On 11 December 1936, Edward VIII voluntarily abdicated the throne, a unique event in the history of Britain. He made a broadcast to the nation that evening which explained his reasons: the first time a monarch, or former monarch, had talked directly to his people without its being pre-recorded. He took as his text his uncompromising, all-consuming love for Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, and attempted to explain why he had chosen his unprecedented course of action.
He spoke with directness (‘At long last I am able to say a few words of my own’), praised his listeners (‘I have been treated with the greatest kindness by all classes, wherever I have lived or journeyed throughout the Empire…for that I am very grateful’) and displayed apparent candour, while taking care to protect Wallis. He stressed that ‘I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone’, and that ‘the other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course’. He ended by pledging loyalty to his brother, the new king George VI, and concluded, with a great bellow of relief, ‘God Save the King.’
As he finished, he said to his counsellor Walter Monckton, in an allusion to the end of A Tale of Two Cities, ‘Walter, it is a far better thing I go to’. He was to be proved incorrect by subsequent events in his increasingly miserable and compromised life. That night, though, he rejoiced in his belief that he had overcome an unwelcome situation without irreparable damage, either to himself or the institution of the monarchy, and that his brother would do a considerably more conscientious job than he had performed. The regrettable incidents of the previous days and weeks, including betrayal on all sides and the near-formation of an unelected and unaccountable political party, the ‘King’s Party’, whose sole aim was to keep him on the throne at all costs, went unmentioned.
George VI, despite his terror at having had monarchy thrust upon him and his debilitating stammer, was indeed a more dutiful and committed ruler than his brother had been. He became one of the focuses of public attention during WWII, and his narrow escape when Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, as well as his younger brother’s death in action in 1942, allowed the country to feel that he and his family stood by side by side with them. He ruled for just over 15 years before dying prematurely of coronary thrombosis in 1952, at the age of 56, and was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth, who remains Queen to this day.
Unsurprisingly, given her remarkable longevity, she is an object of both veneration and fascination, having been portrayed countless times by actors both for serious and comic purposes. The latest thespian to portray her, Olivia Colman, commented in an interview to promote the third instalment of the Netflix series The Crown that ‘I was always a republican, but I have to say I’ve become completely obsessed with the Queen. I’ve become a lefty monarchist, and there’s not many of them about. Who could stick with something like that for so long, quietly and with such humility?’
Colman is an actor, rather than a knowledgeable chronicler of our present-day royal family, but her statement chimes with the generally accepted line to take on Elizabeth II, along with her subsequent assertion that ‘The Queen is an extraordinary human being. However you feel about her, she’s been our constant. We are all so relaxed about her being there that one day, when she’s not, it’s going to be a shock.’ Most people reading this will never have known another monarch in Britain. Her longevity, and standing, are remarkable. And it is largely because of her that the institution of the monarchy, dented and battered though it now may be, remains a going concern. It is all but unheard of for anyone of any standing to say publicly that they dislike the Queen, or that they wish for the monarchy to be abolished with immediate effect.
It is an amusing example of kismet that Corbyn’s party is now led by a knight of the realm, who publicly praised his monarch on VE Day
Even Jeremy Corbyn, that firebrand of socialist republicanism, obediently donned white tie and tails to attend the Chinese State Banquet in 2015, shortly after becoming Labour leader. While he had angrily condemned the Queen’s Speech in 1998 as ‘absolutely ridiculous, this 18th-century performance, the horses and the knights and everybody else turning up for The Queen to read a speech she’s never even read before, let alone written’, he later tersely acknowledged that abolishing the monarchy ‘is not on anybody’s agenda…it’s certainly not on my agenda.’ It did him little good in last year’s election, but it is an amusing example of kismet that his party is now led by a knight of the realm, who publicly praised his monarch on the 75th anniversary of VE Day for her ‘powerful and moving words’.
The personal popularity of Elizabeth II is considerable, as it has been throughout her reign. Even if one takes into account her lapses of judgment, such as her initial refusal to visit the families of the victims of the 1966 Aberfan disaster – an event dramatized, heartbreakingly, in The Crown – and her wrong-footed response to the death of Princess Diana (depicted, again by screenwriter Peter Morgan, in The Queen), they are outweighed by the warmth and affection with which she is regarded. Just as her father brought stability and personal decency to the throne after her uncle’s wretched and quixotic reign, so she has ensured the monarchy’s survival through endless changes of government and society. Her first prime minister was Churchill; her current one is Boris Johnson.
