If you’re anything like me, you will have found yourself in more than one conversation over the past week in which someone uttered the words: ‘It’s the Queen I feel sorry for.’
Her Majesty may be fortunate enough to head a royal family but even she must wonder from time to time why it has to be this one. The 93-year-old matriarch is having to deal with the abrupt announcement from Harry and Meghan, the wokest Windsors, that they want out to pursue a ‘progressive role’ away from the frontline of royal duties.
This new role would allow them to become ‘financially independent’ by retaining their HRH titles and earning outside money. The 1980s brought us It’s a Royal Knockout and it looks like the 2020s could be the decade of I’m a Hereditary… Get One out of Here.
The Duke and Duchess of Instagram have put the Queen in an invidious position because their bid to go freelance is not only a personal embarrassment but a threat to the institution she has upheld over 68 turbulent years.
Once the institution becomes a gig you can opt in and out of — shift work with servants — its constitutional standing is weakened and its sense of mystique degraded. Monarchy shorn of duty truly is unearned privilege and will come to be seen as such by the general public. Harry and Meghan’s personal and professional happiness are not unimportant but their proposal imperils confidence in the institution itself.
Institutions matter. For Edmund Burke, they were the load-bearing walls of liberty, something he described as ‘social freedom’, or, ‘that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint’. Social freedom stood in opposition to ‘solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty’, which he scorned as that notion that ‘every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will’.
We are embarked on a post-liberal age in which the freedom to do is being eclipsed by the freedom to be, the absolute liberty to define yourself and your circumstances. Burke favoured ‘a constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society’.
But the freedom to be breaks cohesive societies down into ever-smaller identities, some of them in sharp tension with one another. In these circumstances, institutions like the monarchy which provide a focal point for unity risk irrelevance as unity is scorned in favour of more niche concepts of community.
It is no coincidence that the other unity-promoting institution currently under threat is the Union, which once served as an umbrella for a country with a clear British identity but which finds itself battered by the headwinds of nationalism and populism.
Broadly speaking, four changes have brought the monarchy and the Union to crisis point. Globalisation has swept away the pilings on which national identities were erected, leaving whole populations adrift and buffeted by economic and political waves making it even more difficult to anchor a sense of belonging.
Established nation-states struggle to reassert themselves and when they do they are in competition with rival loyalties. People are finding new places and ideas to belong to, perhaps best captured by the rise of the European Union and now the backlash against it.
Technology has broadened horizons while narrowing the plausibility gap between the status quo and radical leaps forward. Transforming or replacing institutions no longer seems as forbidding as it once did. The internet and social media have also allowed for the quick spread of fresh ideas and the forging of new (or rekindling of old) identities online that can then be transferred to the offline world. Movements like contemporary Scottish nationalism would be infinitely smaller without the internet to raise awareness, transmit propaganda and organise.
The disintegration of the British state, its institutions and the traditions they relied upon has left the Union and the monarchy as rare twin certainties amid furious tumult. As recently as the 1980s, there was a wide array of institutions that encouraged and strengthened a sense of Britishness: mass-membership trade unions, nationalised industries, established churches, and an information and ideas spectrum dominated by a small number of newspapers, broadcasters and publishers.
Much of that is gone and now British institutions are the exception rather than the rule. In these circumstances, the monarchy and the Union may look out of place or time.
The hollowing out of Britishness and its institutions has given rise to replacement identities, some of which challenge the remnants of Britishness and Burke’s social freedom in which one group may not trespass on the freedom of another or of individuals. Identity politics of race, sexuality and gender embody alternative, sub-national senses of self and belonging and often these react against past injustices associated with the British state.
Identity politics of nation, which is to say separatist movements like the Scottish or Welsh nationalists, seek to replace unifying national identities with more discrete ones, supposedly suppressed by the imposition of Britishness. Both the moral legitimacy and political future of the British state are now openly challenged.
These transformations did not take place overnight and nor will their end points arrive hastily. But the evolution can be seen in the morphing attitudes and identities of each generation. Those aged 18-24 are the least likely to support the monarchy on principle. The most recent polling for YouGov shows 69 per cent of Britons back the monarchy, but that figure falls to 57 per cent when voters aged 18-24 are asked.
On the Union, Scotland as a whole is evenly split, but not younger voters — 67 per cent of 16 to 34 year olds are in favour of independence. Indeed, under 35s are more pro-independence than over 55s are pro-Union.
A neat embodiment of this generational shift is Mhairi Black, newly promoted to the SNP frontbench at Westminster as Scotland spokesperson and a social and political lightning rod. Since her promotion was announced, friends and acquaintances who use me as a sounding board have got in touch to share their thoughts on the move.
Those over 40 almost uniformly ridiculed the decision, dismissing Black as unfit for the role, while nearly all those under 40 thought it a great idea — obvious, in fact. The political pronouncements and personality traits the first group considered disqualifying the second group found attractive.
So too on Harry and Meghan, where age seems to dictate sympathy for them versus the rest of the family, and where the Queen’s efforts to maintain the monarchy are viewed as either the admirable upkeep of treasured tradition or a futile clinging to the past. Along with our institutions and identities, our social mores are being reordered too.
The monarchy and the Union are pitched in the eye of a perfect storm that threatens their very future. Each institution must make itself relevant to a dynamic world, while retaining the best of its history, or they could find themselves swept away in the tides of change like so much else before them.
When the United States took out Iranian terror chief Qasem Soleimani, all the clever people accused Donald Trump of starting World War III. Since then, the Islamic Republic has made much noise but instead of attacking the US, it shot down a civilian airliner (accidentally, it claims).
What the clever people objected to was Trump getting tough with this rogue regime. The foreign policy establishment favoured Barack Obama’s approach because they believe accommodating Iran is preferable to confronting it.
But Iran will have to be confronted eventually, for it still seeks nuclear weapons with which to threaten the world. Far from curbing that plan, Obama’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) confirmed to Tehran that the West wanted to delay its nuclear programme because it lacked the will to destroy it.
Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it failed. Boris Johnson should do the same and choose courage over appeasement.
Said former New York governor Mario Cuomo: ‘We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.’ Says Labour leadership candidate Jess Phillips: ‘I have been able from the backbenches to communicate to people that I give a toss about things.’ Andrew Motion’s job is looking pretty safe and, if Phillips wins, so is Boris’s.