How to Make a Monarch

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, President Biden described her as the first British monarch with whom anyone “could feel a personal and immediate connection”. According to one of the mourners interviewed The New York Times outside Buckingham Palace: “We all felt like we knew her.” Other commentators eagerly claimed familiarity, even intimacy: “The Windsor grandmother I knew,” suggested a portrait in the financial times; “The queen I knew,” claimed another of the BBC’s former royal correspondent.

But here’s the thing: We barely knew the real Elizabeth. To insist amidst the grief and memories that the queen was distant and inscrutable is not meant to be pedantic or sullen. Rather, it is important to acknowledge that the Queen was unknown – unknowable – because from this vantage point we can understand how the British feel about the monarchy and why it endures, even if we may not understand all that it entails, approve.

I’m not a big monarchist. As a British Conservative, I hesitate to admit this. For if conservatism means respecting the authority of institutions, what could be a greater institution in which to embody authority than monarchy? And what about the other familiar arguments for monarchy: the continuity with history, the transcendence of politics, all those tourist dollars? Like many Britons, I accept the power of these considerations, and I can even allow myself to be sentimental about the monarchy, while acknowledging that its theoretical basis is difficult to defend and that its practical effect is to challenge socially harmful instincts such as the To promote respect for childbirth.

And yet the British monarchy endures. In fact, it’s blossoming. I believe that the system’s unlikely success in an egalitarian age is a consequence of three related and often overlooked factors: the British don’t really know the monarch, so they construct one in their preferred image, and this act of construction leads to a sense of ownership , which offers an unexpected democratic dimension, but also offers the possibility of reform and renewal.

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In the apophatic theological tradition, God can only be spoken of in terms of negation. We find something similar in all accounts emphasizing what the queen was Not– what she didn’t do, what she didn’t reveal. She neither expressed political opinions nor dictated political events. She neither gave conventional interviews nor did she “open up” privately to politicians, journalists or celebrities. She neither let the mask slip nor moved – a refusal that briefly jeopardized the monarchy in the tumultuous aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. She was mostly a blank slate, a cipher. No one outside of an intimate circle of friends knew her. Of their seventy-year reign we could say that Paddington Bear provided the mood music, while Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot recognized the importance of not “letting the light of day on the magic”.

Still, there have been many would-be magicians, especially in the last ten days. In a representative tribute, Andrew Neil suggested that the Queen embodied “increasingly unfashionable” virtues such as “duty, responsibility, restraint, courtesy, modesty”. Maybe so, but was their (apparent) display of these virtues the natural outgrowth of their traditionalist views, or the function of a stubborn unwillingness to modernize, or the product of a shrewd intuition that the best form of public relations is seemingly indifferent to public relations? We can’t know. And more fundamentally, if all duties and rituals had been abolished, who would have been left? Anything resembling Neil’s depiction, or a carefully concealed vacuum? Again: nobody knows. In which NYT obituary pushed the limits of our knowledge still further with the assertion that the Queen’s “personal conduct . . . was above reproach, never tainted by the slightest hint of scandal.” Has there ever been a man of impeccable personal conduct? Is the monarch a myth or a person?

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If the Queen was a blank slate, political memoirs won’t help fill in the details. Britain’s most influential leaders of recent times, who have enjoyed unique access to the monarch, leave us with platitudes and hunches. This is Margaret Thatcher’s conclusion from eleven years of listening: “Her Majesty brings an impressive understanding of current affairs and breadth of experience.” And here is Tony Blair’s account of her first phone call after Diana’s death: “She grasped the enormity of but in her own way. She wasn’t going to let that push her around. She could be very regal in that sense.” (Yes, that’s a real quote.) Or how about David Cameron’s synopsis of their working relationship? “Whatever her political views were — and she really never revealed anything — it felt like we were a team.”

constructing the queen

The truth is that the British didn’t know – couldn’t know – the Queen. Faced with this near-total lack of knowledge, they constructed the queen they wanted, a projection of the national imagination. She gave them a blank slate, and they gladly filled it with images of duty and decency, conscientiousness and competence, faith and faithfulness. Concealing her humanity merely offered license to reshape the image appropriately.

