Can the Royal Family Cling on Much Longer
The jubilee comes at a great time for Boris Johnson.
What better way to get past partygate than with a massive party? No one makes a tougher human shield for a bunkered prime minister than that much-loved nonagenarian, great-granny to the nation.
Elizabeth Windsor is only the fourth monarch in recorded human history to reach a platinum jubilee. In two years, she will overtake Thailand’s Rama IX and France’s Louis XIV to become the longest reigning sovereign ever. She’s done this not just by staying alive, but also by managing one of the world’s most successful media-celebrity machines through the most radical transformation of communications technology since the printing press was invented.
Despite this, it all feels a little desperate; like the Windsors are clinging on. Her immense personal popularity means little will change while she’s alive. But there’s a sense in the air: while she won’t be the last of her line, she will be the last of her kind.
There is another reason the Queen has lasted so long. Unlike some of her European contemporaries, she hasn’t abdicated. As she sees it, she can’t: she didn’t choose the job, but was appointed by a deity to whom she made promises at her coronation.
While the divine rights of British monarchs went out with Cromwell, they are still crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and claim legitimacy through an ancient line they believe was chosen by God.
Specifically, Elizabeth was crowned by Geoffrey Fisher, who had been Archbishop of London during the Blitz, in an overwhelmingly faithful, Christian country.
When Justin Welby or his successor anoints Charles, it’s hard to see them commanding the same symbology. Today, only a quarter of British people believe in God, never mind the Anglican version, never mind that said deity personally selects heads of state.
Wisely, the palace’s spin doctors tone down the God stuff. Instead, they promote a modern idea that the Queen is ‘head of nation’.
In this reinvented formulation, monarchy is the notion that the DNA of a nation is transmitted through ovulation and ejaculation. William is second in line, the theory goes, because Charles’s semen is some kind of sloopy magic juice which confers authority on its progeny.
I know. Gross.
Also, racist. The idea that qualification to reign grows from a genetic trace, that Britishness comes not from living here, but out of your parents’ genitals and into your blood, doesn’t exactly encourage multiculturalism.
And nor does the fact that the monarch leads the Church of England. Racisms against religious minorities, like Islamophobia, tear through Europe. In Britain, we have a constitutional problem with confronting them: when bigots spit ‘this is a Christian country,’ they aren’t entirely wrong. Elizabeth II is Defender of the Faith.
One theorist frequently cited to justify these ideas is the Victorian Walter Bagehot, who loved the mysticism of it all, arguing that Britain’s political system is better understood not through the balance of powers familiar from America, but from a split between the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’.
The purpose of the ‘dignified’ or ‘theatrical’ parts of the constitution – primarily the monarchy – is to ‘excite and preserve the reverence of the population’ so that the ‘efficient’ parts can more easily govern us.
The great justifier of modern British monarchy was a noxious snob and racist whose ideas should be handled only with latex gloves
Bagehot believed this was important, because “the lower and middle orders” were “narrow minded,” “intellectually incurious,” “coarse,” “dull,” “poor and stupid” – “the vacant many” and “the clownish mass”.
Important in bringing scientific racism to the heart of British thinking, he also raged against the mixing of races, arguing that certain ‘lineages’ are morally superior. The great justifier of modern British monarchy was a noxious snob and racist whose ideas should be handled only with latex gloves.
More recently, Oxford professor Vernon Bogdanor has argued that the Queen’s “political neutrality” allows her to “interpret the country to itself”.
But the idea that the mirror in which we see ourselves is inherited is profoundly political. Placing it at the centre of a national story is a way of warping a whole country to the right.
British politics is built around the class system. For centuries, the Tories have been the political wing of the hereditary ruling class, while the monarchy is its propaganda wing, endlessly telling us that some people are born to rule, others are not, and that’s the natural order of things.
The connections aren’t just theoretical. Ben Elliot, the Conservative Party chair, is Prince Charles’s nephew. Charles’ charity relies on Tory donors. William went to the same school as Boris Johnson. England votes Tory more than any other country votes for one party because the Tories represent the ruling class and Anglo-British nationalism is a story whose moral is that posh people should rule.
Another feature of Anglo-British nationalism is denial of its own existence. As the writer Tom Nairn has long argued, much of the English ruling class can’t stand the idea that it’s ‘merely’ English, preferring to attach itself to a mysterious imperialist notion of international Britishness. And this feeling, too, is tied to the Windsors.
By my count, the Queen reigns over 43 states or territories, including 15 independent countries, 14 British overseas territories, three Crown dependencies, two New Zealand associated states, two New Zealand dependent territories and seven Australian external territories.
She still has more subjects outside the UK than in it, arguably reigns over parts of every continent on Earth – if St Helena, Ascension and Tristan De Cunha are African – and lays claim to 99% of Oceania, 58% of Antarctica and 42% of North America.
