I recently wrote a post on Facebook expressing support for the Queen after her Coronavirus statement (‘I thought the Queen was utterly splendid tonight. Good to be reminded why we need someone above politics’). Several esteemed friends replied with republican sentiment. I respect them for it—theirs is a coherent political position. I felt, however, that they might have assumed that my own position was not, or even that it derived from grovelling, forelock-tugging servility. I drafted a little Facebook post in repose to this, but in the end it didn’t seem the right forum to post it. So I will leave it here.
So why, indeed, support an institution that appears to be undemocratic, appears to have a great deal of unmerited wealth and whose members occasionally abuse the advantages to which they have been born?
Firstly, there is the fact that an accident of birth does have advantages over an accident of the ballot box. A figure that transcends politics, especially at a time of national emergency, is a powerful means of uniting the country. I realise, of course, that not everyone feels this way (so it cannot be absolutely unifying), but support for the institution of monarchy in the UK has always been high. The alternative would be to have Boris Johnson as ‘father of the nation.’ I, for one, could not stomach that. We could, of course, go down the route of having an elected head of state with no political power. I’m not necessarily opposed to that, but the mere fact of electing someone still has the potential to inspire the kind of division to which I refer.
There is another factor. The Queen also acts as an embodiment of the nation in a way that is deeper and more mysterious. It is often assumed that inheriting something is a kind of ‘cheat’ (‘he inherited his wealth’). There is a lot of truth in that, especially where it relates to political power, which should not be inherited. It is why I support Lords reform. However, connections to our past, in the form of familial relationships, matter a great deal. Why else is tracing one’s ancestors one of the most popular pursuits in the UK? Why do we watch programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ The Queen, as head of a family that can trace her ancestors back to Alfred the Great, is an embodiment of the nation, of who were were, are and might be.
So what of the political power that the Queen has inherited? It should be obvious enough that this is almost entirely symbolic. This is very healthy indeed. I very much like the idea that political power in the UK is invested in someone who has few of the trappings of power—in the Prime Minister. 10 Downing Street is not a palace. Agreed that there is also the matter of Chequers, a relatively recent acquisition, but even that is modest in comparison with the Queen’s properties. Power is thus invested in the person with relatively little of the trappings of power. That person has, once a week, to keep the Head of State informed. He carries out government in Her name, not in his own. It is a system that tends to discourage hubris and megalomania. It is the Queen that performs the ceremonial duties. This separation strikes me as a particularly elegant part of the British constitution—power without ceremony (and the hubris that comes with it), ceremony without power.
The final point concerns the matter of the Queens’s wealth, which, it was suggested, could be used in this national emergency. Whilst I agree her wealth is considerable, it is also, however, exaggerated. Of much of it she is merely the custodian. She cannot sell the crown jewels or the royal palaces. She holds them in trust for the nation. She has considerable other reserves, particularly income from the Crown Estates. Much of this is used for the upkeep of the royal palaces and for running of the royal household. Her own lifestyle is reported to be relatively modest. Even if not, however, I do not begrudge her it. Frankly, the monarchy cannot function without at least a little bit of glitter and glamour. I have so often heard the argument that we can ‘sell such and such to feed the poor.’ Where does this end? Do we need art and culture? Should we disband our orchestras, choirs, art galleries and theatres if they do not pay their way? Of course we shouldn’t. We should try to do both—feed the poor and support our culture.
Whether the monarchy counts as part of that culture may be a matter of debate, but given that many do support the continuation of the institution, I cannot see the point of maintaining it in penury. And, anyway, to ask her to put her hands in her pockets in a national emergency is to mistake her role. It is the job of the government that operates in her name to respond to crises. If she were to do so, this would have the inevitable effect of involving her in the political arena (‘why are you spending on this and not that?’ etc.), precisely the thing that her role demands she avoid. We thus level our criticisms where they are merited—at politicians, leaving the Queen above the fray as a figure that can, at least potentially, unite the country.