It is tempting to view the British Royal Family as a very long reality tv show stretching back centuries and offering up an addictive mix of characters, palace intrigue and above all over the top pageantry.
Its lead star passed away last week in Season 552 Episode 17, and now “The House of Windsor” is putting on a two week special of binge-worthy entertainment.
No family on this planet can outdo the British royalty when it comes to organising a funeral, an anniversary, or a wedding; who cares if the marriages often don’t last, the bride rides in a gold carriage! The History, the strange traditions (the Stone of Scone) and the sheer opulence of their surroundings make for the most seductive television.
Many have been tearing up over a human being they had never met. Yet when one considers that the Queen has had her profile on every stamp, coin or pound note since 1952, that is a daily tactile familiarity which has a cumulative emotional power as intimate as a small photo-graph of a loved one in a wallet or a miniature in a Tudor pocket. All will now need to be changed to the King’s profile, facing in the opposite direction according to tradition.
It is this incredibly powerful iconography and pageantry along with the sense of continuity that have made many British so in thrall to Queen Elizabeth II. Maybe they need an enduring and fabulously wealthy matriarch or patriarch as an assurance that as long as the Windsors are there then Britain won’t go to the dogs. Never mind that the concept of royalty is barely more legitimate than the Church of England which Larkin who was uncharacteristically sentimental over his “constant” Queen, described as that “vast moth-eaten musical brocade”.
We have also been reminded over the past week of the royal family’s stated position of neutrality/non-interference in British politics in accordance with the Westminster model which is said to deliver both democracy and stability amidst the chopping and changing of elected government. This is quite the stretch as the monarchy has always looked to shape public sentiment and debate in British life mostly as a means of securing their position within it or better above it.
Little political power you say? The United Kingdom will on Monday literally shut down for this Funeral as tight as any communist country upon the Death of a Great Leader. The British Broadcasting Corporation, an enthusiastic publicist, has been delivering stunning images including aerial feeds of King Charles’ Rolls Royce going to and fro, strangely reminiscent of OJ Simpson and his Bronco or the coffin lying in some Edinburgh church beautifully lit surround-ed on each corner by statue-like guards. Then there have been around the clock profiles and analyses of her life and influence. The funeral itself will be a precise and highly polished spectacle relegating that of the “The People’s Princess” to a footnote in history as the full instruments of state are deployed to set in stone her majesty’s supreme legacy.
The monarch, apart from being head of the Anglican church and the armed forces with the prerogative to declare war without the approval of Parliament, also holds powers to appoint a Prime Minister and assent (or not but very rare) to bills. They also make appointments and bestow or agree to various honours – OBE’s MBE’s etc etc. Knight-hoods are the sole domain of the monarch. So too for royal warrants for companies’ products -“By Appointment To…“. These favours are highly coveted by the British elite who stay in line and are supportive of the Crown. Needless to say, vocal anti-monarchists are often overlooked. And then there are apparent quid pro quos. Most recently Saudi billionaire Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz was allegedly awarded a CBE in return for a sizeable donation to a Prince Charles foundation.
Perhaps the most powerful and troubling dynamic is the Prime Minister’s mandatory weekly audience with the head Windsor. The meetings are private with no one else in attendance and no records kept. It is one aspect of the royal family’s strange combination of high visibility (The Queen once said she had to be seen to be believed) and opacity: We see her coffin in all its draped splendour but we don’t yet know how a person who was standing and talking two days prior with the PM Liz Truss, actually came to die. She simply faded away.
We do have glimpses into those weekly audiences and how they must have shaped government policy over the decades; they point to far more forthright opinions being conveyed to the elected leader than the claimed shoulder for beleaguered PM’s to cry on over tea. Take the Scottish independence referendum of 2014: PM David Cameron was said to have been highly indiscreet when he recalled the Queen had “purred down the line” when he had phoned with the news the Scots had voted to remain. But this was not surprising, since the Queen herself in an offhand but clearly well staged remark four days prior to the referendum had told a well wisher while exiting her Scottish kirk: “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.”
Alas she was silent on the Iraq War even as one million of her subjects marched in London against it. Tens of thousands went on to die. As for the disastrous Brexit vote, not a word. Alas we will never know if she ever raised a disapproving eyebrow at Cameron when he came one Wednesday with that harebrained idea.
So now we arrive at the new King, Charles Philip Arthur George, who has none of the inscrutability of his mother. He has offered public opinions on numerous subjects from organic farming to his pet peeve, modern architecture. How might his views on the latter result in a return to a traditionalist style – neo-this, neo-that? With architectural eras named after monarchs or periods – Tudor, Georgian, Regency, Victorian – may we now see a straight backed Carolean style? What is more concerning was the leak of letters then Prince Charles had written to several ministers between 2004 to 2005 in which he pushed various causes such as herbal medicine or badger culling. Trivial perhaps except for his explicit lobbying of PM Tony Blair to replace a certain military helicopter.
At the time of the “Black Spider” memos’ release, after a protracted legal battle, the Guardian reported then attorney general, Dominic Grieve as warning their publication “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.
However perhaps a lack of his mother’s inscrutability may turn out to be a good thing.
King Charles for all his duties to constancy appears thoughtful and not entirely unmodern. He is said to be deeply interested in Buddhism. His visit to Northern Ireland on Monday which compelled bitter rivals to sit in the same room might yet unblock the current impasse. Similar gestures would go a long way to promote harmony among those countries which still grapple with colonialism’s consequences. Particularly our Co-operative Republic of Guyana so wounded by British imperialism which was overseen by successive monarchs including the Windsors. For Guyana and the Caribbean now is the time to reiterate a demand for an apology for the atrocities of slavery and the empire.
There is no emerging threat to the monarchy. Indeed the next few weeks may bolster their brand. They are like encrusted Faberge eggs we are not entitled to unlock but we can’t help admire.