BOOKS MAY 22, 1961
Some three years ago I wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post on the English Monarchy. It aroused, at the time, a good deal of controversy and abuse, and even now I am occasionally asked whether I think Princess Margaret ought to have married Group-Captain Townsend, or whether the Duke of Edinburgh is a good husband, as though I were some kind of expert on such questions. This is far from being the case. My knowledge of the Royal family is confined to what appears about them in newspapers and magazines. Since I read little of this vast, and, to me, nauseating outpouring of printed matter, and am, in any case, skeptical about the authenticity of a great deal of it, I may be said to be more meagerly informed on the subject than are most of my fellow-citizens, who tend to read it all avidly and credulously. Even so, having, at a journalistic chance, been pitch-forked into the subject, with consequences quite unforeseen at the time, I find myself continuing to brood intermittently on it.
The deadly solemnity with which my article was received, and the furious indignation it generated, made me feel that the Monarchy, at any rate as a social phenomenon, deserved to be taken more seriously than I had previously supposed. Nothing is more illustrative of the true nature of society than a brush, such as I perforce had, with its manipulators. One sees then, in terms of a personal experience, how Lenin’s famous axiom—who whom?—really works. The actual flywheels and pistons are discerned beneath the machine’s quiet, reassuring hum. It is like the difference between being a prison visitor and doing a stretch oneself.
At one point, I went to see an eminent lawyer to consult him as to whether an action for libel lay in the distorted newspaper accounts of what I had actually written about the Monarchy, and in the offensive and professionally damaging comment based thereon. Of course there had been libel, he said, pacing up and down his office, but I must never forget that, in view of the circumstances, and the particular matter at issue, I could not count upon a jury or a judge taking an unprejudiced view. It was eerie, and a little alarming,to have the theory of “People’s” justice, as administered in Communist countries, thus expounded by this Dickensian figure—winged collar, dark suit, liability to press his finger-tips together—in the antique quiet and tranquility of one of London’s Inns of Court.
Before I became a delinquent, my natural impulse was to regard the Monarchy as essentially comical. With all the appurtenances of supreme authority, as crown, throne, regal address, the Monarch has come to exercise none. Any rural district counselor, in practice, has more say in the conduct of public affairs. On those frail shoulders rests the burden of an empire, one of the more ponderous and high-minded commentators like Mr. Richard Dimbleby was liable to remark at the time of the present Queen’s coronation. One might as well say of Miss Barbara Hutton that on her frail, or not so frail shoulders rests the burden of Woolworths. There is no Empire, but only a holding company—the Commonwealth—set up to dispose of its dwindling residual assets, on whose managerial board the Queen does not sit, though she has inherited a sizable block of non-voting shares. This is an essentially humorous situation, which a Jonathan Swift or a Mark Twain would have known how to handle. It is a traditional music-hall joke, in which pretension and actuality are grotesquely at variance. Courtiers back respectfully away from a Royal presence which can neither harm nor, appreciably, benefit them; ladies drop creaking curtsies to an image of authority which history has rendered ineffectual and irrelevant.
Even obsequiousness and sycophancy, to have reality, must be directed toward some end. The captain who officiously helps his brigadier on with his overcoat hopes to become a major. The salaried underling who hurries forward to settle a millionaire into his Rolls Royce hopes to steer some of the other’s wealth in his direction. The gigolo who declares passionate love to a wizened heiress hopes to participate in her affluence. If the brigadier disposes of no patronage, the millionaire of no surplus cash, and the heiress cannot be led to the altar, these acts become merely derisory. Nonetheless, it is an indubitable fact that the Monarchy, in its contemporary version, has attracted more adulation, not less, with the extinction of its power and authority. Ostensibly at any rate, it is most beloved when it is most futile. Kings who claimed to rule by Divine Right were indifferent as to whether or not they were popular with their subjects. Divine approbation sufficed. Henry VIII would have seen no point in consulting Dr. Gallup had that worthy been functioning in Tudor times. Subsequent Hanoverian monarchs were too bestial in their ways, and exorbitant in their financial requirements, even to envisage the possibility of attracting the people’s love. It was the people’s cash they wanted. Now that the Royal family’s sole responsibility is to present an image of domestic felicity, to flap a hand and flash a gleaming smile at the adoring multitude, they have become as sought after, crowded round, gazed upon, and generally adulated as any film star.
