The Royal Family, Britishness and Living in Disneyland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 23rd 2018

The Royal Family are an important part of what it means to be British, and whether you like them or loath them, they are one of the few remaining national symbols of cohesion which unite lots of people.

Yet the monarchy is more popular in some places than others. A recent Delta Poll for Policy Exchange showed that support for the monarchy ranged from 55% in England to 52% in Northern Ireland, 49% in Wales and 46% in Scotland. Asked if the monarchy was a unifying force after Brexit, 57% of respondents in England said it was, while Scotland was the only part of the UK where there was no majority for such sentiment with 46% support.

It is still true with these important caveats that the Royals are currently enjoying a wave of popularity – aided by the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but also on the back of the Queen’s survival, sense of duty, and even public silence on most issues. The Queen has been in public life for 62 years, while keeping an air of mystery about herself and what her own inner thoughts and beliefs are on most things.

The Queen, Prince Harry and William, and to a lesser extent Meghan Markle, according to a Sky Data Poll, are hugely popular with the public. They have stratospheric ratings compared to senior UK politicians, and the relatively unpopular leaders of the two main parties, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Yet even in this era of a Royal springtime not all members of the House of Windsor bask in the glow of public approval, with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall not enjoying mass popularity and facing significant public disapproval.

The Royal Family has gone through many cycles and waves of approval and unpopularity, and there is no reason to think that this high is permanent. The Royals reinvented themselves at the time of Charles and Diana’s wedding of 1981 – which proved to be the watershed from which a whole decade of division and infighting began, culminating in their very public split and divorce, and the subsequent crisis of the House of Windsor following Diana’s death in 1997.

The coming reign of Prince Charles III will prove another set of challenges for the endurance of the Royals. Charles not only has limited public approval and connection, he has become – as ‘the world’s oldest intern’ as The Economist pithily put it – someone who has developed a parallel industry of activities to keep himself busy while waiting to ascend to the throne.

Herein lies the central dilemma of the maintenance of the Royals: basing the continuation of a hereditary dynasty on the notion of popular legitimacy. This ultimately puts the Royals in the same place as politicians and A-list celebrities. Prince Charles, does has some understanding of this, commented just after his ill-fated 1981 wedding on the Royal Family: ‘I think it can be a kind of elective institution. After all, if people don’t want it, they won’t have it.’

There is widespread and often deliberate misrepresentation of the role of the Queen and Crown in public life. Hence, the Queen is frequently called apolitical and above politics, but this is a misleading remark about the person who is Head of State. The Queen and the Crown are by their nature deeply political; and of course as anyone who has watched Netflix’s brilliant series ‘The Crown’ would know the two are very different: the Queen being a person and the Crown the institution around her and the other Royals, and whose reach and influence spreads far and wide in the establishment and high society.

The Queen’s 62 year reign has seen her advise and give counsel to thirteen Prime Ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill’s swansong and taking us through Wilson, Health, Thatcher, Blair, to Theresa May. She has at pivotal points in the future of the UK intervened and made public comment. These include the run-up to the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, and more recently, in the 2014 Scottish independence vote, where on the Sunday before the big day, at Crathie Kirk, she invited voters to ‘think carefully bout the future’ before deciding what side to support: remarks that we now know (thanks to Peter Hennessy) were intricately choreographed by the Royal household.

The Queen occupies a central part of unwritten British constitution, and chooses a UK Prime Minister after a general election, inviting him or her to form an administration. Often this is a formality, but it isn’t always simple. Two of the last three UK elections have produced hung Parliaments, and in the February 1974 election which gave neither Tories or Labour an overall majority, there was real uncertainty after the result about who the Queen would invite to form a government: with six days after the result the outgoing PM Ted Heath resigning and Harold Wilson forming an administration. Even more profoundly, before the Tories decided to elect their leaders in 1965, they emerged when the party was in office by a system of unofficial soundings in which the Queen and Crown were intimately involved. The last leader who came from this strange system was Alex Douglas Home in 1963, but this is the undemocratic system which produced Harold Macmillan in 1957, Anthony Eden in 1955 and Winston Churchill in 1940 (Churchill becoming Prime Minister in May and Tory leader in October of that year).

