The monarchy is a throwback, the vestige of an old order of things which – thank goodness – is largely no more. It’s not very long ago that the House of Windsor itself appeared to be creaking, beset as it was in the 1980s and 1990s by a series of scandals and tragedies. The Queen talked about 1992 being her “annus horribilis”, but things got much worse after the death of Princess Diana five years later.
Still, in the face of growing public scepticism about the institution and its role, the British monarchy went about a successful period of reform. The marriages of the “young” royals, Princes William and Harry, have proved popular and are producing a new generation to be cooed over. Now, in these progressive times, fewer than one in five of us would like the monarchy to be replaced.
There remain committed republicans of course, and vocal critics of “the firm”. And there are certainly good reasons to wonder why society still accepts the idea that it is hereditary privilege which determines who should be our head of state. The family is fortunate perhaps that it should have at its apex a woman who has managed – over time – to combine a redoubtable sense of duty with a surprisingly canny ability to read the national mood. She may be better advised these days, but there can be little doubt that she is less obviously remote from, or ignorant of, the realities of the world outside her castles and palaces than once she was.
In this year’s Christmas message, to be delivered today, Queen Elizabeth will highlight the divisions that are present in Britain by calling for individuals to treat each other with respect, even when their differences of opinion are striking. It is, let’s be honest, a fairly obvious point. But it is also true that we have frequently seen debates over Brexit – in parliament, in the street, and in the media – which display an almost total absence of respect.
Looking across the Atlantic at a political system which has often been held up as an exemplar of democracy, it isn’t hard to conclude that we have got the better deal
What’s more, there are few other individuals in this country who can make such a call from a position of both moral authority and political neutrality. Call the monarchy antiquated if you like, but in this strange political age, when sentiments from bygone times appear once again to be rearing their head, it may be more necessary than ever to have as a counterweight an institution which has history on its side.
Certainly some of the alternatives look ever less appealing. An elected head of state, their neutrality prescribed by law, would probably be cheaper – but finding someone who was a big-hitter yet wholly non-political is a big ask. And let’s not even get into the question of what happens to the Church of England without the monarch at its head.
And as the last two years have proved, vesting significant power in the hands of a single individual – even when there are numerous constitutional checks and balances in place – is a dangerous thing indeed. The institution of the British monarchy has survived precisely because it has been divested of power while retaining a degree of righteous authority – partly thanks to the present personnel but also as a consequence of its history, and that link to the established Church (secularised though the country may increasingly be).
Looking across the Atlantic at a political system which has often been held up as an exemplar of democracy, it isn’t hard to conclude that we have got the better deal. Indeed, so grim has been the presidency of Donald Trump – fuelled by anger, bankrupt of morals and thriving off division – that the only good thing that can be said of it, is that it makes one feel moderately better to be British.
There are just over three months until Brexit may become a reality, and possibly a very bleak reality indeed. In the weeks to come there will be heated debates to say the least – and whatever happens, the chances of everybody being happy at the end of the process are slim. With that knowledge of what lies ahead in mind, we should take the advice of the Queen, who has seen a lot. Better that, however we feel about the monarchy, than following the trash talk example of that ghastly man in the White House.