It might plausibly have been supposed that, as the English social structure became more theoretically equalitarian, the status of hereditary authority would decline. This has happened in, for instance, the case of the House of Lords, which, precisely because it has been deprived of all effective legislative power, no longer commands any respect, or even interest. Its proceedings are seldom reported in the popular press, and then only when a peer chances to make some eccentric pronouncement on matters like adultery or sodomy, which are inherently newsworthy. Other hereditary offices, such as Lord-lieutenancies of Counties,have become almost totally forgotten. Incumbents are appointed to them as they fall vacant, but their names make little impact outside the columns of the Times, that Forest Lawn of expiring authority, where defunct offices and officers are interred, to the notes of sonorous background music, and encased in asbestos platitudes to ensure everlasting preservation. All the more curious is it, therefore, that the Monarchy should have undergone a quite contrary development, becoming,as it shed its power, ever more popular, and the subject of an ever more rapacious curiosity.
The Case for Constitutional Monarchy
A constitutional monarchy, as such, has much to recommend it. The case for one is presented cogently and impressively by Walter Bagehot in his classic essay on the subject. As he points out, a State requires a Head, who can communicate with, and receive, other Heads of State, and generally provide a focus for the mystique, as distinct from the exercise, of government.There are decided advantages in making this Headship of State hereditary and Royal rather than elective, and so liable to be hitched on to the unedifying gravy-train of universal suffrage politics. The essential feature of a constitutional monarchy, however, is that it should be completely subservient to the legislature. If, as Bagehot graphically puts it, the legislature were to pass a bill for the Monarch’s execution, he or she would be bound to sign it or abdicate. Incidentally, I was imprudent enough to quote from Bagehot in this sense, thereby calling down on my head particularly vehement accusations of being scandalous and seditious. There can be little doubt that, were a popular English newspaper today to serialize Bagehot’s Essay (which, rightly,continues to be used as a textbook for history students at state schools and universities), it would thereby bring itself into such public odium.
In the light of the undoubted advantages of a constitutional monarchy, its adoption in the United States deserves consideration. President Eisenhower, for instance,would have made an impeccable constitutional monarch. It is interesting, in this connection, that, on first taking office, he publicly stated that he saw the functions of the Presidency in such a light. His lack of interest in government, which laid him open to criticism as a President, would have been a virtue in a constitutional monarch. As for his addiction to golf - when I think of the relaxations of some of our past English sovereigns, this one seems innocuous, if not positively praiseworthy. The chance for an Eisenhower Dynasty would seem to have passed. We shall never now, alas,see on the stage of history King Ike I, or better, in view of America’s greatly increased power and extended responsibilities throughout the world, the Emperor Ike.Perhaps the Kennedy line, richly endowed as it is with heirs and successors, may yet find its way into the Almanac de Gotha and the Book of Common Prayer.Some of the photographs of the new President’s charming little daughter, Caroline, as she gaily waved to admiring citizens and photographers, irresistibly recalled to me, across a span of two and a half decades,two other little girls, similarly waving, on their way to Sandringham or Balmoral. After all, if Mr. Kennedy serves his statutory two terms as President, he will still only be 51. Having ruled for eight years, there will be many more years left to reign.
The abusive letters and telephone calls, and other public and private insults evoked by my, as I fondly supposed, sensible and amiable observations on the Monarchy, reflected a state of mind which I could not but regard as morbid and potentially dangerous. What,I asked myself, was the explanation? How did it come about that English people, who, in the ordinary way,are sane, humorous and easy-going, should, on so trivial a pretext, behave like a Jew-baiting Nazi mob? It is,of course, possible, and even probable, that the actual numbers involved were much fewer than might have appeared. The abusive letters, though largely illiterate,suggested, by their notepaper and manner of address,rather genteel than proletarian origins. The voices which screamed insults down my telephone had about them likewise a faint flavor of gentility. An anonymous correspondent who wrote to my wife rejoicing that our youngest child had been killed in a skiing accident,was able to type, and even, approximately, to spell. It was in clubs, expensive restaurants and first-class railway carriages that I was made to feel uncomfortable rather than in omnibuses and pubs.
