WE HAVE CHANGED, NOT THE QUEEN
James Buchan argues that the Queen is under the attack which should properly be directed at her ministers: if Britain is decadent it's the politicians' fault
FORTY YEARS ago this week, the Queen of England and Mount Everest enjoyed their moments of greatest celebrity: one was crowned, the other was climbed.
In the years since then, the Queen has aged, as human beings do. Her hair is streaked with grey. She loses her specta- cles. Her children made bad marriages, as People do, though none is a junkie or in gaol or a sect. The Queen has changed her habits over 40 years: she no longer inspects the nubile daughters of the upper classes at court, she does walk in crowds, appears on television, sues the Sun. But her notion of herself and her function — of the British monarchy has altered not at all. She's doing it because her father did it, it's what her family does: anything more precise would risk destroying all those 17th- and 18th-century political fudges that made Britain such a monarchical state.
Everest, meanwhile — well, every- body knows about Everest: South Col now resembles Piccadilly Circus dur- ing the winter of discontent. Whatever you think of the British monarchy in the second Elizabethan era, at least someone takes out the rubbish at Buckingham Palace.
We British are the Everest of this Story. The Queen is now alienated from her subjects, not because she has changed but because we have. The Queen, and the whole circumstantial routine of monarchy, now appear to us as relics of a backward regional cul- ture, a bit like whale-hunting in the Lofoten Islands or foie gras in Perig- ord: abhorrent to a prosperous and squeamish public avid for a conformist modernity. To understand the crisis in the monarchy, it's best to forget the Queen, who is the hole in our national doughnut, which is why people who write about her from Tom Nairn to the editorialists of the Times — fall into airy abstraction. You concentrate on the people, the doughnut itself.
How have we changed? The conformist vIew of the 40 years since the Coronation is
that it has been a period of national decline, of which the monarchy is the cause either directly or as the linchpin of a deca- dent and exhausted ancien regime. This view is, as far as I can tell, quite false. This country lost its empire and prosperity in and around 1941 and has made a good recovery, hampered by the loss of captive product markets and by bad and sometimes mad elected governments. The monarchy doesn't come into it.
If you take out the effect of 40 years price inflation in Britain and measure our prosperity in the prices of a single year the measurement the Government likes to use — you see how well we've done. The national income per head in the month of the Coronation was £2,797 in 1985 money. Last year, and even after two and a half years of Majorite impoverishment, it was £6,013.
We all have far more things. In 1953,
only 4 million people in Britain owned houses; now 16 million do. There were only 2 million private cars on British roads in Coronation year, less than are now regis- tered in a single year; only 6 million tele- phones compared with 30 million; 2 million television sets against God knows how many. This accumulation of tat, rather than Trooping the Colour, gives our society its peculiar texture, and has occurred while the Queen has hung on to the same old things. When I was a child, only the Queen got to go to Barbados: this was the magic and mystique of monarchy (which were just good old British code-words for being very, very rich). Now lots of people can do what she does and, as de Tocqueville said in Democracy in America, 'the desire for equality always becomes more insa- tiable as equality is more complete'. In other words, when basic income tax was 9/6d in the pound, as it was on 2 June 1953, nobody minded that the Queen didn't pay income tax. Now it's less than 5/- in the pound, the middle class want the Queen to pay at the top marginal rate.
We have changed in other, less crude ways. I grew up snug in the memory of the wartime heroics not just of Britons but of British institu- tions: the armed forces, the imperial and domestic bureaucracies, parlia- ment, the universities, business, the public utilities, the BBC, the institu- tional churches, the TUC and, on top of it all in some way, the monarchy as represented by the Queen's father. In the 40 years since then, these calm, hierarchical and condescending insti- tutions have either vanished or become unrecognisable, or been challenged by new institutions (rapacious private monopolies, proliferating newspapers and omnipotent television) eager to justify themselves in terms of novelty. Only demoralised regi- ments, charities and learned societies still seek royal patronage. Poets run from the laureateship as if from plague.
These changes have not produced a vari- ety of opinion on the monarchy, but a con-
fortuity as deadening as the old royalism: when 16 million people every Sunday read newspapers published from the same address in the republic of Wapping, how could it be otherwise? In 1977, the year of the Queen's silver jubilee, you couldn't find anybody with a bad word for her except Tom Nairn, Willie Hamilton and Johnny Rotten; in 1993, nobody will speak up for her. It is a conformity not so much of opin- ion as of reflex: the Queen is stale to us because she appears to us through the sick- ening monotony of television and the tabloid press. We hate the leaden royal `bright' at the end of News at Ten. We are tired of old Trevor MacDonald. We are tired of the Queen.
Here, the institutions of Empire and Commonwealth are a catastrophic loss to the monarchy (and not simply because world dominion will excuse a horse as con- sul or a baboon as head of state). A monar- chy designed for dominion over palm and pine has been driven back on a drizzly metropolis — and seems oversized and ill- content. Formidable royal energies, once exercised on irrigation schemes in Malawi, are channelled into planting bushes in Mil- ton Keynes, and all before the fawning or spiteful eye of television.