But if the purpose of the monarchy is to excite feelings of Britishness, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Elizabeth II’s reign is how they have dwindled.
Until 1946, all of the monarch’s subjects everywhere in the empire were simply British nationals, whether they came from Canberra, Kingstown, Kampala or Kensington. Britishness was global, rooted in racial hierarchy, with its core firmly in the imperial capital and home counties, and a periphery across the planet.
In 1946, first Canada and then other colonies started granting their own citizenships and, in 1948, Westminster in turn made British citizenship an umbrella for all of these.
But within a decade of Elizabeth’s coronation, this version of Britishness was folding up. The government responded to a racist backlash against people of colour coming to the UK by passing laws in 1962, 1968 and 1971 that narrowed down which British citizens could live here. The palace itself banned “coloured or foreign” people from clerical roles.
In 1981, the ’48 act was abolished, and British citizenship became (mostly) about a direct relationship with this archipelago.
Because of these shifting laws, Commonwealth citizens who are 75 or older were, legally, British before they were Australian or Canadian or Singaporian or Nigerian.
For baby boomers and Gen-Xers, it’s more complicated – different colonies followed their own paths to independence, often with their own heads of state. And millennials and younger people have always simply been citizens of their home country, with connection to Britain increasingly remote.
The Royal African Company shipped more enslaved African people to America than any other institution. A personal venture of Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York, later James II and VII, the firm often used hot metal to burn the initials DoY, for ‘Duke of York’, into their victims’ skin. By 1683, England – primarily the royals’ family firm – was responsible for 74% of transatlantic people trafficking.
One of the most common destinations was Britain’s Caribbean colonies, their indigenous peoples having been murdered in waves of genocide.
Today, of the 15 countries where the Queen is Queen, nine are in or around the Caribbean. Until November 2021, there was a tenth.
Barbados is sometimes called ‘Little England’ due to its similarity and supposed loyalty to its coloniser. But in 1996, it held a constitutional convention.
“We did all of these public hearings over two years… there was overwhelming support for becoming a republic,” says Melanie Newton, who was the youth representative on the commission and is now a University of Toronto history professor specialising in the Caribbean.
The convention recommended Barbados ditch the monarchy, but it was only last year that it became the first of the Queen’s realms to go independent since Fiji in 1987.
Why now? I asked Newton.
The Black Lives Matter movement was vital, she says, as was “a decade of [the anti-colonial movement] Rhodes Must Fall” and the longer-running movement for slavery reparations.
Partly, geopolitics has shifted, she says. Caribbean countries are less reliant on British investment. And partly, it’s about Britain.
She cites David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica in 2015. He was asked for reparations and instead offered to pay for a prison, an obvious racist trope – “that was a big deal”.
She highlights the Windrush scandal. “Most Caribbean people my age and older have relations who live in the UK,” she says. These were the people who suffered.
“And then there’s Brexit, and how racist and unsavoury and xenophobic that movement was. What is this tie? This place clearly does not want any relationship with us.”
Now that Barbados has made the move, and it has been successful and popular, other Caribbean realms are following – as William and Kate discovered on a Jubilee tour in March.
I predict that in ten years there will be one realm left, and it will be what’s left of the UKTom Freda
In the Bahamas, senior political figures said the country was “ready” to become a republic. In Jamaica, protesters demanded an apology and reparations for slavery, and the prime minister told the couple that his country was “moving on” from monarchy.
In Belize, protesters highlighted the “colonial legacy of theft,” and tensions between a conservation charity William supports and indigenous people. After the royals left, the government launched a “People’s Constitutional Commission”, part of the continuing “decolonisation process,” which is expected to recommend republicanism.
William and Kate were followed by the Queen’s youngest son Edward and his wife Sophie. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda told them that his country intended to become a republic once the Queen died. The deputy prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis used their tour to say: “The time has come… to review its monarchical system.” And In St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines, Edward and Sophie were met by reparations protesters and the most popular radio host in the former slammed their visit.
“I predict that in ten years there will be one realm left, and it will be what’s left of the UK,” says Tom Freda, the national director of Citizens for a Canadian Republic, speaking to me from Toronto.
In Canada, only 26% of people want to keep the monarchy past the Queen’s reign. The country’s only major pro-monarchy political party, the Conservatives, have been out of power since 2015.
Freda points to Black Lives Matter and increasing colonial introspection, and the fact that many Canadian migrant communities find the whole thing “baffling” – they have to pledge allegiance to “Queen Elizabeth II and all her heirs and successors” to gain citizenship.
With Barbados going first, he says “the avalanche has started… we have everything aligning” to replace the monarchy once the Queen dies.
Melanie Newton is less confident.
“There is an attachment that is deeply tied up with the privileges of whiteness,” she says.
