EVERY TRIBE, every coherent community that has endured has put together its own historical narrative, a collective story that tells of the exploits that bound it together and offers people at every level a mirror into which they can peer and see some acceptable version of what they believe they are or aspire to be.
LIKE THE ILIAD such narratives necessarily relate a complex mix of myth and traditional folk memory woven around the deeds of human beings but, nowadays, they must also rest upon a matrix of historical truth if they are to serve as a stable constitutional support.
IN THE TIME WE NOW LIVE IN it has become more difficult to ‘invent’ and embroider historical truths. It has been a major achievement on the part of the guardians of Britain’s ‘story’ that a quasi-feudal trust in the institution of the monarchy remains deeply rooted in the country’s psyche.
The image of the monarchy has of course undergone many changes down the centuries, some slow, some sudden and forced, but certainly since World War I the need to adapt the royal narrative to often turbulent times has become increasingly urgent. Elizabeth II became Queen on 6 February 1952 upon the death of her father King George VI but she was formally crowned in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953.
The 25 years leading up to her Silver Jubilee in 1977 had occasionally been marked by awkward circumstances and among the public there was a degree of apathy and opposition Nevertheless the celebrations were greeted with loyalty and affection for the most part. However in the closing years of the 20th century disclosures about the private lives of the royal family dealt a hefty blow to the aura of gravitas surrounding the monarchy.
The acrimonious marriage of Prince Charles and Diana ended in divorce in 1996. The Princess of Wales had stolen popular limelight in life and did so very powerfully in death, not to the advantage of the crown. The car accident in Paris which killed her had all the ingredients of a kitsch magazine romance. And, as if this was not enough, the Duchess of York proceeded to leave a trail of soap opera style publicity across the world featuring colourful extra-marital adventures.
Pandora’s Box had been wrenched open and the wrong sort of narrative was streaming forth. A period of steady consolidation was needed so that the twin props of history and tradition could be deployed as a reassuring framework in which the Queen could perform her official role as well as come closer to her subjects. Major state occasions in the opening years of the 21st century allowed the monarchy to impose its presence on the nation. Among them was the funeral of the Queen Mother in 2002 followed in the same year by Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee which was a striking success.
The marriage in 2011 of Prince William, future heir to the throne, struck a note of continuity and the Diamond Jubilee this year has completed this cycle of the royal story. Permanence and stability have been restored with the monarchy firmly anchored in contemporary popular culture and the Queen a focal point for national interests in an increasingly unpredictable world.
Steadying the ship
Three of the essential dimensions of today’s monarchy were conspicuous in the Diamond Jubilee programme which began early in the year: the Queen as Head of a Commonwealth of independent nations, her unifying role as Queen of the United Kingdom and her close relationship with the armed forces whose final allegiance is to her rather than to the government of the day. The events have included a Commonwealth Commemoration Day Service, a military display featuring all three armed services at Windsor Castle as well as royal visits to the four nations that make up the UK and to Commonwealth countries in South-East Asia.
All this is strait-laced and solidly traditional, a repeat of countless similar formal appearances of the Queen and her family upon the public stage. It was the colourful celebrations spread over 4 days around the first weekend in June that thrust forward a new version of the monarch to her subjects. Military parades, pomp and pageantry, court officials temporarily took a back seat to a Queen visibly claiming grassroots cultural credibility sitting as it were, despite her 86 years, on the edge of the demotic swimming pool, legs bare, dipping her feet in the water. But not too far.
The choice of events skilfully mixed the magic of royal tradition with the shadows of historical memory and the collective escapism of mass culture. At the same time it ensured that the Queen and members of the royal family were on display to the maximum number of people not as museum pieces but as living participants in the life of the country, without the conspicuously heavy security that was later deployed for the Olympic Games. The choreography was perfect, royal dignity and demeanour were enhanced and the vast crowds who had endured often dreadful weather left reassured that their queen was singing from the same sheet of music as they were. Any residual doubts were eliminated or at least put to one side even by some in the small republican claque.
On the first day, 2nd June the Queen attended the Derby Day races at Epsom. She is well known for her expert eye for breeding and training, keeps a racing stable and has frequently entered horses at various events in the racing calendar. Horse racing is a national sport and the Derby is an occasion that attracts crowds from across the social spectrum. The Queen had no runner in this year’s race. Whether the punters saw the Jubilee as a portent of royal good luck remains to be seen; the nature of the betting business ensures that the majority of them are firmly on her side.
