Longing to Reign Over Us

June 8, 2012 10:35 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As is my wont, I found plenty to occupy me over the grossly extended half-week holiday and never felt sufficiently at a loose end to find myself tuning in to any of the blowsy and noisy shenanigans somebody thought might be welcome to Her Majesty the Queen to mark the 60th anniversary of her accession.

Of course, these things cannot be wholly avoided. The news on BBC1 on Monday night, delayed longer than even I had anticipated, was equally predictably dominated by a digest of what had clearly been comprehensively covered on the same channel for the preceding three-and-a-half hours. Seeking enlightenment about the state of the world is futile on days like these.

The snippets on the bulletin gave more than enough sense of what I had missed, especially its unendurable length. Such ritualistic events can only be borne if one is an actual participant, and even then there are always hours of standing around feeling useless unless one is, as it were, the bride, the bar mitzvah, the Nobel laureate, the convicted murderer, the new pope, the corpse to be buried or (as in this case) the monarch. Beyond the guest list, everyone – whether halfway down the Mall or watching on telly – is in the position of Stella Dallas: nose pressed up against the window of a party to which she is not invited. I have never understood the appeal of rubbernecking the pleasures of others. I don’t scurry to see the aftermath of a car-crash either.

It further beats me why anyone imagines Elizabeth Windsor would want a pop concert in her honour, especially one in the street right outside her front windows. She has never revealed the remotest interest in or liking for music, or indeed culture of any kind, popular or haute. She skipped the Royal Variety Performance the past two years – even though patron of the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, the show’s beneficiary – and she alternates with her eldest son at the Royal Film Performance these days.

But nothing about the bean-feast makes great sense. Its universally used description – Diamond Jubilee – is a misnomer twice over. The earliest appearance of the term ‘jubilee’ in English is in the Wycliffe Bible: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you” [Leviticus 25:10]. The word derives from the Hebrew yobel, which is a ram, indicating that the ceremonial blowing of a ram’s horn marked the celebration of jubilee. Gradually — as was generally the way with the spoken language and with corruption in translation – the meaning migrated from its primary sense of being a half-century event.

Meanwhile, among the precious metals and gemstones signifying the passage of time – sapphire for five years, ruby 15 and 40 years, silver 25, pearl 30, gold 50 – a diamond traditionally signified ten or 75 years. It was only because Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary in Salisbury’s Unionist government, proposed that Queen Victoria’s waning esteem among her subjects be bolstered by a public celebration of the longevity of her reign (now the longest in British history) along with a salute to the extent of the British Empire (at its high-water mark) that what would have been the Diamond Jubilee due in 1912 (had she lived) was brought forward fifteen years.

Chamberlain’s perception was triumphantly vindicated and his monarch died twelve years shy of what would properly have been her Diamond Jubilee, yet withal full of years and greatly beloved of her hitherto indifferent subjects, both in the British Isles and in the vast Empire. Since then, the diamond has additionally (if incorrectly and lazily) been attached to 60 years, to the extent that I have been unable to discover which gemstone or metal hitherto had represented six decades.

The enthusiasm for the throne is ever in flux, at least in these islands. Elsewhere, a certain amount of nose-holding may often be detected – the sourpuss expression of Julia Gillard as she lit the Canberra beacon on behalf of Australia was unmistakeable – but, if opinion polls may be believed (and I habitually doubt that they can be), the Queen is held in wide regard just now, the anni horribiles being long set aside.

The republican cause – intellectually perfectly understandable – has always faced difficulty gaining much traction, for the simple reason that the throne is, for all practical purposes, merely ceremonial and therefore only a source of urgent debate in the rarest of circumstances. As the nature of British society has changed – and changed extensively – over Elizabeth II’s reign, so the argument that her family sits at the apex of a repressive pyramid weakens. Formally, Britain is a constitutional monarchy managed as a representative democracy. Informally, one might characterise it as a class-based oligarchy in 1952 that has metamorphosed into a plutocracy (of international capital) managed as a celebritocracy now. The monarchy is marginal to this movement of history.

There is pitifully little to be said for removing the throne and replacing it with a presidency, because the monarchy is no longer surrounded by an hereditary aristocracy with power or influence or indeed wealth. The House of Lords is gradually being democratised and in any case has no more than delaying power over an elected Commons. If the throne were abolished, the Queen or the Prince of Wales would be the favourite candidate to be elected head of state. The former royal family would remain relatively wealthy, well-connected and of continual interest to the media. The republican movement must know that theirs is a forlorn hope.

And the odd carping about the BBC’s coverage and its supposed sycophancy seems misplaced. As I say, I only have news bulletins to go on, but I have heard three interviews with avowed republicans during the course of the four-day celebration and that seems very reasonable. Besides, the BBC was established by royal charter and is the national broadcaster of a kingdom: it would be a curious stance, not to say lese-majeste, for it to project hostility or even indifference to the institution of monarchy. Its correspondents have diligently remarked the fact of republicanism. That seems to me to be sufficient.

Meanwhile, those pesky public opinion polls have muddied the water again by finding a majority in favour of Elizabeth II being succeeded directly by William V. This is a bizarre opinion and it is a pity that the pollsters did not have the gumption to ask supplementary questions in order to elucidate the source of this fancy. Is it imagined that William would make “a better monarch” than his father and if so in what way?

All we seek in a ceremonial head of state is someone who can read the government’s clunking prose at the State Opening of Parliament without a palpable tone of disdain, get through a garden party without asking someone in a motorised wheelchair if they’ve “come far”, and play host at a state banquet with the head of some god-forsaken dictatorship somewhere a long way away without keeling over into the creme brulee or goosing any of the said head’s wives. These are all cogent reasons why neither Russell Brand nor Boris Johnson would be first choice as head of state in a republican UK.

Prince Charles is of course in some ways a dismaying testament to in-breeding and private education. But he has gamely survived as Prince of Wales – than which there is no more resonant “number two” designation in the history of the world – for more than half a century, having been handed his title a decade before his formal investiture at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. Princes of Wales have, from time immemorial, behaved as licensed fools, and Charles has been afforded an inordinate amount of time in which to do this, having waited longer than any previous heir apparent, when he overtook the impatient apprenticeship of his great-great-grandfather, who eventually became Edward VII. All things considered, he has not let his mummy down all that much.

Elizabeth II is not going to abdicate, you can bet your boots, just to give her eldest son a better run at it. If she lives to 105, which seems perfectly feasible, she will have been the longest-reigning queen in the history of the world by more than fifteen years and her son (if he outlives her) will be 82 or 83, a good age for a new career. It seems unlikely that Her Majesty will exceed the longest accredited male reign, however. That daunting record belongs to King Sobhuza II of Swaziland who retired to join his ancestors in 1982, having reigned since the last December of the previous century.

Prince Charles has been a public figure for sixty years and, for good or ill, he has a fairly well-defined public profile. No doubt like anyone else in the public eye, his actual persona is very different in many crucial ways from the public perception. I do not know him personally, so I cannot say. (I stood in for his mother once, but that’s a matter for another day).

Charles has many firm views, not all of them completely batty, and he has had the temerity to express them. I should have thought that on balance his public expression of notions has probably done a bit more good than harm. I am also quite sure that he knows enough to know that, if and when he does ever become king, he will need to keep his views to himself thenceforward.

Prince William, on the contrary, is pretty much a closed book to most of us, I would suggest. Can you think of five adjectives to describe what you perceive to be his character? Neither can I. He seems to be merely a polite, quite presentable young man who is losing his looks even faster than most of the Windsors are apt to do.

But see here: those who advocate the succession skipping the present Prince of Wales profess themselves supporters of an hereditary monarchy, even while they make this exception. As Marie-Antoinette might have remarked: “let them have their cake and eat it too”. There is no coherent, consistent or respectable argument for Prince Charles standing aside. That the Queen asked the Duchess of Cornwall to sit beside her in the laudau (Charles facing the rear) on the return ride from St Paul’s on Tuesday is as explicit and minatory a gesture as she can ever have offered about anything. “This woman is the wife of my successor, and she and he are my anointed” the gesture announced. “Get used to it”.

Later, on the balcony, it was impossible to resist the implication that the chosen group was the inner core for the rest of her reign: the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Cambridges and Prince Harry who will certainly, on the death of his uncle Andrew, become Duke of York. The present Duke – along with the Princess Royal and the Earl of Wessex – are suddenly as supernumerary as the Gloucesters and the Kents.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Edinburgh – whose title Wessex is to inherit – had absented himself from the events of Monday and Tuesday, perhaps not entirely involuntarily: five minutes of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ would certainly have been five too many for him. It was Prince Edward and his brood who were the Duke’s family visitors in hospital on Tuesday. I can just hear him barking: “Bloody hell, are you the only one they could spare?”

There was a deal of speculation about how much the Queen was missing her husband’s presence in the latter half of the celebrations. I imagine she coped. After all, she had half a century to observe the example of her own mother, who spent almost exactly half her life as a widow. The key to all things to do with the throne is the long game. Durability, in the end, is one of the virtues people most admire.


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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