Last week marked the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the British throne. The government has already declared a four day public holiday in June, during which Her Majesty will lead a flotilla of a thousand boats along the Thames and a chain of fiery beacons will be lit across the United Kingdom. For a country in recession and at conflict with the European Union over its right to govern its own finances, this offers us a unique opportunity to reassert confidence and historical identity. The default British response to any crisis is to throw a good party.
But enthusiasm for Queen Elizabeth’s anniversary hides the fact that the future of the monarchical institution is in question. Elizabeth II is very popular among her subjects, but her son and heir is not. The tension over the future of the throne raises an even bigger question in Britain: whether it’s appropriate for a 21st century democracy to maintain a monarchy at all.
The British enthusiasm for Queen Elizabeth is about two things. First, it’s about us. The Queen’s reign encompassed an extraordinary breadth of social history, covering both the highs and lows of British life—throughout all of which, the Queen was the one constant. When she came to the throne, Britain still ruled large swathes of the world and was a major power. By the late 1960s our empire was gone and we were divesting ourselves of what remained of Victorian culture—London swung, and hem lines were at an all time high. Britain crashed out in the 1970s (the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977 was celebrated by a country crippled by strikes and inflation), the 1980s brought the harsh medicine of Thatcherism, and the 1990s a consumer boom. To review her history is to review a history of ourselves: like flicking through an old family photo album.
The Jubilee is also a celebration of Elizabeth’s unique charisma. Contrary to her starchy, mute image, she’s a very intelligent woman with a wicked wit. Her personality manages to transcend the artifice of royalty and offers the public a bridge back to the values of pre-1960s Britain: sober, religious, patriotic, and obsessed with “duty.” Her patient, crisp vowels and neat perm evoke a Britain that was once modest in dress and behavior. She is quintessentially, reassuringly boring. In an age of economic crisis, largely spurred by visions of social reform that spiraled hopelessly out of control, her 1950s conformity brings comfort.
Nevertheless, much of the Queen’s success has been due to her unbending adherence to the limits of her constitutional role. She has never directly interfered in policy and has, as a result, sustained a remarkable degree of bipartisan affection. There is reason to believe that Her Majesty might be a closet liberal: During the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government fought the unions and deregulated the economy, Elizabeth was rumored to harbor misgivings about her Prime Minister’s policies. She was particularly upset, according to Palace insiders, about Thatcher’s opposition to economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. In 1986, the Sunday Times newspaper published an interview with Elizabeth’s press secretary that claimed that Her Majesty was furious at the direction of the country and was “prepared to take on Downing Street when provoked.” But this glimpse into the mindset of Elizabeth II was so tantalizing precisely because it was so rare. Unlike most public figures of the 20th century, her decorum has preserved an inviolable aura of dignity.
The British public already senses that the standard she has set will be difficult for her successors to match. The enthusiasm for the Queen does not represent enthusiasm for the monarchy as an institution. According to a 2011 poll, 67 percent of Brits do think that the monarchy is “relevant” to modern life. But that same poll found that more people think the crown should pass directly to Elizabeth's grandson, Prince William, rather than to her son Charles. How can the Brits be for the monarchy yet so dismissive of its foundational principle, direct inheritance through the male line?
The truth is that since the 17th century, the British have practiced an unofficial “elected monarchy.” In 1688, the Catholic King James II was dethroned in favor of the Protestant William of Orange. Subsequently, the powers of the monarch were reduced and there was an unwritten understanding that he or she only ruled with the consent of the people. The most famous example of a head of state bowing to that will occurred in 1936. King Edward VIII outraged his ministers by announcing that he intended to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Told that the government would resign in protest, he agreed to abdicate in order to avoid a constitutional crisis. Although movie myth holds that Edward was brought low by the plotting of right-wing establishment politicians suspicious of his “modern manners,” the King had also alienated the political Left by flirting with fascism. In 1937, he and his new wife visited Adolf Hitler as private citizens. Whether he was a naïve conservative or a proto-fascist, the trip confirmed that Edward was unfit to be monarch. The British system of government by bipartisan consensus was vindicated.
Prince Charles isn’t nearly as bad as Edward VIII, but he’s still very unpopular. For a start, he has never grasped the constitutional limits of his role in the way that his mother has. Charles has spoken out in favor of environmentalism, organic farming, and traditional architecture. In 2011, it emerged that he had been scrutinizing—and presumably influencing—legislation that affects him personally. Since 2005, ministers from six departments have felt compelled to seek his approval for a dozen bills on issues ranging from gambling to children’s rights. The British Left might be expected to take delight at the Prince’s ostensible progressivism, but instead it has expressed unease about this encroachment into public political life. One liberal journalist wrote, “That’s not to say [Charles is] wrong on every issue, although I’m happy to say he’s wrong on a few. The point is that he is making the Royal family seem less like a stately and dignified ceremonial presence, and more like a cross between a fogey-hippy crossover activist group and a vast whole-foods retail company.”
Then there is the thorny issue of Charles’ first wife. Charles’ decision to marry—some would say insistence on marrying— his former mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, in 2005 opened up old wounds for a British public still enamored with Diana. It was an example of the kind of willfulness that defines Charles’ character and distinguishes him from the Queen. In the opinion of many Britons, his behavior makes him an unsuitable monarch.
Partly as a consequence of Charles’ reputation, the monarchy will change substantially after Elizabeth dies. Constitutionally, inheritance through the male line will be replaced by a “gender neutral” inheritance by the first-born. The centuries-old rule that bars a Catholic sitting on the throne will be scrapped, too. These changes are a concession to modernity, but also a tacit acceptance that the price of Charles’ ascension is wholesale reform. If the British are to endure him as king, they might at least get the guarantee that the institution that elevates him is becoming a little more meritocratic. This is a classic example of a British policy “fudge”—a compromise that mollifies people in the short-term but leaves systemic problems untouched. It is not unreasonable to predict that Charles will prove a prickly monarch, which will raise further questions about the viability of the institution as a whole.
All of which is a great pity, for the monarchy has proven to be Britain’s spine of steel throughout a century of decline and declension. But the Diamond Jubilee has been an occasion to remind ourselves that this has as much to do with Elizabeth II as with the institution itself. For those of us who grew up under her rule and developed an affection that borders on filial love, this is a very sad thing to contemplate. God save the Queen for as long as is humanly possible.
Tim Stanley blogs for The London Daily Telegraph and is the author of The Crusader: the Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan.