The story of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth will be told and retold in the British media many times. Most of it will be touching and beautifully presented, some less so, but it will be done far better than your inadequate wordsmith can achieve. Instead I will reflect on the monarchy. Whilst the death of the Queen and the accession of Charles III appear as just normal ticks on the clock of British history I feel it also marks some deeper changes. It is like the passing of summer to autumn, which we are experiencing now. The plants, birds and animals sense the coming coolness and rain. Birds migrate. Seed pods swell and burst. Exhausted plants die. Somehow the landscape has changed. Maybe it is more hostile.
The British Monarchy is like the human appendix or the coccyx. It is the shrunken remnant of something that was once important.
In earlier centuries British monarchs formed and financed their armies then led them into battle. George II was the last to do this in 1743. Queens from Boudica to Catherine of Aragon were also active in warfare. Financial control of the army passed to Parliament only in 1689 with the Bill of Rights as a result the monarch lost the power to subordinate his subjects by force. HM the Queen, reflecting her personal and military impotence said: “I cannot lead you into battle”.
Also, she said: “I do not give you laws”. That is a long retreat from the divine rights of kings to create laws and rule as they wished to just acting as a rubber stamp to laws dreamt up by febrile politicians in Parliament. All that is left to the monarch is adding the Norman French words “la reyne le veult” to validate a statute. Even that is now done for her by the Clerk of the Parliaments. No refusal to a law has been given by the monarch since 1708. To refuse now would be a constitutional earthquake.
Nor, the Queen has said: do I “administer justice” which was, originally, the “king’s peace”. There is an endless list of roles to which people are appointed by the monarch but the list is dictated by the politicians. There are also reserved “prerogative powers”, existing outside any statutory authorisation, but they, too, are nearly all exercised by politicians on behalf of the monarch.
In a famous phrase, the monarch reigns but does not rule.
What then is the function of this shrivelled historical organ? Would it matter if the monarchy vanished? Most countries get by, very happily, with a non heredity head of state without many palaces and flunkies although, there is sometimes a tendency for a state figurehead to seek to attain royal status by becoming a dictator – Putin or even Trump’s failed attempt, for examples. Once, an impotent Parliament was a counterpoint to a powerful monarch. Now, Britons feel that even an impotent monarch serves to mitigate the foolishness of the over powerful Parliament and Executive. My feeling is that the monarchy in Britain is an invisible glue holding together the commonweal of the people. It works by magic but only if the monarch is a magician. Walter Bagehot had the foresight to agree with me.
Great Britain is an amalgam of 4 countries, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Politicians in each of those countries seek to divide their people from each other and to pull apart the union of these countries. In England, Conservatives. Labourites and Liberals all rant against the others. In Wales Plaid Cymru denounces everyone in Welsh, but few understand. In Scotland the SNP lives in a different world to the highlanders and lowlanders and in Northern Ireland the different flavours of supporters of the same God cause trouble against each other every day. Each of the four countries also has innumerable groups forming a rash on the body politic; there are many ghettoised ethnic groups, religious and atheist bodies, the pompous rich and welfare poor and so on, beyond counting.
The stresses and strains of modern society are held together by many forces including a shared language and a shared cultural history. In this our modern, constitutional monarchy somehow acts as an important elastic web or a glue, which allows all these tensions to pulse but, at the same time, pulls them back together again. The Scottish King, James VI, became James I of England so the Scottish Crown absorbed the English one. The son of the monarch becomes the Prince of Wales who later ascends the throne underlining the importance of Wales in the union. By these symbols the Crown reinforces the strength of the intra-national ties.
The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, is reported to have said words to the effect that Elizabeth, his niece, was a nice but not terribly bright person which qualities, he said, well suited her as a future as queen. He was right. Her late Majesty’s personal charm and common sense combined with her unwavering commitment to upholding her declaration, that the duty of the monarch is to serve and love every one of her people, made her the magician whose personal glue bound together the fissiparous nature of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. It was a great performance and will be a very hard act to follow.
Charles III has always been, quietly, a most caring person. At Cambridge, as a contemporary of mine, he obtained a ballerina’s degree in an undemanding subject. There could not have been a better intellectual foundation. He is a man who is clever enough to know what he doesn’t know. His interests are relevant, wide-ranging and his knowledge of them substantial. He has learned from his mother’s knee, over more than half a century, the art and perils of the bearer of the Crown. His has been an unparalleled royal apprenticeship in a complex world.
The death of Her Majesty marks the end of an era which was remarkably unremarkable. Now start a new one which is bound to be tumultuous. There is war in Europe. The world is on the cusp of global climate catastrophe and upheaval. Life is going to be harder. He who holds aloft the Royal Standard now has a more difficult job but I believe King Charles III has the magic and he has the glue.