In these days of mass communications, it is next to impossible to tell how far what purport to be manifestations of popular emotion are authentic or contrived.The press may be unanimous, but it is controlled, to a great extent, by a handful of not particularly edifying individuals. Similarly, radio and television. The so-called Press Council, which in England is supposed to uphold high standards of journalism, is a stuffed shirt affair. Its members, to adapt a famous line of Dryden’s, for knighthoods will cry whore to their own mother.When, from time to time, they administer ponderous and self-righteous rebukes to individual journalists and newspapers, I am always reminded of how Mr. Winkle,having got involved in a fracas along with the rest of the Pickwick Club, was seen to take off his coat and begin belaboring a small boy. It did not surprise me, therefore, that, far from providing any redress when I found myself in the stocks, they joined the catawaulers. We shall never be able to differentiate, nor will posterity, between our true hopes and desires, and those implanted in us or attributed to us. My own conclusion, drawn from this experience of momentarily interfering with the propagation of the legend of popular monarchy, is that only a specialized few invest authentic passion in such legends. The rest are swept along on a tidal wave of subliminal, stereoscopic emotion. Skilled and numerically insignificant cheerleaders know how to produce and manipulate the Voice of the People, while still righteously insisting that it is the Voice of God. Government by hysteria, unhappily, can easily be identified with government by popular acclaim. In the Country of the Blind he who can see is King, and in the Country of the Dumb, he who can speak.
However few or many, with conscious purpose, participate in the legend of popular monarchy, there can be no question about the efficiency and efficacy with which the legend is promoted and sustained. It goes from strength to strength. No fatuity is too oleaginous to serve its purpose. The spotlight which shines upon the Royal family grows ever brighter. Their doings, their comings and goings, are ever more minutely examined and displayed. A legend which can incorporate Mr. Antony Armstrong-Jones, not to mention his former friends and associates, as this one has with notable success, is strong indeed. It is true that, in the interminable expounding of the legend, there is noticeable, from time to time, a decided undertow of irritation and malice. The most practiced hands, constantly spelling out the same story, filling the same frames with the same pictures for the same strip, grow weary and sullen. Even so, the Monarchy’s popularity rating has never been higher. Gossip writers cannot have enough of it. Pulp magazines thirst for it as the heart after the water-brook. For photographers it is Midas treasure. Leader-writers and sonorous BBC voices intone its rubric on all possible occasions. The characters may be few and ordinary, and in themselves of limited interest; the script may be repetitive, undergoing only occasional and minor variations; but the show remains triumphantly at the top of the Top Ten.
Part of the explanation of this is to be found in the intensification of snobbishness which, surprisingly, has accompanied the transformation of England into a Welfare State. Never have class divisions been so acute and anguished as since they were, theoretically, abolished. The nerves of class consciousness have been made raw and inflamed by the administration of what purported to be a sedative. Instead of a cure for this collective asthmatic condition being affected, new and virulent allergies have been set up. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, were, at one time, according to the well-known hymn, expected to take for granted one another’s due estate. This was, admittedly, easier for the former than the latter, but such was the accepted arrangement. Now, death duties and supertax have forced the rich man to turn over his castle to the National Trust. The castle gate is open, on payment of a small fee, to all poor men who care to enter it, as many do, examining with eager curiosity the furnishings, the sanitation, the pictures and the objets d’art, if any. Class infiltration has taken place on a vast scale, but has only served to exacerbate class-consciousness. As poor Mr. Gaitskell has learned to his cost, equalitarianism,preached by the Labour Party, and put into effect through legislative and fiscal measures, has produced an unprecedented sense of social inequality. The sheep have leapt out of their pens in search of better pasture, leaving the unhappy shepherds, who first opened these vistas to them, with a dwindling flock, and looking decidedly silly.