Posterity may reveal how she regards the latter, but the policy of omertà that she has operated throughout her reign – no interviews, no public statements that offer any personal opinions – has enabled her nation to instil her, symbolically, with their own hopes and beliefs. There was much discussion as to whether she was a Remainer or Brexiteer, but it is impossible to know, although David Cameron tactlessly, if unsurprisingly, let slip that she was an opponent of Scottish independence. Like her first prime minister’s description of Russia, she is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, and, just as Churchill claimed that the key to understanding that country was national interest, so her actions can be viewed through a similar prism.
At a time when her politicians seem to vie with one another to offer the most extravagant and foolish pronouncements and falsehoods in her Parliament’s name, she continues dutifully. At the age of 94, she has, until recently at least, taken on public engagements with a vigour and commitment that would shame many three decades younger, and, during the coronavirus crisis, has attracted praise for her public utterances that any politician could only dream of receiving. Regardless of one’s views of the monarchy, only a fool would argue that she was not its most dedicated, and successful, proponent.
Yet even royalty cannot live forever, and at some point in the next decade, the old cry will rise up. ‘The Queen is Dead. Long Live the King.’ Then Britain will find itself facing a constitutional and social crisis exacerbated by coronavirus and Brexit, and fanned by the likes of Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping. King Charles III will have little time to enjoy a honeymoon of public warmth. Yet, nearly a quarter-century after his former wife’s death, he is a considerably more popular figure than he was. His own affliction with Covid-19, like his grandfather’s wartime near-miss, has made him seem an accessible figure to the nation, and his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, once as controversial as his great-uncle’s involvement with Mrs Simpson, has long since become regarded as commonplace.
He, of course, has already been allowed to marry his former paramour and the nation waits with baited breath – or, to be more precise, mild interest – to see what Queen Camilla will be like. More than two decades after his first wife virtually destroyed the monarchy with a mixture of carefully stage-managed candour and apparently unrestrained personal behaviour, there seems little danger of Camilla being anything other than a dutiful and uncontroversial consort, although stranger things have happened. Yet nothing that she has done in public life hitherto suggests anything other than her being a warm, likeable presence, a jolly-hockey-sticks figure who one can imagine hooting with laughter at an off-colour joke after a few glasses of sherry. If anyone is going to disrupt the next phase of the monarchy, it seems unlikely to be her. Instead, such a responsibility will lie elsewhere.
The greater drama at the moment lies with his younger son, whose recent trajectory since his marriage to Meghan Markle has proved eventful, to say the least. It culminated in their dramatic declaration in January that they intended to ‘step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent’, which in practice has led to uproar at his and Meghan Markle’s apparent determination to license their royal status for profit. Yet there is precedent here, too. After Edward VIII became Duke of Windsor, he and Wallis turned their hands to virtually anything that would keep them in the cash that they so desperately wished for, including scandalous (and self-serving) autobiographies. While comparisons between Harry and Meghan and Edward and Wallis are often far-fetched, it is probably no exaggeration to suggest that all have been motivated, to at least some degree, by the acquisition and maintenance of significant wealth, keeping them in styles fit for princes, if not kings.
If there is a PR company or press office supplying advice to the Royal Family, they should probably be sacked
If there is a PR company or press office supplying advice to the Royal Family, however, they should probably be sacked. Not only have the Duke and Duchess of Sussex involved themselves in an ugly and very public battle with the Mail on Sunday over accusations of breach of privacy and copyright infringement – which, at the time of writing, they are losing – but the after-effects of the Queen’s reputed favourite son Prince Andrew granting Emily Maitlis a Newsnight interview still resonate, not least his own enforced disappearance from public life.
Whenever television cameras and royalty combine, the results are usually dire. One thinks of both Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s confessional interviews, and, even more pointlessly, the harm that has been done by ‘Air Miles Andy’ deciding that an in-depth interview with a top journalist was the best way of allaying suspicions about his moral character. The Queen’s recalcitrance at giving any public interviews now seems even more commendable, but her and her mother’s informal motto – ‘Never apologise: never explain’ – is an anachronism in an age of instant-gratification social media. No wonder that when her grandson and his wife announced their intention of staging their own abdication, that they did so over Instagram, to Buckingham Palace’s enormous surprise.
Andrew’s last stand, however, resembled nothing so much as televisual hara-kiri, with the disbelieving Maitlis standing in for an incredulous and appalled nation. The reaction afterwards was best summed up by Prince Charles’s former PR adviser, the excellently named Dickie Arbiter, describing Andrew’s appearance as ‘not so much a car crash but an articulated lorry crash’. The crowning glory was the revelation that the Duke of York thought that his confessions went ‘pretty well’. He had been sufficiently at ease to give Maitlis and the Newsnight team a guided tour of Buckingham Palace after his evisceration.
