Familiar faces eventually disappear. An elderly relative no longer appears at family gatherings. A favourite teacher retires, no longer a fixture of one’s childhood school. Young couples marry, have children, and are increasingly absorbed by their own private life. This is the way of the world, though knowing this rarely dampens the shock of absence.
In Britain, we are beginning to experience this in our public realm. Three generations have grown up in this country during the long reign of Elizabeth II. The Queen is not, perhaps, somebody that Britons think of every day. There is no personality cult of the Sovereign. The public are overwhelmingly pro-monarchy, but are not generally obsessive royalists. Her role in politics is characterised by restraint, almost to a fault.
The office of King or Queen is inherently political
Yet the Queen possesses a sort of understated omnipresence, as if she were always hovering on the edge of our peripheral vision, in the corner of our eye. Her face appears, ordinarily unnoticed, on our banknotes and stamps. Most of us will walk past a red postbox marked EIIR every day. It is going to be extremely strange when these symbols of the long, extended present of the second Elizabethan age belong to a national yesterday.
Yesterday’s Opening of Parliament, taking place in Her Majesty’s absence, was a foretaste of that great change. It was not quite unprecedented. Parliament was opened by Lords Commissioners in 1959 and 1963, while the Queen was pregnant with the Princes Andrew and Edward respectively. In those cases, the Speech from the Throne was delivered by the sitting Lord Chancellor. This year, in a sign of inexorable royal régime change, Parliament was opened by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge acting as Counsellors of State, with Prince Charles delivering the Speech on behalf of his mother.
The change in symbolism is clear as day. Rather than follow precedent and have Parliament opened by a Commission of members of the Upper House, instead the next two princes in the succession appeared on Her Majesty’s behalf for an occasion over which each of them will in turn regularly preside as King. That space in the corner of our eyes is being prepared: Charles will appear on our stamps; our red postboxes shall read WVR.
This is, of course, not merely a matter of the aesthetics of the British public’s peripheral vision. The Sovereign holds the highest office in the British state. The monarch may not take the lead in setting government policy, nor escape the watchful democratic eye of the House of Commons. Yet while the Queen is non-partisan, she is not apolitical. The office of King or Queen is inherently political. It is a constitutional role in a fairly literal sense: the Crown is an institution which works to constitute the British state.
The trappings of monarchy have a real symbolic power
Walter Bagehot is responsible, through The English Constitution, for perpetuating the dismally patronising notion that the monarchy is best understood as the “dignified” element of the constitution, standing in contrast to the “efficient”. The latter, according to Bagehot, is the Cabinet. Cabinet really runs the show. The Sovereign, by contrast, is reputed to be a kind of fairytale figure, whom the ignorant masses genuinely and mistakenly believe to be their governor. A lazy reading of Bagehot is common among Britain’s political and media classes, despite its impossibility in a modern, literate democracy. No wool is pulled over anybody’s eyes: we know we are ordinarily governed from the Commons, from Downing Street, and perhaps also from Washington.
In response, liberals and progressives in Britain (these groups are not quite coterminous; nor are they simply to be equated with the Left, which can cherish far greater respect for the traditional constitution) dismiss the nature and utility of the monarchy. Observing yesterday’s Opening, progressive journalists mocked Charles’s “ridiculous Ruritanian uniform” and “golden throne”.
Hereditary prince in a ridiculous Ruritanian uniform on a golden throne in Parliament’s unelected chamber reading out a Government’s annual plan.
Welcome to modern Britain. pic.twitter.com/G1hkJ0gfOJ
— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) May 10, 2022
Some pointed to an incongruity between the government’s professed concern for the cost of living crisis (caveat lector) and the opulence of Barry and Pugin’s House of Lords. This is an outdated argument, based on the discredited bauble-theory of monarchy. Voters all know that decisions which exacerbate the scourge of poverty in this country are taken in Downing Street and the Commons, not in Buck House.
