This essay, on the need to question the monarchy, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 10 September 2022, under the headline “We can respect popular affection for the Queen and question the idea of royalty”.
King Charles III. As soon as one monarch dies, another takes her place. It is a seamless transition that, for many, is both necessary and reassuring, helping sustain the myth of monarchy that, while kings and queens may pass on, the institution endures. It is also for that very reason that the seamlessness is troubling.
At moments such as these, republicans are faced with a dilemma. “We are saddened to hear the news of the Queen’s death and we wish to express our condolences to the royal family,” tweeted the campaign group Republic. “There will be plenty of time to debate the monarchy’s future. For now, we must respect the family’s personal loss and allow them and others to mourn the loss of a mother, grandmother and great grandmother.”
I agree with the broad tenor of the sentiment. Yet I also think that, even now, we need to reflect in a way that is probing and questioning as well as respectful of the occasion. One of the problems in simply maintaining a dignified silence is that the monarchy itself does not stand still. A new King has already been installed.
A constitutional monarch necessarily plays many roles. She is an individual human being and her death will be devastating for her family and friends, just as the death of any much-loved mother, grandmother, sister or aunt would be to their loved ones. To empathise with their grief and sorrow is human; to be personally vindictive, or to celebrate her death abhorrent.
A monarch is also a national symbol, and one who was on the throne for 70 years occupies a place deeply lodged in public consciousness. And here, too, it is important to acknowledge and respect the public mood.
And yet that mood is not uncomplicated. Anecdotally, people seem broadly supportive of the monarchy, respectful in their mourning for the Queen, but also less deferential and obsequious than much of the media and Westminster seemingly would wish it to be. And less unwilling to ask questions about the institution.
The perception of what Elizabeth symbolised and signified for the nation is itself one to be questioned and probed, rather than to be simply allowed to accrete into myth. Central to the eulogies has been the sense that she embodied continuity and steadfastness in an age of turbulence and change. That she was the figure whose presence helped a country manage the transition from the age of empire to the post-Brexit era, from the days when the BBC was the only national broadcaster to the contemporary world of social media, from a time of unquestioned deference to a period when all authority seems to be questioned and little is sacred.
Many other nations have negotiated similar kinds of shifts, some better, some worse than has Britain, and many without the necessity of a hereditary head of state. In all these eulogies, the symbolic significance of the monarch is as a figure standing above the common fray, far removed from the cynicism and mendacity of politics, of endowing the nation with an otherwise missing moral core. “In times when nothing stood / But worsened, or grew strange, / There was one constant good: / She did not change”, as Philip Larkin wrote about the Queen for her jubilee in 1977.
It’s not difficult to see the attraction of such a role, especially given the low esteem in which politics and politicians are held. But politics is the means by which ordinary people engage with the process of governance; to insist on the need for a hereditary monarch to stand above it, to embody continuity and the nation’s moral principles, is to restrain that process of democratic change.
The monarchy may be deemed to be above politics, but its very presence is itself a profoundly political statement; a statement about the degree to which the people and the democratic process can be trusted, and about why someone born into the right family is more fit to represent the nation than someone chosen by the demos.
All this elides into a third role that the monarch plays: as the representative of the office or institution of the monarchy. Britain has a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute one. And one, moreover, in which the office has over the years been increasingly stripped of its powers. Nevertheless, the idea that Elizabeth never interfered in political matters does not bear scrutiny.
There exist also the powers of the “royal prerogative”, the significance of which lies less in what it allows the monarch to do (though he or she retains certain reserved powers) than in allowing the executive to bypass parliamentary scrutiny. Through the use of royal prerogative powers, a government can “deploy the armed forces, make and unmake international treaties and to grant honours”. Such powers have been reduced and made more accountable in recent years; nevertheless they exist. And however constitutional the monarchy, however woven the institution into the fabric of democracy, it remains an office defined by heredity and as such cannot but be a restraint on democratic principles.
As important as it is to respect both the personal grief of the royal family, and the public mood towards the monarchy, the wider questions about the office of the monarch cannot, and should not, simply be swept aside. Indeed, it is at the moment of transition that such questions become particularly pertinent.
Part of the problem is that too much of the discussion in recent days has been caught between, on the one hand, infantile hatred and obnoxious scorn (such as the American academic who wished the Queen “excruciating pain”) and, on the other, a kind of overwrought servility (Clive Myrie on the BBC telling us, in the afternoon before the formal announcement of the Queen’s death, that Liz Truss’s response to the energy crisis was “now insignificant” compared with the “gravity” of the crisis facing the monarchy, comments he later clarified).
Respect, decorum and questioning are not incompatible. We need to be able to recognise the tragic personal circumstances, and the depth of the symbolic attachment the public feels towards the monarchy, while also being open to interrogating some of the deepest-held traditions, beliefs and myths. Such interrogation isn’t an expression of anti-Britishness. There is more than one way of wanting the best for this country.