“It would open up a whole host of conversations here about race, rights and citizenship. Most Canadians believe the myth that there was no slavery here, that there is a way to reconcile the history with indigenous people without opening up this question.
“There is an unwillingness to reopen those issues.”
As a result, says Newton, while there isn’t much support for the monarchy, most prefer to avoid the subject.
There were more than a million indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders when James Cook landed on the continent in April 1770 on a voyage commissioned by George III, the Queen’s grandmother’s great-grandfather. When Australia federated in 1901, there were around 100,000. While many died of diseases the British brought, tens of thousands were murdered. The genocide continued, with the state kidnapping indigenous children until the 1970s.
Government policy changed with the election of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1972, who ended racist ‘White Australia’ policies, founded a set of Indigenous institutions, and gave some groups deeds to their land.
The Queen’s representative, governor general John Kerr, used a budget crisis to sack Whitlam as prime minister in 1975, replacing him with the unelected right-wing opposition leader, and then shut parliament to stop it reappointing him.
Letters between Kerr and the Palace from the time were secret until 2020, when the historian Jenny Hocking finally got them released. They showed “the involvement of the palace in every step Kerr took, and every decision he made, regarding the dismissal of Gough Whitlam”, Hocking said. After they were published, support for abolition surged above 60%.
The explicitly republican Labor party won this month’s elections. New prime minister Anthony Albanese has campaigned for abolition and appointed an assistant minister for the republic. And the Greens, who now hold the balance of power in the upper house, are vocal republicans.
If Australia goes, so will its seven external territories, including the Christmas Islands, Norfolk Islands and more than half of Antarctica.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Adern, is openly republican. Although polling doesn’t show much desire for change, the chair of New Zealand Republic, Lewis Holden, says enthusiastic support for the monarchy there is sparse – mostly gathered in the Second World War generation.
“You do get young fogy types,” he says, but “support for the monarchy has been ground down to a very, very narrow form of conservatism. They are people who are very, very interested in British and specifically English history; they talk about Brexit in positive terms. In New Zealand now, that’s very strange.”
When New Zealand becomes a republic, its dependencies and associated states – Tokelau, the Antarctic Ross Dependency, Niue and the Cook Islands – will too, says Holden.
Support for the monarchy appears strong in the UK. In Great Britain, only the Greens and Plaid Cymru oppose it; Labour hasn’t even debated opposing it since its 1923 conference. And headline polling figures show 61% support for the monarchy.
But much of that is shallow, with enthusiasm very concentrated, both demographically and geographically.
After what the Queen called her ‘annus horribilis’ in 1992, openDemocracy’s founder Anthony Barnett organised a major conference on the monarchy, with a range of cultural figures. Before then, he said, it would have been impossible. “It was like a religious taboo. Any attempt to talk about the role of the monarchy was regarded as a personal attack on the Queen, and she was a fetish object. You couldn’t talk about her, she was above everything – you couldn’t touch the royal mantle. It was regarded as scandalous”.
When the Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen ahead of her silver jubilee in 1977, the BBC banned all its DJs from playing it.
But with Andrew and Charles’ divorces in the 1990s, the Windsor fire, and, more than anything, Diana, “the sanctity of the monarchy was broken”.
Young adults (18 to 24) in the UK are now, for the first time, more likely to oppose monarchy than support it. Royalism is heavily concentrated in people born before 1970.
And while some corners of the country will smear themselves in clashing red, white and blue this weekend, most don’t plan to celebrate.
A poll in Scotland this month showed only 45% still back the monarchy.
Northern Ireland has its first ever republican first minister-designate. Loyalism means specifically loyalty to the Crown, and its ongoing crisis is a crisis for the Windsors as much as for Westminster: vocal monarchism is associated with one increasingly unpopular, past-it fringe.
A poll in 2019 found that West Wales, the Valleys and parts of Cardiff were some of the least royalist parts of the UK. Liverpool fans booing William earlier this month were a reminder that some of that spirit extends north into Merseyside. Spend time in Cornwall or Scilly and you’ll quickly discover the Duchy isn’t a popular landlord.
The last few years have seen the royal family put cash on the line to protect Prince Andrew from potentially horrific allegations emerging into the light, while shunning Harry after he married a mixed-race woman with a mind of her own. At the same time, notions of Britishness have taken a battering as a zombie English nationalism emerges from the imperial deathbed.
The tabloid machine on which the monarchy has depended for a generation has been weakened by emerging social media, which it has yet to master, and the state which it exists to protect from the ire of its people has slashed and degraded itself again and again and again, from the invasion of Iraq to a decade of austerity to Boris Johnson.
If the Jubilee comes at a good time for the prime minister, then partygate came at a terrible moment for the Queen.
It’s one thing for the monarchy to excite the reverence of the British people so the government can plunder the biggest empire in human history. It’s another to be used to cover up vomit stains on the Downing Street carpet.
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