Monday, 6 February 2012

Going on and on

The Queen has been reigning over us for exactly sixty years, and has chosen to mark the fact by reassuring her subjects (should there be any remaining doubt) that Prince Charles will only become king over her dead body.

The statement put out officially on her behalf put it more diplomatically - "I dedicate myself anew to your service" - but the message was loud and clear, and most commentators quickly picked up on it.

Around twenty years ago, it was, if not expected, at least canvassed as an attractive possibility that that time would come for Elizabeth II to abdicate in favour of her eldest son. It seemed the obvious thing to do, a kindness to her as well as to Charles (who has spent his entire life looking forward to the day when he becomes king). When Diana was still alive and, at least officially, in Charles's life, an age-related abdication seemed both modern and popular, even populist. Those progressive Dutch queens have long imposed informal term-limits on their reigns. For our Queen to just go on and on, as Mrs T once threatened to, would, many thought, be not just selfish and boring. Surely she'll take the hint.

Several natural stepping-down points have now come and gone. By the time of the Golden Jubilee (perhaps the most natural stepping-down point of all) it had become clear that the Queen had no intention of abdicating. Instead it was suggested that, though she would remain on the throne, she might enter into a kind of retirement, with Charles taking over more and more of her duties, being a "shadow king" and perhaps something approaching a prince regent. That didn't really happen, either, and may never happen, although the Queen won't be touring the Commonwealth this year as she did a decade ago.

And why should she? Her near contemporary Pope Benedict XVI wasn't even elected until his late seventies, and is still stumbling on, although there are no doubt many Catholics who rather wish he would make way for a younger pontiff. More to the point, it's much harder today to find voices calling for an abdication. In recent years, the belief in the unique virtue of the present monarch has become dangerously bound up with support for the institution of monarchy itself.

"There are still those who would prefer Britain to have an elected head of state" admits the Telegraph's Michael Deacon, grudgingly. And it is indeed extraordinary to think that there are, even in 2012, people in this country who imagine that the nation could be represented abroad, and symbolised at home, by someone chosen by the people. Almost as extraordinary a proposition as the existence of atheists in America, Eurosceptics in Germany or monarchists in the French Republic, I suppose. All nations have their superstitions and delusions, their unquestionable assumptions - it's part of what makes them distinctive and different. The monarchy is one of ours, along with the NHS and the BBC.
Deacon continues:

Let's imagine for a moment that the anti-monarchists got their way, the Queen were stripped of her crown, and we were asked to pick a president. What sort of person would we want to vote for, if we were completely free to choose?

Someone exactly like Elizabeth Windsor, that's who! So isn't it an extraordinary stroke of national good fortune, he wonders, that we've got her already? So we don't have to vote for her, which we obviously would.

This is where anti-monarchism hits a snag. Because if the people of Britain were free to vote for anyone to be their head of state, the candidate they'd choose would surely be… the Queen.

Hmm. If it were a straight choice between her and Prince Charles, perhaps. Otherwise, it's most unlikely that a woman in her mid-eighties would even stand for election, let alone win. But it's hardly a "snag" for anti-monarchism. Rather it's a snag for monarchism. If you're basing your argument for the continuance of the monarchy on the survival of an eighty-five year old incumbent, then what happens when, in ten, fifteen or twenty years' time, she's no longer there?

Of course the monarchy can survive, or even flourish, when the monarch does a reasonable job, which in Elizabeth II's case has meant keeping her head down and never saying anything remotely interesting. It was speculated at the weekend that she had misgivings about taking Fred Goodwin's knighthood away, both for the precedent it set and because of Goodwin's little-celebrated charitable work for the Prince's Trust. But she understands (unlike her eldest son) that a constitutional monarch is better seen than heard, and that the role consists in being rather than doing.

The present Queen may well be the most boring monarch in British history. Henry III runs her close, as does George II. (George V was personally duller, but constitutionally he was tremendously significant.) She has been for sixty years a vacuum at the heart of the state. Anti-monarchists, like atheists, need something to get their teeth into. Just as it's easier to oppose than Michele Bachmann's God than Giles Fraser's, it's easier to oppose a despot or a crowned fruitcake than Queen Elizabeth II. Belief in monarchy is possibly more irrational than belief in God, but the institution's opponents in this country have about as much chance of succeeding as does seventysomething Richard Dawkins in his recently-expressed hope that religion will be extinguished within his lifetime. Where public affairs are concerned, the weight of inertia is typically huge. It certainly is in the case of the monarchy (or the NHS, or the BBC). Boring is good, or at least safe from too much scrutiny.

Prince William gets it, I think. Indeed, considering his background and upbringing he appears to have become a miracle of normality and inoffensiveness. As for King Charles (or perhaps he will style himself George VII, as would be typical of his absurd pretension) the hope must be that when he finally succeeds to the throne he will be past caring, or just past it.