The other big change is in the composi- tion of British social class. The royalist fractions of society — the nobility and the traditional working class — have disinte- grated. The aristocracy always complained bitterly about serving the royal household — oh, Her Majesty's stinginess, His Royal Highness's caprice! — but they were loyal. They knew that without a monarchy they'd lose their privileges and their point. They'd be like Italian counts. This class provided prime ministers as late as 1965, but they lost any hold on executive power in the Thatcherian purges of the early 1980s. Per- versely, Margaret Thatcher also restored their wealth and left them free to indulge their footling and destructive hobbies. (How the Queen could have imagined this class would throw up suitable spouses for her children quite beats me, though people say the Queen Mother, who is from the Scots nobility herself, wanted company.) At the other social pole, the royalist working class was simply destroyed. I never quite understood why a low income should make you pant for kings and queens, but in the jubilee year 1977, and at the Prince of Wales's wedding in 1981, I was exposed to scenes of proletarian enthusiasm of the sort that used to make Karl Marx weep during his London exile. In the 1980s, this class was broken up into a skilled section of home-owners and small-time speculators and an unstable and demoralised group of vagrants and thieves, for both of whom (for different reasons) loyalism was a painful and embarrassing memory. In retrospect, it was perhaps an error of the Queen to con- fine her hobbies to those fields where aris- tocracy and traditional working class met at extreme arm's length — racing, dogs, cere- monial, foreign possessions — while ignor- ing the interests of the new Britons. The Prince of Wales, who might have restored the balance, has, like the Prince Consort before him, progressive ideas — but in such areas as land management, architec- ture and conservation, which are not much talked of in the Sierra-crowded lanes of the new model England.
These changes might not have mattered to the monarchy but for the seismic events at the turn of the 1990s: the revolutions in eastern Europe, the putsch against Mar- garet Thatcher and the devaluation of ster- ling last September.
The destruction of the Berlin Wall abol- ished at a stroke the privileges this country still enjoyed as a victor of the second world war and revealed the true relations of power in Europe: what use is one gross of nuclear weapons against the central council of the Bundesbank? It was not the end of history in any Marxist sense but a shuffling anew of all the cards in the historical pack, including a 1,000-year-old monarchy.
Margaret Thatcher's fall from power raised the terrifying prospect for the new Britons of a restoration of the old class relations, for which the monarchy appeared to be a symbol. Here the press, as the most successful estate of the 1980s, felt peculiar- ly vulnerable. Meanwhile, the devaluation of sterling, an event trivial in itself, was accompanied by such political hysterics that it appeared to be a national shame of epochal significance.
Other countries lived through these and similar shocks at the start of the 1990s. What did they do? The United States and France changed their governments. Italy, a little weary of this at the 52nd attempt, voted to restrict the patronage available to party politicians. We British have wittered about constitutional reform, insulted the Queen, blackmailed the Prince of Wales with adulterated tapes. A child could find the odd one out in this series.
In fact, we had a chance to change our government, in April 1992, during a period of intense and pointless deflation; but the offer from the Tories — Thatcherite poli- cies at a lower level of vigour (Major instead of Thatcher) and intelligence (Lamont instead of Lawson) — captivated the electorate with results that were easy to predict. In September, the capital markets did the job we were too timid to perform and, in the process, robbed the Major Gov- ernment of its legitimacy.
At this point of greatest national shame, the press and television did not just turn on the Government they'd persuaded us to elect; they also turned on the symbol of the nation, the royal family, and found a tar- get-rich environment: the Queen's English, the Duchess of York's bosoms, Prince Edward's bachelorhood, the Prince of Wales's concept of married life. Yet the problems of this country have nothing to do with the head of state's family attributes, and everything to do with bad government, Tory and Labour. This becomes clear in a comparison with Ger- many, a successful state with a non-execu- tive presidency much admired by the conformists. The truth is that the post-war German presidents have been yes-men (Heuss), clowns (Liibke), time-served party politicians (Scheel, Carstens) and prigs (Heinemann, von Weizsacker); but they haven't mattered because Germany has had four outstanding chancellors (Ade- nauer, Erhard, Brandt, Helmut Schmidt). In 1983 and again in 1990, the Germans elected a mediocrity (Kohl) who has brought his country to a condition nobody even in Britain would envy.
I can see why the progressive forces should want one of their number as presi- dent of a German-style republic (perhaps a respected man of letters, like Martin Amis, or an elder statesman such as Edwina Cur- rie or Gerald Kaufman), but it seems hard- ly worth the bother since the Prince of Wales is ready and very able to do the job, and as a king.
Speaking to the Commonwealth Parlia- mentary Association just before the Coro- nation, Winston Churchill said: The Queen can do no wrong. But advisers can be changed as often as the people like to use their rights for that purpose. A great bat- tle is lost: Parliament turns out the Govern- ment. A great battle is won — crowds cheer the Queen. We have found this a very com- manding and durable doctrine. What goes wrong passes away with the politicians responsible.
It would never have occurred to the old boy that the British would be so enfeebled and so mesmerised that they would be incapable of changing the composition Of parliament, and instead flail out at a frangi- ble institution and break it, as a child breaks a watch. The crisis of the monarchy is nothing but a crisis of the British admin- istration (or, if you must be fancy, of the recruitment of party political elites): to be resolved not through News International conferences on constitutional change, appeals to Bagehot or Shakespeare or Queen Beatrix on a bicycle, but by the hard graft of politics. The rejuvenation of poli- tics is the challenge of the remains of the century: it's a matter not of our monarchy — which we can, after all, do without — but of our democracy, which we can't.