In that sense, Britain makes the monarch; The monarch does not make the nation. Britain approves of the monarch (really approves of the vision it created); the monarch does not legitimize the nation. Britain shapes a monarch as it wants to see itself and how it wants to be seen by others. It notes and delights in the fact that the Queen has been the object of worldwide intrigue and admiration, from France to Japan, in a way that few contemporary figures can match.

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This is a source of national pride, an endorsement from the Queen (and by extension the British people) and also explains why the break with Harry and Meghan was so hurtful. Her bitter departure was not only seen as an attack on the monarch, the nation’s symbol and construct; It was also a blunt claim that the monarchy did not conform to Britain’s romantic construction.

The idea that the British people somehow help shape and shape the monarch is not a postmodern invention. To the old principle that the monarch is the product of British history, it adds the insight that the monarch is a product of Britain’s imaginative construction. Like all great powers, Britain writes its own history, and that means it composes its own monarchy as the supreme representation of that history. In this way, the idea of ​​constructing the monarchy points away from (or at least complicates) the old-world model of the flesh-and-blood nation and approaches somewhat the American view of the nation as a worthwhile vision or project.

collective ownership

If the Queen was unrecognizable and the British therefore constructed their own image of her, then it follows that they – as the architects of this construct – share in or own the monarch. Since every Brit is allowed to form the image – of the NYT‘s mourners at the palace gates, who thought he knew the queen’s favorite colour, to royal BBC correspondents, to prime ministers – we might think of the monarch not just as the collective possession of the nation, but the personal possession of each individual, independently from the background. This has two main implications, each complicating the way the monarchy is often perceived.

First, to be able to say that the monarchy is owned by the British people underscores a paradoxical democratic dimension within an institution that stands as the antithesis of modern democracy. The monarchy is unelected and often unaccountable, but don’t think it’s unassailable. Indeed, the extent to which the British monarchy rests on the consent of the people is generally not appreciated by outsiders. This dynamic is likely to become more apparent if and when the Queen’s successors operate a more “modern” or “informal” monarchy. (Which would violate Bagehot’s daylight rule and probably demonstrate the limits of transparency, but that’s another story.)

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Second, if the British people constructed, and therefore exercised, some form of control over the Queen, this suggests that the technique began with King Charles III. can be repeated. I noticed one current survey This shows that the proportion of Britons who believe Charles will make a good king has risen over thirty percent since May, rising from 32 to 63 percent of adults. This finding is consistent with the construction and possession theory outlined here. Charles is now no longer a subordinate or disruptive figure but the monarch and is being made into what Britain wants him to be. Though he has spent his life preparing to submit to the ideal of monarchy, his ability to strike the balance between mystery and intimacy will be of limited importance: the British people will engineer him accordingly.

This could offer some measure of reassurance at a time when social and economic clouds are gathering. On the day of the Queen’s death, Sebastian Milbank, probably expressing the ill-conceived fears of many Britons, admitted that he saw the Queen as Britain’s protector from evil and that with her death “the history that has been held in check for so long returns.” .” If Britain can summon a new monarch to take on the task of helping him guide it through troubled waters, just as it collectively found a way to support and support Elizabeth, there could be scope for cultural renewal and give reforms.

For my part, I am still ambivalent about the monarchy. But when I reflect on the extent to which the monarch is a product and property of the British people, I find I can live with my doubts. Wrapped in the pageantry of the monarchy is not just a secret, but a surprising degree of democratic control and consent. Or maybe I’m just guilty of constructing my own imaginative vision. Anyhow, I suspect that Britain – that ‘teething womb of royal kings’, as a certain playwright once put it – will write many more chapters in its extraordinary history of monarchy.

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