By Jake Murray
Not wishing to ignite a stormy debate about the Monarchy, but I would like to venture this:
Perhaps it’s because Elizabeth reigned for so long, so I have lived 50 years without a Coronation, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance for me watching all the rituals and vows going on.
I’ve always been pretty indifferent to the Royals (something which will offend Monarchists & Republicans alike); they were a cultural presence, but never seemed central if you didn’t want them to be. I knew millions did see them as central, but I didn’t, and there was never any pressure on me to take them as central if I didn’t want them to be. I was aware of all the scandals and the sensation, but the country seemed to get on with its life.
Now, watching Parliament line up to swear allegiance to the King, watching all our ex-PMs stood to attention vowing allegiance to the King & looking as if they really meant it, hearing about the ‘true Protestant faith’, having the new King declared across the country, having the country coming to a stop an it happens, having it impressed upon us that the King really is above us all and we are his subjects (with all sorts of people clearly quite happy with that), it’s suddenly being driven home that, rather than being a Constitutional Monarchy with a Royal Family in the background playing a symbolic role, we really are a Monarchy.
Being a theatre director brought up on Shakespeare’s History Plays (by no means uncritical hagiographies of monarchs or the Monarchy), I feel I’m watching modern Britain suddenly possessed by a Medievalism I thought had gone. Am I the only one who finds this weird? It makes me feel that the country I have lived in all my life & it’s values was an illusion, that underpinning it was a completely different set of values. Rather than the Royal Family being in the background, with little real influence over us other than pageantry, ceremony, advocacy and ambassadorial work, really we were always it’s possessions.
And is this symptomatic of the subconscious desire in our country that manifested itself in Brexit and electing Johnson, that we are tired and disgusted by the endless shenanigans, compromises and discontents of mass democracy, an experiment we haven’t even had for a century? Is the fantasy that there is a King hovering above it all, that there is someone to who we can vow allegiance to, who will carry the burden & solve our wearisome problems what lies underneath all this? ‘Mass democracy? Endless decision making? We don’t want it. Take it back.”
Many of my American friends have been asking me when I think the Monarchy will be abolished, and isn’t this the moment? All I can say is: I can see the 13 Commonwealth countries that still have the British Monarch as their head of state reconsidering that, but will the British give the Monarchy up? Not easily. Looking at what is happening now it seems embedded in the British psyche, a profound element of British exceptionalism.
And look, the whole world is colluding in it, from Biden to Putin, Macron to Modi (!!!). Somehow the whole world wants the fantasy of the British Royal Family and the ghost of the British Empire, even it’s most significant victims and foes. No other royal family has the same reach, not Denmark’s, nor Sweden’s, not Spain’s, which also had an empire; the British Royal Family has its global pre-eminence solely because of the Empire it presided over.
Britain is suddenly the centre of attention again, receiving condolences as if a family member of each of us has gone. For one fantastical moment we Brits, riven with self-hatred and doubt, are ‘great’ again. I can’t see the country giving that up lightly.
I recognise the appeal of continuity. I recognise the appeal of the past, the sense that within the endless, restless flow of change and instability, there can be traditions that remain intact and defeat the obliterating nature of Time. But who are we, what are we doing and where are we going?
Would we rather be citizens or subjects? It feels like we’re not quite either: