Being the Queen
The art of constitutional monarchy
The Queen shakes hands with the Midlothian Council leader at the opening of Newtongrange railway station in 2015.
There wasn’t going to be a Ruffian today since I’ve just got back from holiday and haven’t had any time but…well, this happened. Written in haste, please be gentle.
A monarch, in a democracy, is a peculiar compound of person and role, flesh and law. On the one hand, who the individual is only matters insofar as they occupy a place in a structure. They are a symbol, a cipher, a stand-in for the intangible presence of history. As citizens, we don’t need to know much about how they think or what they care about since they are not there to persuade us of anything, or to take decisions on our behalf, but simply to represent us and all who came before us.
On the other hand, the institution depends on the living, thinking, feeling person who fulfils that the role, by definition. The whole premise (which is worked back to, since nobody would actually design a system this way) is that a person who symbolises the nation - and who, by not being elected, can represent all of the people - creates a more felt connection to the nation than a written document, flag or passport.
A sovereign to whom people get too close loses authority; a sovereign to which the people feel no connection loses legitimacy. Queen Elizabeth had a genius for balancing this tension.
She successfully obscured herself behind the office. She was a profile on a coin, a figure on a balcony, or waving from a carriage. She didn’t do confessional interviews, make long speeches, write cute tweets or make podcasts. We didn’t know her views on architecture or politics, and we were not privy to her inner life. She was not a celebrity in the modern sense, and crucially hadn’t the faintest desire to be one, since she had no interest in self-expression - she just wasn’t very interested in herself. In a world where everyone tries to impress with their clever words, deep thoughts and unique talents, she was content to just be - to inhabit her role.
At the same time, she knew that people were fascinated by her as a person, and believed she had a responsibility to use that fascination, that affection, for good. She wasn’t interested in projecting her personality, but she was deeply aware of what people projected on to her. She knew that every time she entered a room or visited a town, people lit up; that every time shook hands with someone, they would remember it for the rest of their life. So she entered a hell of a lot of rooms (hospitals, schools, charities, shopping centres, railway stations…), visited a lot of towns, and shook a lot of hands. She focused her attention, for a few seconds at least, on many thousands of individual human beings, in Britain, the Commonwealth, and across the world, over the course of seventy years. (Can anyone in history be said to have transmitted so much happiness on a one-on-one basis?).
When I said that nobody would design this system, that is not a criticism. Evolved systems tend to work better than designed ones, even if they can seem maddeningly irrational to those who presume to know better. Yesterday somebody posted extracts from an essay by Clement Attlee. As a socialist, Attlee might have been expected to oppose or at least be sceptical of constitutional monarchy, but he was a strong believer in it. Attlee was writing in 1952, a year after the end of his term as Prime Minister, and the same year that Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. When he refers to the monarch, he refers to her - one of those examples of how the Queen’s longevity stretches our perception of time. “You will find the greatest enthusiasm for the monarch in the meanest streets,” he writes. After qualifying as a lawyer, Attlee ran a club in the East End of London for teenage boys raised in dire poverty. He remembers one of them saying, “Some people say as how the King and Queen are different from us. They aren’t. The only difference is that they can have a relish with their tea every day.”
Attlee notes that Norway, Sweden, and Denmark - countries in which there is “the highest equality of well-being” - have royal families. That’s still true and we might add the Netherlands to that list. While it’s impossible to disentangle the many historical factors that make for a decent and successful society, it is at the very least tough to make the case, on evidence alone, that democratic monarchies are inherently bad. Indeed, they seem to work pretty well versus other forms of government. As the left-wing American blogger Matt Yglesias remarked yesterday, “It’s hard to defend constitutional monarchy in terms of first principles, but the empirical track record seems good.”
If this is so, I’m interested in why (let’s agree, by the way, that there isn’t one definitively superior way of running a country, and that every system has flaws). My guess is that it’s because constitutional monarchies do a better job than more ‘rational’ forms of government of accommodating the full spectrum of human nature. They speak to the heart as well as the head. Attlee puts it succinctly: “The monarchy attracts to itself the kind of sentimental loyalty which otherwise might to the leader of a faction. There is, therefore, far less danger under a constitutional monarchy of the people being carried away by a Hitler, a Mussolini or even a de Gaulle.” (I need hardly add that for Attlee, these were not merely historical figures.) Martin Amis, in the closing paragraph of his 2002 piece about the Queen for the New Yorker, expresses the same idea with characteristic flair:
“A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact,” Bagehot wrote, “and as such, it rivets mankind.” The same could be said of a princely funeral—or, nowadays, of a princely divorce. The Royal Family is just a family, writ inordinately large. They are the glory, not the power; and it would clearly be far more grownup to do without them. But riveted mankind is hopelessly addicted to the irrational, with reliably disastrous results, planetwide. The monarchy allows us to take a holiday from reason; and on that holiday we do no harm.
Yes, there is something deeply sentimental and even loopy about placing a family at the centre of national life, and ritually celebrating them, not for what they’ve done but for who they are. But here’s the thing: humans are sentimental and yes, a bit loopy. Constitutional monarchies accept this, and separate the locus of sentiment from the locus of power. They divert our loopiness into a safe space.
In republics, the sentimentality doesn’t go away but becomes fused with politics, often to dangerous effect. Russia, despite having killed off its monarchy long ago, retains an ever more desperate hankering after grandeur, the consequences of which are now being suffered by the Ukrainians. America’s more ‘rational’ system has given us President Donald Trump, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their political culture is more viciously, irrationally polarised than ours.