It is hard to think of any occasion when a high-profile public figure, let alone a member of the royal family, so willingly offered themselves up as a compelling argument for republicanism, but Andrew managed, over the course of an unforgettable hour, to make himself seem weak, venal, dishonest and wholly out of touch. Not since Charles I had a royal head been placed so firmly on the block. As Maitlis asked forensic questions about the precise nature of his relationship with the paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Andrew smirked, grimaced and twisted around on his chair as if he was suffering from a particularly irksome health problem. This, of course, may have been related to his remarkable admission that he had been unable to sweat for many years ‘due to the adrenaline of having been shot at in the Falklands.’
On and on it went, with every sentence that the grand old Duke uttered acting as another deadly blow to his already tarnished reputation. It was hard not to laugh in hysteria and disbelief at certain moments, which had the taint of dishonesty and absurdity in equal measure. He said, with what amounted to a straight face, that he could not have had sex with the 17-year old Virginia Giuffre (whom, in the evasive language of any lying politician, he had ‘no recollection’ of having met, despite the famous photograph of him with his arm round her midriff) because he was at a Pizza Express in Woking that evening. He accepted, grudgingly, that seeing Epstein after his conviction for sexual assault was a bad idea, but defended himself by saying ‘I admit fully my judgment was probably coloured by my tendency to be too honourable but that’s just the way it is.’ When he was up, he was up, and when he was down, he was down, and when he was only halfway up, he could excuse his actions as occasioned by a surfeit of honour.
Late in the interview, Andrew, perhaps subconsciously realising that he was likely to be cast into Outer Siberia by his family, acknowledged that his actions had caused an inordinate amount of difficulty and shame. ‘I kick myself for on a daily basis because it was not something that was becoming of a member of the royal family, and we try and uphold the highest standards and practices and I let the side down, simple as that.’ Leaving aside the question of whether his having ‘let the side down’ opens the unprecedented idea of a senior member of the Royal Family facing criminal charges, it allowed an incredulous nation to ask: what are these ‘highest standards and practices’, and have they really been upheld in any manner other than the theoretical?
There comes a point when a royal becomes, essentially, dead weight to the organisation – ‘the Firm’, as it is known – and their worth is recalculated accordingly. A whole series of unpublished letters between the Duke of Windsor and George VI, revolving around the former King’s desperate desire to regain his status after his abdication and his brother’s determination to keep him out of the country, indicate how cold a monarch could be when they had to be. It seems likely that, in decades to come, future biographers will find similarly incriminating trails on royal WhatsApp groups and email chains, should they not be deleted by the recipients.
And all of this could take place against the backdrop of uncertainty about the royal family’s very existence. It may well be that, when the Queen dies, a period of instability begins for the monarchy, and that questions that have not been seriously asked about its future in nearly nine decades are once again raised. Those who would currently describe themselves as monarchists may find themselves more convinced by the arguments for republicanism than they could imagine. It may seem impossible to imagine Britain without its ruler. Yet, as recent events in the country’s history have shown, once-unlikely developments can become the accepted state of affairs.
Whether we like it or not, the monarchy and Britain are bound together in symbiotic union
Whatever happens to the current royal family, the age of deference is over. Edward VIII, and his predecessors, could rely on immense public popularity simply by being Prince of Wales, and then King. Noblesse oblige is a thing of the past in our forward-looking, meritocratic age. We accept and admire the royals if they are doing something that we, ourselves, cannot or would not do, but condemn them if they use their privilege for venal or unfair purposes. And this is, ultimately, how it should be.
We remain, as a nation, fascinated by royalty, both on the soap opera level of their day-to-day dealings, but also on a more elemental basis, as we try and fathom how they stand in symbolic relation to us. The Queen has often seemed at her most accessible when she has included the phrase ‘speaking as a mother and grandmother’ in her pronouncements. Whether we like it or not, the monarchy and Britain are bound together in symbiotic union.
Karl Marx famously said of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s 1851 successful French coup, repeating his uncle’s own more famous achievements, that ‘history repeats itself; first as a tragedy, second as a farce.’ One can only speculate as to how the events of the 1936 abdication might prefigure any similar occurrence, or whether Charles feels any urge to give up the throne in favour of his son, who would still be older than his grandmother or great-grandfather when they began their reigns. But the inherent difficulties in kingship outlive any individual monarch. The institution of the crown has laid in crisis before, thanks to personal and political developments that have coexisted to unparalleled effect. It would be a bold man or woman who stated that such a situation could never exist again.
Whether it would return as tragedy, farce or something else is a yet to be revealed treat. I, for one, will watch with anticipation only mildly seasoned, on the basis of events historical and recent alike, with understandable trepidation.
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