The next day, the Sunday, was taken up with a trip down the Thames in the royal barge attended by some thousand other boats of widely differing types, some historic, some canoes and rowing boats, some manned by crews who had travelled from abroad for the occasion. The notion of a royal barge with its suggestions of the romance of history cannot have failed to attract huge curiosity. Most people’s ideas must have been derived from films and history books but here was a chance to see the real thing complete with the monarch, her family and courtiers and the largest flotilla on the Thames for 350 years.
The whole montage echoed Canaletto’s paintings of the 18th century featuring much the same scene on a wider and grander Thames. And history resonated again in the name of the royal barge, the ‘Gloriana’, an epithet used for Queen Elizabeth I whose reign in the 16th century has by now taken on a golden glow of near heroic proportions. The river is of course a permanent reminder of Britain’s maritime heritage and this surely must have played some part in the choice of the event although in this age of the ‘war on terror’ the comparative security of being on the river for 4 hours while also highly visible to the crowds may have been a factor.
The third day, Monday 4th June, was enlivened by a very modernistic concert at Buckingham Palace at which a cross section of current pop musical talent performed to an audience of some 260,000 against the backdrop of a Buckingham Palace facade transformed by laser light into fascinating scenes which included volcanic eruptions, swans, flowers and a tenement block. As a ‘son et lumiere’ spectacle this was a triumph, an ultra-modern version of the sort of spectacle that was put on for emperors, kings and queens from the earliest times but with a distinctly plebeian colouring. The Queen is reported to have been delighted.
The grand finale took place a day later with a Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Formality and appropriate pageantry were very much in evidence. The Dean of St Paul’s gave thanks for the Queen’s service and commitment to the country, referred to her ‘loyal subjects’ and offered the prayer that ‘we may be inspired by her example’. After lunch in the City she returned by the royal carriage through the streets of London, lined with enthusiastic onlookers, to Buckingham Palace. A sixty-gun salute accompanied her appearance with three generations of her family on the Palace balcony in front of huge crowds. Below in the courtyard infantry in dress uniform gave a ‘feu de joie’, a volley of rifle fire and a traditional way for infantrymen to express themselves on these occasions. Three cheers for her majesty were called, the crowds sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and a flypast of WW II vintage aircraft closed the proceedings.
An anchor of the British constitution.
The monarchy is an essential part of Britain’s legislative process. All government is legally carried out in the Queen’s name, the Queen in Parliament acting with the latter’s advice and consent. She chooses Prime Ministers in accordance with constitutional requirements and appoints ministers and has the legal right to withhold Royal Assent to Parliament’s bills.
Nowadays this is a purely notional right; the last time it was exercised was in 1708 and it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which it could now be used without causing a constitutional crisis of vulcanic proportions. However Prime Ministers have always had a weekly meeting in private with the Queen and Mrs Thatcher said of these occasions’. Anyone who imagines that they (these weekly meetings) are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and a breadth of experience’.
It is an odd quirk of history that Britain, a modern democracy, has no written constitution and that its smooth governance should depend on the existence of the monarchy. Given the tumultuous events in Europe during the 20th century it is likely that this situation could only have happened in the comparatively safe haven of an offshore island. Yet the monarchy itself has not been immune from the earthquakes on mainland Europe; two wars, political and social upheaval at home and in distant places have ensured that a great deal of thought and effort has been devoted to establishing the royal family as a root and branch English and British institution.
In the 19th century Queen Victoria had come to the throne as a Hanover and her marriage to Prince Albert had changed the name of Britain’s royal family to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. These obvious Germanic roots were a potential focus for the popular antagonism when Germany became Britain’s enemy in 1914 especially given the close family links to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The then monarch, King George V (the present Queen’s grandfather), spoke with a German accent and held the honorary rank of Field Marshall in the German army. And it was unfortunate that Gotha was the location of the manufacturer of successful bomber aircraft of that name a force of which attacked London in daylight in June 1917. In July that year the decision was made public that the monarchy should take the very English name of Windsor and relinquish the use of ‘all German Titles and Dignities’.