Public (in America, private) schools, which once counted their waiting lists in scores, now count them in hundreds. The fees go merrily up, and so do the numbers of those seeking entry. Peers may be, as legislators, at a heavy discount, but, socially they are booming. Their marriages and divorces, their travels and real estate deals, their feasting and their fasting, are eagerly reported. In the days when Dukes of Bedford appeared in history books, they never had anything like the showing the present Duke gets on television when he opens a nudist camp in his ancestral seat, or joins Mr. Perry Como on a merry-go-round. Everyone wants to speak like a BBC announcer, to dress like the Windsors; to experience, if only through the lush prose of women’s magazine fiction, the sense of being socially superior. How ironical, and yet how life-like, that this universal yearning should have come to pass, not as a result of insistence on the sanctity of class divisions, but as a result of an alleged passion to abolish them!
The social mountaineers, setting forth with their nailed boots and climbing equipment, doggedly essaying now this peak, now that, see in the distant mists an ultimate summit - the Monarchy. This is the pinnacle,not, indeed, ever to be climbed by them, majestically unattainable, but endowing their puny endeavors with validity. If there were no Everest, who would bother with Snowden? Keeping up with the Joneses is glorified because of Armstrong-Jones. I remember, years ago, seeing in some Soviet museum a picture from Czarist times, showing God in His Heaven beaming down radiance on the Czar and his family, who in turn beamed down radiance on an ecclesiastical dignitary, who in turn beamed down radiance on a moujikand his family. A contemporary English version would show arc-lamps as the source of the original radiance, with this being passed on from crown to coronet to bowler hat to homberg. The Bolsheviks attacked the Czarist social mystique from the top downwards. They abolished God, and butchered the Imperial family in a cellar, thereby disposing of the legend of the Little Father forever. The Labour Party made a feeble and confused assault on our English social mystique from the bottom upwards. It has proved a ludicrous failure, leaving what they sought to destroy to flourish and proliferate as never before.
One Truly Stable Element
The Monarchy, then, in that Snobcracy into which the Welfare State, contrary to the ostensible wishes and expectations of its founders, has transformed itself, provides a distant and alluring horizon. It has also, at least in some minds, a more practical function.
When the social fabric rattles from the deep reverberations of our time, and the winds of change howl and shriek in the outside darkness, it is comforting to feel that in our old English homestead we have one truly stable element, the Throne; one truly beloved figure, the Monarch. In Victorian times industrialists managed to persuade themselves that they were held in high regard by their employees, landowners that they were venerated by their tenants. Such fantasies have long ago been laid aside. Profitable, and possibly socially beneficial speculative enterprises like take-over bids, it is recognized, find little popular favor; landlords, of whatever variety, are not the recipients of affectionate glances and hearty greetings as they look over their building-lots or latest block of flats; a banker or stockbroker or director may be a prince of good fellows in his club, but well knows that his public appearances are unlikely to be spontaneously applauded.
How reassuring, then, for such persons, that the Throne should be authentically popular! The public esteem and affection in which it is held provides collateral against which they can increase their own already heavy overdrafts on their popularity accounts. Small wonder that the Stock Exchange roof is shaken when the brokers, stiff as ramrods, sing the National Anthem. Company directors, over their third expense-account brandy, are liable to shed a loyal tear; real estate, oil and insurance men drink the loyal toast with full-hearted and full-throated ease; Generals and General Electric, Their Graces, Their Excellencies, Their Worships, Honorables and Right Honorables, all likewise lift up their glasses, and their hearts with them, to the Queen, God bless her! In green rooms and board rooms alike, in episcopal palaces, palace grills and palais de dances, wherever two or three are gathered together for whom the Garter, the Thistle, and even the humble OBE, are crocks of gold at the rainbow’s end, there shall loyalty be found.
In the poker game of politics the Monarchy is regarded as an ace, to be held in reserve, and only played if there are dangerous depredations on the bank. This doubtless accounts for the esteem in which it has lately come to be held in what Mr. Khrushchev calls “ruling circles” in the United States. There was a time when the Hearst and Luce publications, not to mention the Chicago Tribune, were little disposed to venerate the Court of St. James. Now it is very different. The subjects King George III lost crowd eagerly around Queen Elizabeth II. Crawfie goes down as well in Birmingham, Alabama, as in Birmingham, England, and a coronation is as unctuously presented by American television networks as by the BBC itself.
