London: God Save the Monarch

The king-and-queen profession continues to decline in the modern world, but the House of Windsor is as strong as ever

“IN A FEW years.” the late King Farouk remarked in exile after his overthrow, “there will be only five kings in the world—the king of England and the four kings in a pack of cards.”

As it has turned out, Farouk may have been unduly pessimistic. All three Scandinavian monarchies seem set fair, as do the grand duchy of Luxembourg and the principalities of Monaco and Liechtenstein, however hard the last two may be to find on the map. The Belgian monarchy is a less safe bet, and the throne of the Netherlands has been rocked by the appalling scandal that resulted in the condemnation of Prince Bernhard for financial improprieties. True, since Farouk spoke, Greece and Iran have ceased to be monarchies, and so has Cambodia, though the durable Prince Sihanouk is still scuttling about offering to sit on anything he can plausibly call a throne; next door, the Thai monarchy is beset by enemies. We should not forget the brief reign of the emperor Bokassa, who, though his attempts to restore cannibalism to fashion were unavailing, did at any rate demonstrate that diamonds are a man’s best friend.

Whatever the future may hold for some or all of these royal lands, nobody doubts that Farouk was right about the House of Windsor. In the year 2000, we may still be living in the reign of Elizabeth the Second, or we may be enjoying that of Charles the Think or it is just possible that the newborn heir to the Prince of Wales will be on the throne as William the Fifth. That the United Kingdom will still be a monarchy cannot be doubted. Why not?

It is not enough to say that there is no serious republican movement in Britain, though indeed there is not, and has not been since the reign of Queen Victoria (a radical newspaper headlined the birth of one of her children “Another pup for the royal litter”), which is when the British monarch ceased to have, or to claim, any political power. (The correct constitutional formulation is “The Queen rules, but does not govern.”) Almost alone among the remaining monarchies, the British one seems to attract from its subjects not just acceptance but a positive approval.

Throughout all the royal excitements of the recent past, beginning with the marriage of the Prince of Wales and culminating a year later in the amazing events at Buckingham Palace (what do you suppose she actually said when she woke up and found the dilapidated Mr. Fagan dripping blood onto the bedspread?) the three constituent elements in the enduring strength of the British monarchy have been clearly seen.

FIRST, THE GLAMOUR. Now, we have not, as a matter of fact, had a glamorous monarch since Charles the Second, more than three centuries ago, and he was also the last one to say anything either interesting or witty. But the glamour of the pageantry with which the monarchy is presented is so magnificent, so dignified, and so moving that the ordinary mortal at the center of it takes on a personal significance that he or she could never hope to command by personality alone. The kings and queens of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have long prided themselves on their homely ways, such as their habit of going about in public on bicycles, which is supposed to endear them to their peoples by demonstrating that monarch and subject share a common humanity. I daresay it does just that; but in doing so, it robs the monarchy of any serious purpose it may have—and the purpose of a monarchy is very serious indeed, for it is to serve as a focus for a nation’s sense of identity and cohesion, two qualities impossible to derive from the political process alone.


It is for this purpose that on royal occasions—the opening of Parliament, the reception of a visiting head of state, a royal wedding, coronation, or funeral— the carriages of gold anti crystal, drawn by perfectly matched thoroughbred horses, are pressed into service, along with the gorgeous robes, crowns, and scepters that have been part of the royal regalia in Britain for nearly a thousand years, and with the beautiful, ancient, and sonorous language in which such ceremonies are conducted. The result is that the glamour with which such occasions are invested acts as a burning glass for national feelings (we can get the same effect with a war, of course, as the Falklands affair demonstrated, but that way is much more expensive); the feelings are both concentrated and intensified, and since the feelings are of pride in our country and its institutions, that is perhaps no bad thing.

But there is a price to pay, which the royal family (with the possible exception of Princess Anne, the only member who is ever rude to anybody in public) seems to pay willingly, even if not gladly. The price is the second element of the monarchy’s strength. Because the royals symbolize the national identity, the nation, not surprisingly, identifies with them to a very considerable, indeed an obsessive, extent, and demands to know about its monarchs and their families things no one would dream of expecting to learn about his neighbors. One of the revelations to emerge from the Buckingham Palace break-in was that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have separate bedrooms, and a couple of days later, the mass-circulation papers were asking the royal pair, in the largest headline type, ■such questions as “How important is a good-night cuddle?” Because the royal family is treated as an object—a gorgeously caparisoned, hardworking, even noble object, but an object nonetheless—people feel about it as people feel about any object: they think they own it.