Twentieth century threats
This radical transformation some three years after hostilities had begun is likely to have been strongly prompted by another danger, one that unlike Germany directly threatened the continued existence of the monarchy. By the time the war ended in 1918 mass mobilisation had given a huge stimulus to the Labour movement in Britain bolstered by Marxist intellectual theory and the fallout from the Russian Revolution. More strikingly the Kaiser had gone, so had various princely rulers in Germany and even the mighty Hapsburgs had been swept away.
The cold winds of republicanism, root level social change and the rise of the ‘masses’ were blowing hard across Europe and the Channel must have seemed a poor defence against contamination. They continued to blow and the post World War I problems smouldered on to resurface with renewed vigour in the 1930s with a compelling cast of Edward VIII, his divorced bride-to-be Mrs Simpson, and Adolf Hitler, leader of a powerful, resurgent and threatening Germany.
Before coming to the throne in 1936 Edward VIII had built up impressive support among the public because of his sympathy with the unemployed and declaration that ‘something must be done’, a constitutionally dangerous foray into the forbidden political arena. In addition many, including the German Ambassador in London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, saw him as an active advocate of Anglo-German understanding. The Kaiser had gone but the Royal Family had close relationships with the German aristocracy some members of which maintained ties with the upper echelons of Hitler’s government. Edward and other family members were perceived as a potential focus for wider pro German support, especially as there lurked in the background the even bigger menace to the ruling classes of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and its social mobilisation of the masses. It could be convincingly argued that Germany was the only bulwark against the latter.
The fuse was pulled from the bomb by Edward’s abdication and the arrival on the throne of the eldest of his brothers ( Elizabeth II’s father) George VI. The ghosts of the 1930s and any whispers about the Royal Family’s opposition to another war with Germany were effectively smothered in 1939 by the outbreak of World War II. George VI and his wife transformed the Crown into an enduring wartime symbol of British steadfastness and the King came out of the war a nationally respected figurehead, However, as after World War I, the mood of the times was changing very rapidly. Britain had suddenly acquired a socialist government determined to improve the lot of the people, poverty was widespread and economic conditions hard, the empire was collapsing and the huge social upheavals of the war had dealt another blow to notions of unearned social privilege. Claims to sovereignty by right seemed unlikely to be tenable for long without roots deep in the hearts and minds of the people.
Mapping the future
The way forward lay in dovetailing the role of the monarchy with democratic government as practiced in Britain, a commitment to the people and breaking down lingering popular perceptions of royalty’s isolation from the bulk of the country. Ritual and ceremony had to be married to social roles embedded in the nation’s everyday life. At the beginning of the 20th century voting in Britain was limited to male property owners with Queen Victoria at the pinnacle of a semi isolated social class that ruled the country in a state of seeming national equilibrium. Within fifty years this was totally destroyed.
King George VI had a comparatively short reign and died in 1952 before his role in World War II could be consolidated as the foundation for a long term peacetime monarchy. Folk memory of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha era and the activities of various members of the Royal Family during the 1930s still lay below the surface. What was needed when Elizabeth II came to the throne was a long run of constitutional respectability, visible public service and well-orchestrated magic for popular consumption. This has been achieved and her reign has marked another stage in the long and unpredictable process of transforming the monarchy into the institution that provides an un-elected Head of State to a modern democratic society. The Diamond Jubilee set the seal on this chapter of British history
Even with roots that can be traced back into the mists of history no king or queen and royal family could usefully function in Europe today without the goodwill of the majority of the population. A constitutional role is not enough, nor is socially useful service however widespread and beneficial. The intangible aura of the office and its symbolism have to be preserved and given visible form. This requires an ever-vigilant sensitivity towards the popular mood and understanding of the media without which there could be no viable monarchy. The need for a Press Secretary had been recognised very early on, in Queen Victoria’s reign, and his task soon developed into controlling the flow of reporting in the interests of the ruling family. By the time of World War I a small group of advisors had come into being which worked to shape the visible image of the monarchy. It has done so to this day and the achievement has been most impressive despite adverse circumstances from time to time.
The media are a double-edged sword and so is the public mood. Both have been made much sharper these days by the rapid advances in IT, photography and digital news. Major state occasions like marriages, funerals and jubilee celebrations can still be scripted and controlled like theatre so that first radio, then TV and film and now cyberspace have given a new lease of life to medieval symbolism and ceremony; echoes of the past can be usefully conjured up and woven into modern myth.