There is also the issue of the prerogative powers – powers originally held by the monarch, but which are now exercised by the executive and Prime Minister in the Crown’s name. This might all sound technical, but it is one way that the supposed ‘mother of Parliaments’, Westminster, has been historically marginalised in the great affairs of state, and power retained and used by Prime Ministerial patronage away from scrutiny and democratic debate. We did not even know what the full list of prerogative powers were until 2003 when the Blair Government published them in their entirety. They include such fundamentals as the summoning and dissolution of Parliament, the choosing of a Prime Minister, the issue and withdrawal of passports, and declaring war.

Theresa May tried to make the argument post-Brexit vote that she could ‘trigger’ Article 50 to begin EU negotiations by royal prerogative and hence without a parliamentary vote. She lost that argument. Similarly, post-Iraq war, a convention has grown up that UK armed forces will not be involved in military intervention without the approval of MPs. This was respected in the Syria debate of 2012, but not in the recent Syria intervention, which only saw retrospective endorsement by MPs. Revealingly, the argument put by Tory ministers and politicians to justify this stated that when Britain had to make some of the biggest life and death decisions in its history it had not consulted Parliament, such as the decisions to enter what became the First World War in 1914 and Second World War in 1939.

Some people still try to argue despite the above that none of this really matters, because the UK is a democracy and the Royal Family are just an uplifting sideshow. This is the perspective put forward by Kirstie Allsopp, Tory supporter, property developer and daughter of the 6th Baron Hindlip, when she said after another Royal birth: ‘What is wrong with Britain being a Disneyland?’ What is wrong is that Disneyland is a fantasy playpark which you don’t need to live in or visit, whereas a society run on such principles makes us the people not citizens not subjects, and worse actually infantilises us and public life.

Yet, for all the problems which face Britain there is still a deep-seated complacency which runs through the British establishment and its supporters. Andrew Marr in a review of David Runciman’s ‘How Democracy Ends’ in The Observer wrote that despite all its flaws he remained ‘hopeful’ for its future and that ‘One of its great merits is the capacity for self-questioning and self-correction which is lacking on other systems ….’ Nowhere did Marr mention the corrosive power of elite influence, lobbying and monies.

Worse still is the just published ‘How Britain Really Works: Understanding the ideas and Institutions of a Nation’ by TLS editor Stig Abell, which must rank as one of the complacent books of recent times to be written on the UK. Abell, who continually refers to the UK inaccurately as ‘a nation’ shares his ‘Ten Rules of our National Politics’, the first of which is: ‘Everything has happened before’ and concludes with the judgement: ‘Britain is resilient, malleable, and – above all – persistent …. We must go on, we can’t go on, we’ll go on. ‘ And in a book on ‘How Britain Really Works’ there is less than one page on the Queen and monarchy, which concedes that she does ‘still wield some power.’

The Royal show clearly has some gas left in the tank, aided by the latest recruits to the Firm, recent and expected Royal babies, as well as the line of duty of the Queen. In an age of celebrity and diminished politicians, its popularity isn’t that hard to fathom. Everybody loves a bit of escapism, and the Royals combine this with voyeurism, a compelling soap opera, and even fairytales, which offer a very different take of Britain from the drab one most of us live in.

There isn’t even a completely tidy link between constitutional monarchies and inequalities across the globe. There are 28 monarchies and some of the most equal societies in the world: Norway, Sweden and Denmark, have monarchies showing that the hereditary principle can be combined with egalitarianism. But the British experience has been of a Royal Family innately connected to Empire, military expeditions and the celebration of wealth and inequality, along with public service.

They are one of the last threads uniting what it is to be British and our collective past, present and future, and in the aftermath of the recent Royal wedding many admirers are congratulating the House of Windsor on their adeptness. Here after all in a country plagued by division and meanness, is the country’s top family showing their openness, forward thinking and progressive attitudes in embracing bi-racialness, ‘the other’ and even a self-proclaimed feminist into the fold in the form of Meghan.

It is true in an age of bleakness any light and hope can seem like a blessing, but is this really the best Britain and we as a people can do? This isn’t real openness and moving with the times, but a superficial shift by the Royals and the establishment which doesn’t change any of the fundamentals about what it means to be British, nationhood, sovereignty and where power lies. Instead, what we are being offered when any real forms of national renewal seem blocked at a UK level is a deception: a form of retro-modernisation – a future built on a pessimism about our collective ambitions to change things.

Literally, we are being invited back to the old country where we all know our place, and even some of the values of alternative Britains are appropriated by the ruling classes (feminism, diversity, multi-culturalism). It is good to see people happy and in love and I wish Harry and Meghan well as people, but this is about diminishing all of us and keeping us captive in Britain as Disneyland.