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Knees Up Mother Windsor

June 2, 2022

One of the redeeming features of growing old is that for most of us the pursuit of perfection is futile. We muddle through, accepting compromise, realising that apart from death there are no absolutes in human life. We might still expect our children to reach for the sky, but for us that’s no longer a possibility. We admire our heroes for their brief moments of excellence, but we know that sooner or later they will join the rest of us back on earth.

Which perhaps explains another feature of old age: that our expectations and opinions are increasingly framed not in terms of the best, but the least worst. Or to put it another way, if you asked me why I subscribe to the London Times, I might reply that it’s because it’s not the Daily Mail. Or the Telegraph. Or Der Stürmer. I might grudgingly accept just about any Tory politician as Prime Minister because they’re not Boris Johnson. It’s why I was relieved rather than delighted when Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, because he’s not Donald Trump. And almost any successor to Vladimir Putin will be better than him, no?

In Putin’s case, no. The fact that it’s by no means guaranteed that whoever takes over from him will be less homicidal and paranoid serves to illustrate that hoping for the least worst could be considered a pretty bleak outlook. And no, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel or Michael Gove becoming Prime Minister instead of Johnson would be far worse than the least worst.

Which brings me to Britain’s monarchy, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. I hesitate to use the word Jubilee because it’s a curious word that probably won’t make sense to anyone who reads this who isn’t steeped in British (or English?) culture. So let’s call it a celebration.

What exactly are we celebrating? That a woman in her nineties has managed to do the same job for all these years? That she has radiated the same aura of inert decency that allows her to resist the manipulative powers of 14 prime ministers and carry out her role as our unknowable figurehead with integrity and consistency? That she has done so despite the best efforts of members of her family to be far from unknowable, and despite the growing irreverence of her subjects over the past fifty years, starting with the satirists of the sixties and culminating in the sleaze and cynicism of the current decade?

Is she, and the institution she represents, the least worst option for a fragmented nation whose pretentions of importance have slowly corroded over the seventy years of her reign? I would argue yes, or at least someone like her. For if the alternative is an executive, elected presidency, then God help us if we end up with a Putin, a Trump or a Johnson who will do anything to shape our institutions in such a way as to hold on to power for the longest possible time, unanswerable to the only authority that can credibly claim to have the interests of all its subjects at heart and carries the respect of most of them, rather than the transitory and easily manipulated “will of the people”.

And what if we abolished the monarchy and replaced it with an elected figurehead, along the lines of a Michael O’Higgins in Ireland? Then we would be opting for an individual rather than an institution. When our soldiers fight for Queen and Country, and our football crowds sing God Save the Queen, they’re not bowing down to a frail old lady who lives in a palace and is surrounded by flunkies. They’re declaring allegiance to the the intangible order she represents, just as Americans, who are much fonder of oaths than we are, swear allegiance not to Biden or Trump, but to the constitution of the United States. Just as the French say “Vive La République” and “Vive La France”, not “Vive Macron”.

You can certainly argue that the British state’s institutions and our version of democracy leave much to be desired and need reforming on many fronts, but I’m not sure that the election of a popular figurehead every few years will do anything to bring about meaningful change.

So where do I stand, amid the bunting, the street parties and all the other efforts of the ruling party to encourage fuzzy nostalgia and patriotic fervour? Well, most of us love a party – our shower of a government more than most – and I don’t want to play the killjoy. So, we should party away if that’s what we want. Not me though. The last thing a street party belting out Rule Britannia from among the privet hedges needs is a Wat Tyler sympathiser in its midst. I shall celebrate the small things, like a daughter’s birthday and the delights of early summer.

As for Her Majesty, I wonder how she feels about the whole palaver. I suspect that she wants little more than a quiet life from here onwards, but her sense of obligation compels her to go along with the fuss. At least she doesn’t have to preside over Theresa May’s ghastly Festival of Brexit, which seems to have quietly died amongst the piles of rotting paperwork and thirty-mile truck queues heading for our ports. She surely deserves our respect, for her forbearance if nothing else. Even though there’s an argument that the demise of her institution might help us move on from the rocky legacy of our imperial past, I’m not sure that it would leave us in a better place. Besides, “moving on” is hardly the phrase of the moment. The question is: moving on to where?

So I’m content to salute the best of queens, while accepting that for now, the institution she embodies is our least worst option. For now, at least.

Have a lovely weekend, Your Majesty.

From → Politics, Social, UK

  1. Thank you!

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