However, from time to time, cold daylight has been ‘let in on the magic’ occasionally with royal support but more often in the shape of unwanted intrusion by the ever demanding ‘Great Beast’, public curiosity powered by press titillation and prurience. There were inconvenient family problems during the early years of the Queen’s reign – the amorous affairs of her sister, Princess Margaret, were among them – but these occurred in what was still almost a post-war press climate. By the 1990s the media landscape was very different and the tabloid headlines a potentially destructive force. Prince Charles’ TV confession of adultery in 1994, the collapse of his marriage with Diana Princess of Wales and her side of the story were avidly followed by the press and public. Both sides exploited the press to influence opinion and when the Queen stripped Diana of her status as Her Royal Highness such was the Princess’s popularity that a large part of the population continued to use the title. A brilliantly scripted royal fairy tale had been demolished and the debris cast shadows over the Royal Family which darkened considerably in the days immediately after the death of Diana.
A symbol of hope and stability
This year’s Diamond Jubilee dispelled any remaining shadows and is a fitting tribute to the dedication shown by the Queen. She has performed her duties with a steady hand, consolidated the monarchy as an institution and succeeded in adapting her public persona to public perceptions while avoiding both personality cult and celebrity status. Either of these could have proved destructive and there was nothing insincere or contrived when in the Jubilee service at St. Paul’s Cathedral the Dean offered ‘thanks for her service and commitment’. He was voicing the thought of most of her subjects.
Queen Victoria is said to have thought that the monarchy would not survive the 1930s yet here we are in 2012, a strikingly successful Diamond Jubilee year, with Elizabeth II still the cornerstone of the constitution, albeit acting on the advice of her ministers, but with 80% of her subjects in favour according to recent opinion polls. Perhaps Victoria had underestimated the resonance of 1000 years of history annotated and edited for contemporary popular opinion. Certainly the totemic role of the monarch in times of great national danger did not re-emerge until the turmoil of 20th century Europe.
In the 1970s at the time of the socialist government there was talk of ‘slimming down’ the monarchy on the Scandinavian lines. This was mostly for financial reasons but nothing significant emerged. The fact is that Britain’s particular form of democracy, a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, has worked well yet it is inevitable that the slow progression over the centuries from absolute royal power to today’s situation in which the crown’s powers are still extant but exercised by government should raise questions about the meaning and functioning of democracy. The constitution is unwritten and remains a shadowy nexus of powers, rights and tradition sometimes provoking suspicions of lingering feudal practice. And the absence of a serious foreign enemy to unite public opinion usually means that a nation begins to take a closer look at itself. Even a population tamed by years of comparative prosperity may begin to ask wayward questions about the way things are done and is unlikely to continue to exclude the monarchy from its gaze.
The person of the Queen can of course be distinguished from the monarchy as an institution and Elizabeth II has inspired genuine mass affection and respect for her 60 years of consistent service and devotion to the country. Part of her present popularity may derive from huge loss of public trust in parliament and politicians and also other national institutions including the press, police, bankers and lawyers. It seems that in 2012 a majority of the British public believes that politicians are consistent liars, incompetent, out of touch with real life and that their main aim is self-aggrandisement with a win-at-all-costs party culture that has little regard to the good of the country. In such a climate the Queen may represent for many a ‘figurehead of last resort’, of safety and stability, and enduring values in a maelstrom of change and lurking threats to their well-being
But perhaps also amidst the insidious plain-song of today’s egalitarianism there runs a silent counterpoint seeking a defence against the reduction of men and women to ‘human resources’, to the laws of the market and manipulation by the politics of things. Perhaps the fairy tale of monarchy, a relic of the age of heroes and Europe’s ‘Divine Right of Kings’ does the work of the picador in the contest with the apostles of a one dimensional monochrome world now almost devoid of any resonance beyond the strictly sensuous and comforts of bourgeois somnolence. Celebrities and movie stars, Olympic champions and ‘charismatic’ leaders will take a people so far but perhaps a real life Queen plus crown, courtiers and state carriage is sometimes needed to inspire them to become more than the lowest common denominator of their parts. If this is so the echoes of the Diamond Jubilee will serve the monarchy well.
Caspar Thomas, October 2012