Monarchy, in its democratic form, can also be a conduit for our better natures. It gives people a way to express their affection for the people with whom they share a country, by proxy. Think about that boy in Limehouse: it’s not that he wouldn’t have preferred to have relish with his tea - to be rich, or at least richer. But he recognised that, as different as human lives can be, they are always in some fundamental ways the same. People have mothers and fathers (present or absent, kind or cruel), brothers and sisters, hopes, fears, joys and anxieties. That’s why one family can stand in for all of us, even if that family lives in a very privileged and singular manner.
When pictures of Prince George as a toddler were published, and there was much cooing across the nation, I remember a friend snapping that this isn’t a magic baby, it’s just some random kid. Well yes, but isn’t that the point? That we can feel love for some random kid is one of the better things about us. Perhaps loving that kid can remind us that the country is full of random kids who deserve our care for no other reason than that we share these islands. The idea that affection for the Royal Family means deference is deeply misguided. By saying “they’re no different to us”, the Limehouse boy was also implying that that they were no better than him.
Queen Elizabeth II (I can only call her by her impersonal title, the formality acting as a reminder that the illusion of ‘knowing’ someone famous is just that) delivered some fine words over the years: “Grief is the price we pay for love”, she said in condolence to the families of those lost in the 9/11 bombings. In the early stage of the pandemic, she struck exactly the right note, harking back to an even bigger national crisis, one that she had lived through: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” But really, words were not her thing. One reason she was such an effective figurehead for so long is that she said so little.Unlike Charles, she didn’t communicate her thoughts very much (whether Charles will do less of that now he is King, we will see). In a world of endless jabbering, she just was.
It’s not that she didn’t have thoughts - you can tell that she did from the avidity with which she engaged the statesmen at the 1991 G7 summit. Prime Ministers have testified to the wisdom of her advice in private, and to her great curiosity about the world. But she knew her legitimacy rested on not having a view, on not becoming part of the argument. Not just her legitimacy, but her capacity to unite, comfort and console. Emotions are pre-verbal. For all that we are encouraged to talk about them, it remains true that sometimes the best way to cope with our feelings is through symbols and actions rather than words. That’s what rituals are for. The Queen intuitively understood the advantages of being and doing over saying, which is why she was the perfect person for the role.
There are countless anecdotes about meeting her, but the one I like most is told by the surgeon Dr. David Nott, on a moving edition of Desert Island Discs. Nott specialises in trauma and reconstructive surgery. I seriously recommend listening to the whole thing but here I’ll summarise the story he tells about the Queen.
For several weeks every year, Nott goes to war zones, and helps local medics save the lives and livelihoods of appallingly injured people. It is noble work and it is very punishing to his mental health. Each time Nott returns to Britain, he can be overwhelmed by feelings of despair, grief and rage. In 2014, he went to Syria and tended to children with terrible injuries suffered after a hospital had been bombed. Ten days after his return, he found himself at a lunch at Buckingham Palace. He was placed next to the Queen.
‘I hear you’ve just returned from Aleppo?’ she said, opening the conversation. ‘Yes,’ said Nott, but found he couldn’t say any more than that. He wasn’t able to speak. What on earth could he say without bursting into tears? The Queen detected his trouble. She said, ‘Shall I help you?’ and signalled to a courtier. In came the corgis, which scampered underneath the table. She had someone fetch a tin of biscuits. She broke a biscuit in two and offered Nott half. “Why don’t we feed the dogs?” And so they did. “For twenty minutes, the Queen and I, during this lunch, just fed the dogs. And she did it because she knew that I was so seriously traumatised.” As they did so, they chatted lightly about dogs, and Nott’s anxiety disappeared. He felt happy, and grateful. “I’ll never forget it,” he said.
The Queen was at the centre of national life for seven decades without ever seeking to be the centre of attention. For someone so endlessly energetic, there was a profound calmness to her. It will be missed.
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In the next Ruffian, which will be soon, I’ll talk about the prospects for the new Prime Minister (what a week!). I also want to tell you a bit about my holiday in Portugal. Oh and there is an exciting new edition of FLASHPOINTS coming down the pipe…Do sign up if you haven’t already and please consider a paid subscription!
You write so beautifully about the Queen, and governing ourselves. Thank you.
I really appreciated your articulation of why the monarchy works especially in “accommodating the full spectrum of human nature” and how it diverts “our loopiness into a safe space”. I think your words gave the best form I’ve come across to what I was already feeling. And the anecdote about the Queen, Dr Nott and the corgis is just touchingly beautiful.
My wife is a staunch republican, Japanese Korean by birth (think Pachinko!). Admittedly this unusual group has good reasons to have to be suspicious of monarchic systems given their experiences under the rulers of Japan and the ongoing co-option of the Japanese royal family by racist nationalists.
But her reasons are less that or indeed the “being landed with a bad egg” argument.
Rather, human rights are really important to her and she sees our system as denying basic human rights to the monarch and their heirs. i.e. they are born in circumstances where to all intents their life choice has suppressed at birth. Or we could say that there is great stress involved regaining those rights (Edward VIII, Prince Harry?). My wife appreciates the benefits of we enjoy, as explained in the piece, but to gain them we engage in something that is almost akin to a ritual, medieval sacrifice the human rights of a new-born. Morally, do we have the right to to do this?
I do find this angle hard to ignore.
So I wonder if there’s way whereby, we could keep the benefits and the blood line of the monarchy intact while restating their rights. e.g. the heir(s) to throne might be offered the choice to walk away peacefully at the age of 21 leaving the next in line to choose. May be this is just my loopiness coming out!
Either way, you get the feeling that with such a mechanism the Queen would made the same speech at the age of 21 committing herself to the path she took.
Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece