Oh to be a republican today.
The flags, the bunting, the crowds crammed into Edinburgh’s Waverley Station iPhones at the ready. Cloying front pages, peppy breakfast presenters and breathless royal correspondents. Royalist Britain — which is to say Britain — in a carnival atmosphere for its sovereign’s special day.
It must be hell.
The Queen’s 63 years on the throne make her Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and serve as a symbol of the utter failure of republicanism as a political doctrine in this country. Elizabeth II is being hailed as many things in many places but above all she is the best PR officer the monarchy has ever had. Popular support for the institution is so high in large part because of the personal affection many Britons feel for her. They admire her public service, commitment to duty, hard work, and a graceful and judicious temperament.
Naturally, all the major political parties support the continuation of the monarchy. Even the SNP, those royalist republicans, want to retain the Queen as head of state in an independent Scotland, complete with Commonwealth membership, taxpayer contributions to the Royal Family’s expenses, and a new honours system.
No wonder the tributes paid in the Commons were so fulsome. The Prime Minister said the sovereign “inspires us all with her incredible service, her dignified leadership and the extraordinary grace with which she carries out her duties” and described her reign as “a golden thread running through three post-war generations”.
Opposition leader Harriet Harman picked up the thread, telling the House: “Her life has been a great sweep of British history — the second world war, the cold war and the fall of the Berlin wall — and she has presided over the transition from empire to Commonwealth.”
Angus Robertson, leader of the Scottish Nationalists at Westminster, added: “Her Majesty, as we know, has a particular affinity with Scotland” and pointed out that she was spending the day with Nicola Sturgeon north of the border. He added: “That the Queen is in Scotland on this special day, and working as usual, is much appreciated and totally in keeping with her remarkable record of public service.”
Anti-monarchists kvetch that their views are not being heard often enough on television and radio today and they’re not but only in the same way that Comic Relief doesn’t invite on a spokesperson from Ukip to warn viewers their donations will only end up in the pockets of foreign warlords and right-on NGOs. It’s not the BBC that makes the country monarchist, it’s the country that makes the BBC put on its plummiest tones and roll out the red carpet.
Republicans are treated as oddities in our constitutional affairs, not strong enough in number to be pantomime villains but still sufficiently radical to be eyed with polite disapproval. They don’t make it easy for themselves. They’re too uptight, supposing that an earnest snarl can win out over resplendent pomp. For all their talk about democratic precepts, their organising principle seems to be contempt for Nicholas Witchell, Royal Doulton, and little old ladies with commemorative Queen Mum tea towels.
What they don’t realise is that the Queen, for now the bane of their agenda, will one day become their greatest asset. Her Majesty turns 90 next year and while wishing her many more years to come, the inevitable is still inevitable. And when she is gone, the republican movement will have a generational opportunity on its hands. The face of monarchism in Britain will change from a beloved national mother and grandmother to that of her polarising son.
The Prince of Wales is by all accounts a good and decent man, conscientious about the environment and conservation. But he is not his mother. She is an historic figure who has outlasted 11 prime ministers and six popes, overseen Britain’s transition from Empire to Commonwealth, and remained one of the few constants in national life since 1952. She is regarded by her subjects with admiration and affection and even inspires respect in staunchly republican countries like the United States.
All this she has presided over from above the political fray. It is the very inscrutability of her own ideological preferences that enshrines her importance in our history and constitution. Where a presidency risks an alternative power base to Downing Street, offers a perch to chancers and demagogues, and erects yet another layer of government over us, the Queen is a bulwark against the excesses of politics. The monarchy is a benign dictatorship and all it wants to dictate is the seating order at stately banquets.
Popular esteem for the monarch is in part down to her public indifference to political outcomes. (Her comments in the final days of the independence referendum, expressing hope that Scots would “think very carefully” before casting their vote, might count as a semi-intervention. Though if she had any role in preventing a narrow Yes victory followed by a global oil price collapse, messy currency and EU negotiations, and a painful dose of fiscal medicine, her services to the SNP ought to be rewarded with another palace after independence.)
Her heir is a different matter. Prince Charles pokes and prods, lobbies ministers for this pet cause and that, as was confirmed most recently with the publication of the “Black Spider memos”. Perhaps on the throne he will be more restrained but if he is not the republican case will gain traction. Most people aren’t that bothered that he talks to his plants: after all, Shirley Valentine talked to her wall and they made a cracking film out of it. But the prince’s interests are not mere inoffensive fluff. They are the intellectual hobbies of a scion of privilege and pampered unreality and it shows.
He harangued Tony Blair on defence cuts. He pressed then health secretary Andy Burnham on funding for homeopathy in the health service. He has enquired aboutdeploying the Royal Navy to stop illegal fishing. He has used his pedestal to promote junk science about GM crops. He has badgered ministers about badgers.
Most Britons are happy to be loyal subjects to someone who waves to the homeless and gives jolly garden parties but there is a limit. It’s one thing having an unelected ruler ear-bashing ministers for free chakra check-ups on the NHS; a sovereign who tries to change defence policy is something else, something that could no longer be indulged as benign. Republicans would be able to rekindle the memory of the dear late Queen and lament, more in sorrow than in anger, that her son had undermined all that she worked for. The anti-monarchist forces would still have a fight on their hands but it would be a more evenly-matched battle and the woman they once seethed about would be a fearsome weapon for them.
The old deference with which the Royal Family was once greeted is long gone. The past six decades have been the vaunted “Second Elizabethan Age” precisely because the Queen adapted to changing times and mores. She understands the boundaries of modern constitutional monarchy. There is ample evidence that her son does not and if he doesn’t learn them before wearing the crown, his won’t be the only head that lies uneasy.
Put out more flags and snap up those Wills and Kate porcelain swans off eBay. There’s plenty to celebrate today but the years ahead will prove difficult indeed.
Oh to be a republican then.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © NASA/Bill Ingalls.