a Calvinist ethic with the tenets of social democracy. On King’s Day they visit towns and villages not just to inspect arts and crafts but to have fun and play games such as koekhappen (eating a cake hanging from a string while blindfolded). Outside King Willem-Alexander’s immediate family the royals have genuine jobs in business or international organisations, and their lives are upper middle class rather than aristocratic.
This family is also sensitive to contemporary politics: Willem-Alexander recently announced that the golden coach in which he is taken to the state opening of parliament every year won’t be used until further notice because it has a large panel depicting slaves of colour paying tribute to a white woman.
“All citizens in this country need to feel that they are equal and that they have a fair chance,” he said. “Everyone needs to feel like a partner in what has been built in this country, and proud of it. As long as people feel the pain of discrimination each day, the past will cast a shadow over our time and will not be over.”
Queen Margrethe of Denmark is also generally popular, with approval ratings in excess of 80% (having been little more than half that when she took over 50 years ago.) Like our Queen she has put duty above all, though she is also self-consciously intellectual: she speaks High Danish, she likes art and French poetry, and is perhaps easier to respect than to love.
But in both countries there are also mutterings of disquiet. Nothing on a par with Prince Andrew, of course, but they’re not negligible either. The Dutch royal family went on holiday in 2020 while their compatriots stayed at home, and many more people attended a party for Crown Princess Amalia’s eighteenth birthday last month than were permitted under covid restrictions.
In Denmark, Crown Prince Frederik crossed the Storbelt Bridge during a 2015 storm while other drivers were forced to wait for the weather to abate before the bridge was reopened. Small things, perhaps, but ones which reek of “one rule for them and another for us”. As we have seen with the furore over the Downing Street parties, few things rile the public more than the sense they’re being taken for fools.
Even here in the UK, where the Queen is widely revered, 30% of the 30,000 who voted in a Sunday Times poll in mid-January said she should be our last monarch: a minority, sure, but quite a sizeable one. Other recent polls including those for Perspective report largely similar findings, with the obvious caveat that younger people are less likely to support the monarchy than older ones. A Statista survey last March found that 84% of over-65s wanted the monarchy to continue, exactly twice the 42% of 18-24-year-olds.
So we come back to the third part of the essential question about an institution: if one wouldn’t build it from scratch, and if that institution is not altogether convincing in justifying its existence, then is it worth the trouble of replacing it?
Any republican alternative would most likely be along the lines of the German/Irish/Israeli model, where the president is head of state but not head of government – rather than the American/French/Russian one, where the roles are combined.
The British are sceptical enough of their politicians as it is, without wanting to give them more power, even though any president would almost certainly be a former politician anyway. It’s tempting to envisage a President Attenborough or Dench, a national treasure officially codified as such, and it’s equally tempting to recoil in feigned or genuine horror at the prospect of a President Blair or Branson.
But the experience of pretty much every European republic suggests that some sort of former political grandee with requisite hinterland would get the job: a Betty Boothroyd, a David Owen, a Chris Patten.
Whether or not a republic would be a material improvement is debatable. For some, the fact that a president could only serve a set number of years would be a positive: it would prevent the individual from becoming too entwined with the office and ensure that a substandard choice could be removed with relative ease.
For others, the very inescapability of a destiny to be sovereign is part of the crown’s legitimacy: that here is something which can neither be campaigned for nor refused, but which simply is. An accident of birth, a random genetic lottery, but with the advantage that every day of one’s life is training for the ultimate job.
It is hard, but not impossible, to envisage a scandal so seismic that it takes down the entire monarchy
The same dynamic can be seen in family business dynasties, where being the owner’s child is qualification enough to run billion-dollar departments. When it comes to family firms it is surely not complete coincidence that the title of Succession, the most storied TV drama currently out there, is also the term given to the order of precedence for future sovereigns.
It is hard, but not impossible, to envisage a scandal so seismic that it takes down the entire monarchy. Wrongdoing can bring down prime ministers and even governments, but they are simply replaced by another administration and the system endures.
Imagine the scale of a scandal which would not just finish any incumbent monarch but also prevent their successor from attempting to rectify the situation. It is far easier to imagine a gradual slide into irrelevance, not just for our monarchy but its European counterparts too: the pace of political, economic and social change becoming ever quicker, the methods of democratic engagement being drastically altered, and a monarchy appearing more and more an anachronism, not harmful in itself but not especially worthwhile either.
In this scenario, monarchies would vanish in the same way that Ernest Hemingway spoke of bankruptcy, and John Green of falling in love – gradually and slowly, then suddenly and all at once. A referendum, perhaps, and it would all be over, gone not with a bang but with a whimper.
If this seems unlikely, then it does so for two reasons: it is still a distant prospect, and it would never happen with the Queen. But think how much the world has changed in the 70 years she has been on the throne and know that it will change many times more than that in the next 70.
Our descendants will look back on Elizabeth II’s reign as not just part of history, but of a vanished era too. For so long she has borne out, symbolically at least, the words of Louis XIV: L’état, c’est moi. But it may yet be that, fittingly for a time of succession, it is the words of his great-grandson Louis XV that will prove even more fitting: Après moi, le deluge.
Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now