The royal gaze: a portrait of King Charles fails to attract the attention of a passer-by

Recasting the Crown for modern Britain

This progressive historian’s real charge against the monarchic institution is one of “complacency”


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The great strength of Ed Owens’s After Elizabeth is that it takes seriously the monarchy as a fundamentally political institution. Whilst Owens, an historian and “royal commentator”, gives the customary overview of 20th century royal triumphs and scandals, his real thrust is considerably more serious than the conventional recitation of the House of Windsor’s flirtations with celebrity and soap opera.

Owens casts a historian’s eye over the institution in its modern (19th to 21st century) form. He is judicious in his analysis of the evolution of cabinet government under Victoria, noting the Prince Consort’s deft use of royal soft power and Victoria’s sly attempts to undermine Mr Gladstone’s liberal ministries.

He presents George V as a dull but politically-engaged sovereign, noting his unsurprising Unionism in the context of Irish Home Rule, his careful cultivation of more moderate Labour politicians during the 1924 experiment in socialist government and his more audacious threefold refusal to accept Ramsay MacDonald’s resignation in 1931; the King is forthrightly presented as a deliberate instigator of the National Government.

After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself?, Ed Owens (Bloomsbury, £25)

Owens’s assessment of the late Queen Elizabeth II is cautious, critical and marked by a somewhat handwringing provisionality as he bemoans historians’ lack of access to the national and royal archives. Occasionally, one feels this is his great, or at least most heartfelt, complaint about the modern monarchy.

He slices through the hagiography which — understandably, and in many respects rightly — surrounds the late Queen, portraying her as “politically ill-informed” and adopting a “policy of passivity” in the early years of her reign. He correctly identifies unionism as one of her overriding political (but non-partisan) priorities. Whilst the unity of the British state did not survive either unchallenged or unchanged, Elizabeth II did succeed in bequeathing a united kingdom.

The author’s real charge against the monarchic institution inherited by the present King is one of “complacency”. After Elizabeth opens with the commonplace but cogent line of argument that the late Queen’s obsequies and the King’s coronation “verged on pantomime”. Owens observes that royal ritual has recently projected “outwardly an image of a Britain that was confident, ordered and resplendent”, but further argues “this is simply no longer the case”.

Unlike some commentators who offer similar analyses, Owens does not position himself as a republican, but as a self-styled “critical friend” of the Crown, and “a progressive monarchist”. He is certainly correct in recognising the “prevailing sense of national malaise” as a factor in disinterest and disillusionment in the House of Windsor, and surely in other public institutions.

He also suggests that royal ceremonial is weakened as a tool of overseas influence by Britain’s failure to cultivate better diplomatic and trading relations with foreign states. His diagnosis is surely correct, but the root problem lies not in the monarchy, but the failures of Britain’s ruling classes (broadly considered).

Owens suggests, for example, that the monarchy must be more accountable to journalistic scrutiny. But who in their right mind considers the British press an example of societal good health, prudent judgement, or sustained careful thought?

The author entertains a telling quotation from David Dimbleby’s autobiography:

We are … no longer an empire, as when much of this performance was invented. We are a middle-ranking power struggling to define our place in a global world, struggling to come to terms with the Brexit referendum, struggling to hold the country together.

There is certainly truth in this, but the obsessions of an inadequate political class are presented in all their laziest, most tawdry clichés. Mention of Brexit is a moment of almost Freudian revelation, of the managerial establishment unwittingly stripped bare. It is a shibboleth, the totemistic failure of those who run this country and most of its institutions.

Owens, to his great credit, refuses simply to deliver a mere progressive jeremiad. He proposes a 21st century political recasting of the Crown, as a “democratic monarchy”; a development of the “parliamentary” and “constitutional” incarnations of the institution. He proposes a Monarchy Act to put it on a statutory footing and optimistically suggests this would be legitimised by a two-step referendum. He further suggests a “Crown Committee”, a kind of Privy Council quango to maintain standards in public life.

The hypothetical relationship between this body, the Sovereign and ordinary ministerial advice feels worryingly unstable. He suggests the King could be a “constitutional arbiter”, but this seems to imply giving the King an almost judicial authority (the Case of Proclamations would surely like a word), or that the King should serve as a cypher for the Crown Committee. Nevertheless, it is a concrete argument for the Crown’s role in moderate constitutional reform, and we could do with more of those.

Dimbleby Junior’s words are contrasted with the 1950s purple prose of Richard Dimbleby, extolling an irreducibly spiritual view of the young Elizabeth II as the God-bestowed embodiment of a thousand-year-old tradition. Owens counters that the next coronation should be a secular affair in Westminster Hall, albeit conceding that William could have a smaller-scale Christian anointing elsewhere.

The liberal safety of the 1990s is long gone, and we live in a world of new leviathans

Here we arrive at the problem with both Owens’s overall argument and with the monarchy’s prospects for relevance, even survival. Owens proposes the monarchy’s evolution into a formal guarantor of procedural democracy in Britain, but gives the impression that procedural democracy is an end in itself.

Strengthened procedural democracy and better behaviour in public life would be an improvement on the Johnson years, but as foundations of allegiance to the State and mutual obligation to our fellow citizens, they look tissue-thin in comparison with the predatory ideologies hungrily eyeing this country’s body politic. The liberal safety of the 1990s is long gone and, as John Gray has reminded us, we live in a world of new leviathans.

The problem for the monarchy is related: popular secularisation. The ideological bedrock on which the monarchy is built is not its status as a neutral political arbiter, but a richer, perhaps poetic, symbolism of order, organic tradition, and a basically Christian worldview. This is hardly a divine-right belief that kings should rule, but a more nuanced (and stronger) intuition that the political realm is ordered towards something higher and more meaningful than day-to-day government. It is hard to see how a post-Christian Britain might sustain this in the long term. Liberal secular humanism seems to lack the resources for such a task. And, in our fractured and uncertain modern world, it is more necessary than ever.

After Elizabeth is an erudite and thought-provoking book. It is the best recent progressive treatment of the monarchy the reviewer has come across, and should be read by anyone with an interest in the Crown’s contested future.

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