Britain’s longest-serving monarch has died.
It feels like a death in the family. Born in 1926, the year that John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of television, and crowned in 1953, the year of Joseph Stalin’s death, the queen has been with us for so long that only a sliver of the population can remember life without her. She has reigned for longer than any other British monarch, easily outstripping her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria. Acting on the principle that “I have to be seen to be believed,” she has personally met innumerable people, and touched the lives of billions by radio and television. Who does not remember her Christmas broadcasts? Or the solace she provided during the COVID pandemic when she quoted Vera Lynn’s promise that “we’ll meet again.”
Now she is gone.
The miracle of the monarchy is how it has survived in a democratic and egalitarian age. Everything it stands for — inheritance rather than merit and ascription rather than election — is the antithesis of everything we hold dear as a civilization. Yet the British monarchy has not only survived, it has thrived.
How has this come about? In preparation for her job, the queen was provided with a handbook on how to survive the acid of modernity. This was Walter Bagehot’s great book “The English Constitution,” published in 1867 at the height of Victorian brio. When she was a child, the vice-provost of Eton College, Henry Marten, visited Windsor Castle regularly to teach her about her constitutional duties, laying particular emphasis on Bagehot’s wisdom. Nothing about the experience was normal. Marten addressed the solitary princess as “gentlemen,” lecturing her as if she was a class of Etonians. Even more surreal was what, channeling Bagehot, he taught her: that Britain is a “disguised republic,” that the best qualification for a monarch is stupidity, and that the job is to spend life as a frivolous distraction from the real business of government.
Bagehot thought that statecraft was far too serious to be left to the masses. Rather, government needed to be left to a tiny elite of serious-minded men who understood the world. But how could you get the people to accept such a situation in a democratizing age? The answer lay in distraction by means of monarchy. Bagehot hoped that the people would focus on the splendid royals in their gilded carriages, leading the great parade, while “the real rulers are secreted in second-rate carriages.”
Bagehot also replaced the individual with the family at the heart of his drama. This was part of his distraction strategy. As he saw it, regular people — particularly women — cared 50 times more for a marriage than a ministry. Distraction also doubled as legitimacy: People were far more likely to obey a state with a human face than one that was a mere abstraction. By providing ordinary people with brilliant editions of universal facts — such as birth, marriage and death — the royal family also anchored the business of government in regular human affairs. It was part of an embourgeoisement strategy.
But Elizabeth II had to abandon Bagehot’s handbook and invent a new one all of her own. Nobody today believes that the queen ruled as well as reigned — and if they did they would have rightly demanded change. The idea that monarchy is essentially a show is taken for granted. It is a distraction in the sense of a diversion rather than a disguise.
The family dimension to this show is widely celebrated. The monarchy is never more popular than when it is providing us with brilliant editions of life-cycle events such as births, marriages and deaths. Still, today’s monarchy has singularly failed in its attempt to project itself as a perfect middle-class family sitting at the apex of British society. Far from being role models, the Windsors are haunted by extreme versions of common family maladies — divorce, adultery, betrayal, hypocrisy. If we have celebrated fairy tale marriages, we have also watched in horror as they have descended into hellish acrimony.
There will be much talk of the future of the monarchy in coming months as the first shock of the queen’s death fades. This division of powers has surely become more, rather than less, important in recent years as the culture wars have raged and tempers have flared. America’s belief that the president is both a political actor and the head of state was profoundly tested by the Trump presidency. In Britain, it is possible to loathe Liz Truss or Keir Starmer but still happily participate in state functions. The queen pulled off a remarkable trick in preserving a monarchy that was simultaneously majestic and apolitical. It is a measure of her achievement that the new monarch will be largely judged on his ability to pull off exactly the same trick.
The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. ©2022 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.