Talking about the cost-of-living crisis from a golden fucking throne https://t.co/wQkk6LMqqL
— libcom.org (@libcomorg) May 10, 2022
Far from being a Ruritanian mannequin, the Prince of Wales will be our King. While he won’t dictate government policy like an American or French President, his role will be an important political responsibility. We accept the importance of having unelected, nonpartisan figures in other areas of the public realm: nobody sane wants the country to vote for its judges or civil servants, and they are clearly essential to the functioning of the state. Like judges in their robes and wigs, the trappings of monarchy have a real symbolic power in conveying the authority of the democratically-steered British state. Like nonpartisan civil servants, the monarch performs an efficient role in the administration of this country, largely behind closed doors.
The monarch is, inter alia, the nation’s apex civil servant. Decisions taken by democratic representatives are given effect in meetings with the Sovereign, and when papers are read and duly signed. If these duties are not undertaken promptly, with a mixture of scrupulous public discretion and private candour, the workings of a Westminster-style democracy are adversely affected.
We are being prepared for the moment at which Charles will embody the British state
When the sometime Governor General of Canada Julie Payette was forced to resign in 2021, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a report into abusive behaviour and a hostile work environment in the Viceregal administration during her tenure, but from 2018 there were serious concerns in the Canadian press about the Queen’s representative being unwilling to travel widely in different Provinces of Canada, and of her holding up the machinery of state by failing promptly to sign Orders in Council. This all matters when a Westminster-style constitution depends on the Sovereign (or her Canadian delegate) diligently exercising her proper functions, and effectively embodying the state.
In private, the monarch’s regular audiences with the Prime Minister, and meetings with other senior statesmen, provide opportunities for advice and questioning. This too is a key function of the Sovereign. The monarch serves a quasi-sacerdotal role, as confessor and counsellor to those actually wielding her powers. Behind closed doors, she may speak freely to her premier; in public, her supra-partisan support is unwavering. She reads the speech.
Yesterday’s events, then, were a public signal that the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge are well prepared to exercise these functions, for now as Her Majesty’s delegates, and in the future as monarchs.
We are being prepared for the moment at which Charles will embody the British state. Our constitution is concrete and personal. Unlike the Enlightenment republican constitutions of America or France, which are grounded in abstract notions of Law and “the People”, ours is grounded in actually existing concrete persons and institutions: the monarch, Parliament, the specific counties, cities, and countries that make up the United Kingdom. The Sovereign serves as the most tangible, fleshly example of this.
What do we know about the man who will assume this role? Over the decades we have certainly learned that he is capable of being somewhat grand, and not a little eccentric. As he has lived his entire life in the public eye, we know his personal tragedies, and some of his moral failings. Yet we have come to know him as a conscientious politician, deeply concerned with the future of Britain, with sustainable communities, and with the environment. Against the backdrop of a personality which seems more keenly emotional, more sensitive, and more mercurial than his mother’s, his dutiful and deadpan reading of the Queen’s Speech is a signal of intent. He knows his future role as King. He knows the opportunities it will provide him, and he will straitly observe its proper constitutional limits.
Yesterday was also a sign that our fleshly and embodied constitution will treat the Sovereign’s old age in a humane and personal fashion. As the Queen appears unable to fulfil all the functions of her role, there is currently no question of her replacement by abdication or by a full Regency. Instead, it seems like she will remain in post, aided by her immediate successors, her closest family. This domestic, familiar, Christian arrangement is commendable. In a country where we live longer lives, and an ever-increasing number of us have very elderly relatives at home or in professional care, this is an example of dignity and respectful pragmatism.
The continued success of our constitutional model demands a little adjustment, on this front. The Regency Acts as they currently stand rigidly demand certain persons in the succession to act for the Queen as Counsellors of State. They currently include the Princes Andrew and Harry. For very different reasons, and without wishing to draw moral equivalences, neither are politically viable as sharing the role of Head of State. It would be wise to amend the Regency Acts to allow for other senior royals or officials also to act on her behalf.
These desirable adjustments notwithstanding, yesterday’s message was clear. The House of Windsor is fully prepared to serve Britain according to her constitution in the next reign, and beyond.
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