What are we celebrating in the Queen’s Jubilee?
The National, 31 May 2022
This is a watershed week for Britain and the monarchy at the marking of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. It does however raise the question – what exactly are we celebrating?
The Queen has been Head of State for the past seven decades so there is her long record of public office and linked to this her commitment to those vague words “service” and “duty”.
But what has the Queen actually contributed during this period that has seen fourteen PMs from Churchill to Johnson? She has witnessed the Royal Family change from being a distant, untouchable institution to one defined by celebrity culture, gossip and engulfed by infighting and scandals.
Britain has changed dramatically over these seventy years but that has little to do with the Queen. Britain is a less deferential society, but there is still an air and culture of hypocrisy, stuffiness and pretending black is white when it comes to the royals and royal media coverage.
This is not just the craven sycophancy of the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell – whose only published book concerns the Loch Ness monster, clearly showing that his love of myth and make-belief is not just about the royals.
Constitutional historian Peter Hennessy has also fawned effortlessly about the Queen, commenting that she “has never put a court shoe wrong as a constitutional sovereign even though as a country we are entirely without a written highway code for monarchy.” Andrew Marr has continually talked of the Queen’s reign as “a new Elizabethan age” as if people still define the era they lived in by the monarch of the period.
The Queen might be seen by many as having some admirable personal qualities, but her role is increasingly anachronistic and indefensible and the institution which she fronts even more so. It invites hyperbole and deception as its defence.
The royal historian Kate Williams at the weekend gushed with enthusiasm that the Queen and monarchy had an “apolitical nature”. This conveniently ignores a fundamental fact about the Queen, Crown and monarchy – namely that they are an integral part of the British state so they cannot be political.
Not only that, Williams ventured forth and told us that the nature of the monarchy had changed since Henry VIII’s time when he enjoyed absolute power with “an absolutist form of monarchy”. Apparently this is not the case today when the monarch has “no power” and “the role is purely ceremonial”. This from a supposed “royal historian” who seems to have forgotten the lineage and different traditions of the British monarchy.
Henry VIII was King of England and Wales: the latter of which was subsumed in England from 1536. Scotland’s king at the onset of Henry’s reign was James IV, who was followed by James V and Mary.
The point is that Scotland’s kings and queens did not then or ever have the absolute power that was claimed in England. Instead they spoke and asserted that they were the monarch of the people and of the community of the realm: a tradition which drew from the Declaration of Arbroath and which gave birth to the powerful story of popular sovereignty.
What underlines all this is that the stories that will be weaved over the coming week contain a deliberate sleight of hand that tells a very selective, distortive picture of the monarch, its history and hence Britain.
The different tradition of Scotland will not be acknowledged. This is not just a narrow tale about the monarchy, but central to power, how it is held, understood and manifests itself in contemporary Britain.
This is not just about us but about presenting a fabricated story of Britain. This is one where the Whig history of evolution and stability is still trundled out and compared favourably to the troublesome Europeans always having revolutions and overthrowing and beheading monarchs, fighting each other in endless wars, and hence not having the self-confidence to govern themselves, having to give that power over to those “unelected bureaucrats” in Brussels.
Take the argument by Williams that the monarch has “no power” and is “purely ceremonial”. This ignores that it took until 1963 for the Queen to stop directly appointing the PM of the day when the Tories were in office due to the fact the Tories only belatedly discovered party democracy when they had to. This had consequences – in 1940 King George VI chose as PM Winston Churchill over the favourite Lord Halifax; in 1963 the popular choice Rab Butler was passed over for Alec Douglas-Home.
Then there is the industrial scale of the Queen’s Consent and Prince of Wales’ Consent – which allows the Queen and Prince Charles to bypass and veto parliamentary legislation which affects their private business. This happens all the time without parliamentary debate, consent and accountability – the consent mechanism occurring privately between monarch and ministers – and not just at Westminster, but Holyrood. This undermines democracy and allows the monarch to sit apart from our democratic processes and laws –a relic from the age of feudalism which is what monarchy is.
It is about much more than that. As the historian Stephen Haseler has pointed out the UK as it is understood constitutionally by the establishment, elites and insider class is “a Royal State”. By this he means that all political, legal and formal power flows from the top down – from the decaying, but still living embers of that age of English absolutism.
This fundamentally matters to everything about how Britain is run, who it is run for and the present malaise which affects it. We know that we are not citizens in our own land. We know that as Britain is currently constituted, we are not only subjects but are actually strangers in our own land. This is not our house and home.
For all those who will think for a second about raising a glass to Her Majesty the Queen and toasting her supposed selfless duty, think again. This is not a story just of “service”, “duty” and some unbroken record going back to 1952. It is something much more dark, sinister and damaging.
This is an institution and history which infantilises us and says that we cannot govern ourselves and be citizens in our own land. And to think this same tradition as manifested in Daily Mail Brexitland likes to scoff at the Europeans for their reluctance and fear of governing themselves.
The coming week is about a make-belief, fairyland, fantasy creation of Britain, told to prevent us asking difficult questions. That was always the intent of monarchy and its apologists. We should not collude in such an open pretence about power.