In a sense, of course, they do; they own the idea of monarchy. But the hunger for possession goes much further than that, and is catered to not only by the regular, ritual presentations of the royals to the people but by a tide, a torrent, a stupendous and unquenchable Niagara of gossip about them. At least forty books about the Prince and/or Princess of Wales have been published in Britain since the engagement was announced, and the first biography of the infant Prince William hit the streets when he was ten days old.

This sounds like a contradiction. On the one hand, the glamour and mystique of royalty, the pomp and ceremony that serve to raise the royals above the ordinary run of mankind; on the other, the concentration on even the most obscure minutiae of royal life and behavior, and an amazing eagerness to read about and discuss not only Princess Margaret’s love affairs and the Duchess of Kent’s miscarriage but the Queen’s favorite dishes and whether the Duke of Edinburgh prefers gin to scotch. (These things can matter. Shortly after the Buckingham Palace shenanigans, the family of the intruder was busy selling all the newspapers, or at least the most gullible ones, accounts of his matinal conversation with the Queen. Two, and only two, of the “facts” to emerge from the colorful imagination of the family Fagan stung the palace into an official disclaimer: Her Majesty, an official said icily, does not wear a shortie nightdress, and does not go to bed with her hair in curlers.)

It is out of the contradictions between majesty and intimacy, awe and inquisitiveness, that there emerges the third, and strongest, of the props that support the monarchy in Britain and ensure that it will outlast the century, and perhaps many centuries to come. From the union of worship and prurience is born a deep and lasting affection; it is not too much to say love.

This is easy to see in the case of Diana, Princess of Wales. All the world loves a fairy tale, and one with a beautiful princess in it cannot fail. It is also easy to see in the case of the Queen Mother, and the feeling for her is even easier to explain. In the first place, she is over eighty, and the British automatically canonize any public figure who reaches such an age. In the second place, the Queen Mother is something of a character, even a card; it is well known, for instance, that she likes a flutter on the races, and she not only smiles all the time but wears hats capable of provoking comment among bystanders, which is more than can be said for the Queen.

Yet the Queen, though she has little— in public, at least—of her mother’s character, not only inspires love but does so through her own qualities, not those of her august office. When the news of the invasion of her bedroom broke, you could hear people saying that they were not in the least surprised at her coolness and common sense in the face of what could have been hideous danger. Elizabeth the Second’s opportunities for displaying ingenuity courage, and determination are considerably less than those of Elizabeth the First, who would probably have picked up a jeweled poniard from the bedside table and stabbed Mr. Fagan to death with it. But her steadfastness, her unwearying attention to her royal duties (which must result in her having to put up with the conversation of more bores in a month than most of us meet in a lifetime—and she’s not allowed to yawn at them), and the obvious warmth of her personality combine to inspire in the British people a feeling of devotion that goes far beyond a recognition of her place in the constitutional system or a respect for the hard work she does.

THERE ARE occasional voices to be heard complaining. John Osborne, at the height of his overnight réclame as the author of Look Back in Anger, called the monarchy “the gold filling in a mouth of decay,” but he was criticizing the decay, not the gold filling. Malcolm Muggeridge got into frightful trouble some years ago for writing, in an American magazine, some mild criticisms of the idea of monarchy. And one member of Parliament, William Hamilton, has specialized for some time in criticizing the cost of the royal family, and has even directly attacked some members of it for their conduct or remarks; but he is not taken seriously, and he shows no great sign of taking seriously his own campaign.

There is rather more widespread criticism of the people surrounding the court, and with rather more justice; in the light of events at Buckingham Palace, it would seem that most of them would be stretched beyond their intelligence and energy if they were put in charge of a cigarette-vending machine. But the ancient constitutional principle that “the Queen can do no wrong” is taken with astounding literalness by many of her subjects, and although most of them would be hard put to articulate their feelings on the idea of monarchy, they show no embarrassment in declaring their feelings for the monarchy.

The words of Britain’s national anthem are probably the world’s silliest. (The tune is no great shakes, either.) But silly or not, there is nothing in it about Britain (we leave that to “Rule Britannia”). The whole song is about the monarch; it is the monarch whom the anthem calls upon God to save, and the monarch’s enemies whose knavish tricks God is likewise implored to frustrate. It seems likely that God will continue to oblige for the foreseeable future, as he has obliged for so many years past.

As far as the throne of Britain is concerned, Farouk was right. Whether he was also right about the deck of cards, only time will show.

—Bernard Levin