Shortly after the appearance of my article on the Monarchy, Mr. Mike Wallace invited me over to New York to be interviewed by him on the subject. He kindly accommodated me in his house. While we were sitting chatting together, there was a long-distance telephone call from California. As Mr. Wallace found himself, when he picked up the receiver, getting involved in a long and obviously acrimonious conversation, he thoughtfully motioned me to listen in on an available telephone extension, which I cheerfully did. The voice I heard (belonging, as I subsequently learned, to one of the chief executives of the TV network for which Mr. Wallace then worked) was raucous and deeply perturbed as it rebuked Mr. Wallace for interviewing me at all, and appealed to him, if the interview must take place, not to be “soft” with me.
“Don’t you realize,” it said, in a final effort at persuasion, “that this Queen is the only bulwark against Communism?”
I should add that Mr. Wallace persisted sturdily with our interview, though, presumably out of deference to the anxieties of his employers, it was not transmitted to Washington, where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were then staying.
Two of Clubs
The Founding Fathers of the American Republic would surely have been surprised, and perhaps amazed, by the perturbation of Mr. Wallace’s caller from California. They would scarcely have expected one of their Republic’s more substantial citizens to regard an English sovereign as the mainstay of freedom and the American way of life. In the Kremlin, too, I can imagine an hilarious reaction. Among Mr. Khrushchev’s preoccupations, as he labors to make the world safe for Communism, it is difficult to believe that the English Monarchy looms very large. If this ace were ever to be played, he may legitimately calculate, it will assuredly turn out to be a two of clubs.
Such considerations, however, are far from the minds of the crowds who throng the streets when a Royal car is going by, of the readers of Women’s Own or Woman’s Realm avid for details of Princess Margaret’s home life or the Duke of Edinburgh’s latest quips; of the loiterers outside Buckingham Palace staring through the railings, irrespective of whether or not the Queen is in residence, in the vague expectation that something will happen, someone will appear. What impels them? What are they after? To see a vision of themselves transfigured. To commune with majesty in their own lineaments. To participate, however remotely, in the glitter of a palace and the splendor of a throne. Their faces wear the anonymous rapture of televiewers. Like a strip-tease audience, their ecstasy lies in seeming to possess what is invariably beyond their reach. They see through a glass coach darkly. They are kings and queens, not even for a day; just for a passing moment.
Monarchy, for them, is part of the mystique of our time, which is itself a kind of Caliban’s dream, full of sounds and sweet airs, so that, like this strangest and last of Shakespeare’s creations, when we wake we cry to sleep again. The dream passes across television screens, is recounted in print and spoken through microphones and written in neon lights, shines forth in chromium fittings, speeds along majestic highways, climbs into the sky in gleaming, mountainous buildings, is jet-propelled through space and rocketed into the very stratosphere, where it twinkles and orbits among the stars. What a dream it is! And yet, how perilous! Dreams which are earthly, or even stratospheric, so easily turn into nightmares. This one exudes its own inward, invisible nightmarish possibilities in outward and visible mushroom clouds. Though we cry to sleep again, we have at last to awaken. And then?—then we are confronted, as the first man was, and the last will be, with an empty universe, in which we briefly sojourn, not knowing why, or whence we come, or whither, if anywhere, we are going. Then the mystery of things once more enfolds us, and the shadows, out of which our dream was shaped, disperse, as night does when dawn breaks.
Dreams elude, and at last destroy, unless they are of heaven. Knees should never be bowed save before God. Worship and adulation which are directed toward mortality inevitably share the fate of all things mortal; soon give off a stench of decay, and cry out for burial. Suetonius describes how the last Roman Emperors insisted on being worshipped as Gods. As their earthly pretentions became more unconvincing, they were the more insistent on their divine ones. Their kingdom was shrinking to almost nothing, the barbarians were closing in, but a debauched and sycophantic Roman population was still induced, and required, to accord them divine honors. And mouth empty praises of their virtue and valor. Let us beware that a like fate does not overwhelm us. We, too, are well-endowed with bread, along with much other affluence. We, too, have circuses, piped into our homes, astutely and persistently whispered into our ears, to reach the deepest recesses of our unconscious minds. We even have a Britannic Majesty, presiding over a non-existent Empire, and so ingeniously spotlighted and produced as to reduce the wide world’s dangerous and thronging stage to this small dimension.