In the flood of tributes to the late British monarch, it has been somewhat lost in the shuffle that the institution of the royal family and its associated outward image is, among other things, one of the longest and best-running marketing operations of the British government and establishment in general.
So successful, in fact, that even constitutional law experts have had to remind the island public that the royal crown has been at the top of the social hierarchy (and outwardly representing the country) since the late 17th century only by the goodwill and connivance of Parliament. And under its strict supervision. Which in no way detracts from the respect that Elizabeth II in particular has gained in office. The British people who lined up for eight hours outside the Palace of Westminster also came to pay tribute to the values she embodied: the duty to honour commitments, the belief in the meaning of public service. In front of the coffin, they bowed to the Queen’s integrity, her empathy and her ability to think sometimes of others more than herself.
The bowed heads at the catafalque reflected, alongside respect, a concern that, with the passing of the pre-war and war generation, these values are falling out of fashion and beginning to fade in Britain.
Stumbling into the 21st century
With her dignity and sense of duty, the Queen has restored a commonplace to the office of monarch that had been eroded by the historical frictions between the Crown and Parliament. A self-evidence that made it easy to forget that King Charles I ended up in the hands of the executioner on London’s scaffold on the last Saturday in January 1649. That forty years later Parliament had to “reach” to the vacant throne for a (non-Catholic) monarch in the Netherlands. The childless King William III died thirteen years later after falling from his horse (tripping over a mole) and the crown passed to his sister-in-law, Queen Anne.
When she ended up on the throne twelve more years later (and after 18 unsuccessful pregnancies) with no offspring, Parliament had to look across the border again for a monarch – this time even further afield.
Through the last surviving Stuart, Princess Sophie, married in Germany, the Hanoverian dynasty there came to the throne.
On ascending the throne, its first deputy, George I, could not speak English and did not learn it properly for the rest of his life. In fact, it was not until Queen Victoria’s reign of sixty-three years that the prestige and stability of the British crown was restored.
Not for long. Her eldest son and Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Albert (who came to the throne in 1901), was still a notorious womaniser and gambler during his mother’s reign. The London newspapers coined the nickname Dirty Bertie for him. To the public, he was Dirty Bertie.
Just two generations later, the monarchy suffered a near-fatal blow – King Edward VIII abdicated after eleven months to pursue his mistress, the divorced American actress Wallis Simpson. A few months after his resignation, he married her.
The Queen almost touched
Historical context is important in the case of Elizabeth II. While her father, George VI, had brilliantly guided the British through the hardships of the World War, the monarchy remained on probation after the upheaval associated with his brother’s abdication. The young and handsome monarch and her family were given the opportunity to make the royal family indispensable again.
She ascended the throne at the dawn of the television screen. Reports from exotic foreign trips and the dazzling pomp of domestic rule lent viewers a sense of unprecedented intimacy and the illusion that they too were – through the television screen – a kind of mediated part of an otherwise impenetrable hierarchical order.
The presence of Elizabeth II in the living rooms easily transported them into a fairy-tale world. In a world of crumbling and crumbling certainties – the British Empire, technological superiority, employment for life and the care of the state from cradle to old age – she created the illusion that somewhere nearby, in a parallel space, there was a world full of elegant certainties, where good somehow automatically (and without much personal involvement) triumphed over evil. Where there is nothing to fear.
The sanitary function of a constitutional monarchy
Constitutional monarchy does not seem to belong in the modern world of the 21st century. But in an atomizing society, in which people define their identity by how stridently and vociferously they define themselves against anything, it assumes – in a favourable set of circumstances – the role of purifier of public space. It contributes to the mental hygiene of society or simply a therapeutic escape in an otherwise fractured world.
Where elected heads of state unite or divide the public into supporters or opponents with their ideological markers, the monarch on the throne, mother and wife, brings to the debate the core values of interpersonal relationships and family: love and understanding for one’s partner, joint care and concern for children.
Where politicians console the public with the invisible or, on the contrary, strictly regulated hand of the market, the Queen offers something altogether simpler and more comprehensible: a cavalier gesture and respect for her life partner, the joys and sorrows of family life.
With Elizabeth II, the British did not have a divisive ideology on the pedestal of public debate, but a unifying interpersonal relationship. The path to a common denominator did not lead through complex algorithms based on data analysis. It was through common human instincts, often shared through television screens.
In fact, with Monday’s funeral of Elizabeth II, a recent television story ends.
The sequel will bring a new script, new people and cast. The main character promises to follow in his mother’s footsteps in the next episode – after all, the unwritten island constitution doesn’t allow him to do anything else.
However, the empathy, sensitivity and innate intuition with which the mother of the new King Charles III ruled and which she unsparingly displayed will not be easy to replace. By nature, they are more naturally the equipment of women. In or out of the TV cameras.
This article was traslated from the Czech original published at Časopis Přítomnost.
published: 19. 9. 2022