As I walked along The Mall towards Buckingham Palace this weekend enjoying the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I saw a significant cross-section of our nation’s people, together with guests from all around the world.
Following two miserable years of pandemic lockdowns. It was bliss to think how we could go where we pleased, meet with whom we chose and walk freely under the sunshine in our own city.
As a celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign, it was a uniquely British occasion that brought the massed crowds together, not only in the capital but across the country and to an extent, the Commonwealth.
To be in London on this weekend was to experience the unadulterated and genuine joy, warmth and affection that the fans and supporters of the monarchy feel. It was lovely.
There are of course, many people that do not appreciate the monarchy. Those who feel it costs too much money, is outdated, does not reflect a democratic state and/or sits atop a ruling elite that oppresses the masses in an unfair and prejudiced patriarchal system of rule.
(Hope I got all that right my republican friends).
There are some customary exchanges that happen at this point in the Royal vs Republic debate:
Cost – the actual living constitutional monarchy bring in far more money than they cost. No they don’t, because people would come and visit anyway (etc)
Outdated – this institutional in an anachronism that belongs in a bygone age. No it isn’t, we love the pomp and pageantry as much as we ever did (etc)
Undemocratic – an unelected head of state who occupies the role from accident of birth makes a mockery of democracy. No it doesn’t, to have a head of state that is above politics is a godsend and the royal prerogative prevents any political head of state grabbing and using unlimited power.
The last one – the monarchy presents a shield that romanticises and beguiles the masses into believing they are part of something special, whilst the system continues to oppress them. No they don’t, the people are smart enough to tell the difference between self-interested politicians and corporates and the hand of royalty (etc)
So I won’t bother to regurgitate those arguments here. Instead, I’ll lay out some of the thoughts and feelings I have as a monarchist and supporter of the current royal family. Whilst in full Voltaire fashion defending the right of any republican to state their own case in return.
The relationship between the monarchy and the people is closer and longer established than any political affiliation. The armed forces enjoy a very close relationship. Senior royals are required to complete service in each of the army, royal navy and air force. Populated in the main by working class recruits, the armed services receive visits, support and ongoing contact with their commanders in chief throughout their careers. It is a source of great pride for those families to serve and be affiliated to the crown. Politicians dipping in for a photo opportunity do not compare.
The Prince’s Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme have benefited millions of young people chewed up and spat out by successive education systems. Skills, confidence and real, practical help to secure jobs, start businesses and climb out of the station in life allocated to them by that oppressive patriarchal system, are not the actions of participants to the system.
Some will say they could do that anyway, without royal status. Really? Would the papers, tv cameras and money come flowing in if Joe Bloggs did the same? It’s the royal family that brings them in – and using that influence to good use.
The sprinkling of royal dust over national (and global) charities boosts coverage status and donations too. Princess Anne in the 1970s travelling through some of the poorest states, with sleeves rolled up and headscarf, not tiara in place drew the cameras and shone the light on poverty that shames humanity. The beautiful Audrey Hepburn did the same. Nobody said her sky-high movie actress salary should be banned.
There are far too many charity examples to list, but the same holds true for all. Would they rather a fleeting association with a celebrity, or a decades-long support of a member of the royal family? Always the latter.
The clout of the royals has been brought to good effect. When the Somerset floods left farmers bereft and the Cameron government dragged their feet, the Prince of Wales summoned ministers to his offices after going himself. There followed a stampede of said ministers to the west country and funding to support them. Gordon Brown’s time as chancellor and prime minister was equally peppered with the ‘spidery writing’ letters from Charles demanding attention and action where he had been approached by the public and unions.
Again – people will say Charles, Anne and William could do this as private citizens. Really? Let’s see again how far Joe Bloggs gets with this. Royal voices draw crowds, bring cash and coverage and bypass party politics. This is where they earn their position and right to remain – the enduing status of a constitutional monarchy depends on the perception that they are on the side of and/or bring benefit to the people.
It has to be said that the courtiers to the royal family have sharpened up their acts since the tragic death of Princess Diana and are now better attuned to the pubic mood and able to shift accordingly. The monarchy under Queen Elizabeth has changed and adapted throughout her reign and will need to remain nimble and able to do so continually, as the succession proceeds.
Polly Toynbee and her Guardian colleagues and readers no doubt bemoan the ignorance of the working classes they claim to represent. Can’t they see they’ve been had? Why do they still cling to this anachronistic status quo? Why don’t they revolt and throw off the yolk of monarchy?
Which brings me nicely to my final point.
The relationship between monarch and people is an emotional one. It is more about identity, feelings and a sense of belonging and a desire for continuity in an ever-changing world.
The Queen’s unchanging nature has often been described as her greatest strength and greatest weakness. She does not change. She has not become gushy or emotionally incontinent to fit the prevailing culture of recent decades. She is seen as a steady hand, a dependable figure, the image of stoicism and stability as the world around her (and us) changes, in ever increasing and sometimes scary ways.
In the post-Diana era, the family have adapted to incorporate a more compassionate approach and opened up to closer involvement and been seen to engage with more empathy. The best of them have achieved this whilst maintaining a dignity of position. That balance will become ever more difficult to maintain in the years to come. And another monarch akin to Queen Elizabeth is unlikely to be seen in the same light, with no war years for reference.
Would an elected head of state be better? When I think of the problems our country faces, I frankly think the last thing anyone wants is more elections and more politicians. Adding another layer of party politics is unlikely to engage or inspire. President Thatcher? President Blair? President Corbyn? President Johnson?
For those who aspire for a non-political Head of State, who shall set the ground rules and criteria? Who shall be eligible? Will an elected president really cost less than a monarchy that equates to an annual cost of 1 or 2 premier league footballers? With no political power where shall the allegiance of the armed forces, courts and legal system and public services be placed? All power concentrated into the Prime Minister’s office? Now that really is a really scary thought.
Even the most ardent republicans have grudgingly accepted the goodwill that exists for Queen Elizabeth. The calls for reform around the Commonwealth and within our own borders will grow once Her Majesty has left us and Charles III is anointed king. It is good that these conversations happen and I shall engage with friends on all sides of the argument.
But as this Jubilee weekend draws to a close, I join others in thanking Her Majesty for her years of service, dedication to duty and providing the sparkle and unity for this country in times high and low.