This piece is taken from The American Spectator’s issue of May 1992, back when there was considerable doubt about Queen Elizabeth’s institutional longevity. She is still with us, in a record way, perhaps because the family dramas and soap operas described below have quieted.
If Her Majesty occasionally looks glum, perhaps even sour, it is because she has every reason to. After forty years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and many other good things besides, finds her subjects in a surly mood, her family breaking up, and her kingdom divided by resurgent nationalism and the longest election campaign since 1964 (when Labour won). The fortieth anniversary of her accession, which fell in February, was marred by an outbreak of republicanism in the press. There is likely to be more of it as the year progresses. The anniversary pageant comes this autumn, and already there has been much curling of fastidious lips at the news that the music for it is to be composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. And that’s just this year. On yonder distant horizon, like a monstrous desert sun at dawn, stands the brooding, feisty figure of Ms. Kitty Kelley, whose book on the House of Windsor is awaited here with lively interest. They’re on their guard at Buckingham Palace.
Her Majesty’s present round of sorrows began in January with publication of Royal Fortune: Tax, Money and the Monarchy, by Phillip Hall, which casts an unfriendly eye over the royal tax privilege (the privilege being that the Queen does not pay tax). The book was serialized in the (right-wing) Sunday Times. In the (right-wing) weekday Times, meanwhile, Janet Daley attacked the Queen in an article headed “An Enemy of the People.” And in the (right-wing) London Evening Standard, the novelist A.N. Wilson put a compelling case for a republic. “It would only take an unfortunate skiing accident,” he wrote, “to give us King Andy and Queen Fergie.”
Television joined in. On its ITV program, “This Week,” the Queen was berated for not being an equal-opportunity employer. Out of the 890 royal employees, apparently, only nine are drawn from ethnic minorities. Here is an injustice that does not cause many of us to lose sleep, but it matters to John Grigg (formerly a Tory, now a Liberal Democrat), who said on “This Week” that the Queen was personally to blame. This was not the first time Grigg had abandoned himself to lèse-majesté. In 1957, when he was plain Lord Altrincham (he disclaimed his title in 1963), he reproached the Queen for sounding like a “priggish schoolgirl.” A loyal subject, goaded beyond endurance by this affront to his monarch, punched Grigg in the nose outside the offices of Independent Television News. The incident was duly filmed.
Grigg is not, as it happens, a republican. Nor are most Britons. Sixteen million of us watched “Elizabeth R,” the TV documentary transmitted as part of the anniversary celebrations. The Queen is popular. The people have confidence in her. Even republicans allow that she carries herself well and is kind to animals. The Prince of Wales, too, inspires loyalty, but not confidence. He is a loose cannon. When he pleases one group, he invariably displeases another. Reactionary industrialists rage against his views on the environment, progressive architects against his views on modem architecture. In defiance of all the rules of our unwritten constitution, he expresses political opinions. Not long ago he spoke warmly of proportional representation, outraging the Tories, who are implacably opposed to it, but gratifying the Liberal Democrats. He has also dared politicians to use the word “soul” in ordinary discourse, which might be seen as putting unfair pressure on MPs who are also members of the British Humanist Association. Who knows, anyway, what he means by soul? Sometimes he seems to be a decent, tweed-jacketed, churchgoing blighter, sometimes a New Age nut. There is certainly something reassuring about a man who talks to his plants. Perhaps, though, we might be more reassured if he were also to talk to his wife, the beautiful and blameless Diana.
Here we come to the nub of the matter. Charles and Diana go their separate ways. Their problem is not that they cannot communicate, but that they will not. When, occasionally, they meet, their conversation no doubt sounds like something from one of Harold Pinter’s more elliptical pieces. The indifference that set in after the honeymoon years has now, they say, been replaced by something that is beginning to resemble loathing. According to a former member of the Waleses’ household: “You very quickly learn to choose whose side you are on—his or hers. There is no middle course.” We must face the truth: Charles and Diana are unlikely to grow old gracefully and in harmony, like Krystle and Blake. That bodes ill for the future.
Charles and Diana were put on the back burner in March when it was discovered that Fergie and Andy, otherwise the Duchess and Duke of York, were to separate. We’ve been here before. In 1989, the Princess Royal separated from Captain Mark Phillips (a divorce seems likely). In 1978, the marriage of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon ended in divorce. Fergie’s parents were divorced, as were Diana’s. Of the Queen’s four children only Prince Edward finds himself without marital difficulties, but then he’s not married. His problem seems to be that he can’t form a stable relationship, though why that should stop him from getting married remains a mystery.
News of the Yorks’ separation was greeted here with the sort of long-faced, watery-eyed solemnity that always accompanies an outbreak of mass Schadenfreude. The Duke and Duchess are unpopular. Besides, nothing could be finer, in the middle of a monumentally dull election campaign, than to have a constitutional crisis to fill the news pages. The crisis had been brewing for two months. Although little had been seen of the Duke since he appeared naked—save for a superimposed fig-leaf crown—in the center pages of the Sunlast summer, the Duchess had been continually in the news since January, when it emerged that she had been engaging in an unsuitable friendship with Steve Wyatt, the Texas millionaire who, according to the tabloids, is also the “son of a drug-crazed killer.” The closeness of their friendship came to light in January when a cleaning lady discovered holiday snaps of the two of them in a flat once occupied by Wyatt. Andy was furious.
What followed was bizarre even by the exacting standards of the House of Windsor. The first thing Fergie did was to fly off to Florida to do penance, or at least to pick up £15,000 on behalf of the British Motor Neurone Disease Association. She grabbed a photo opportunity at Connor Nursery in West Palm Beach, where she cuddled what the royalist Sunday Express called an “AIDS miracle tot.” As the photographs showed, the miracle tot was black; there is no point in doing these things by halves. Later, however, Fergie squandered her Brownie points by attending a gathering at a club that does not serve blacks (or Jews), even if they have AIDS.
Then, on the flight home, the Duchess made strange bird-like noises, imitated a telephone, pulled a plastic bag over her head, stuck her tongue out at other passengers and threw bread rolls at them. What can have got into her? Speculation that she might have taken cocaine must be discounted, not least on logistical grounds. Besides, her animated behavior was apparently not unusual. The most likely explanation for it is that she had fallen victim to a heady mixture of fatigue and high spirits. Insiders insist that she does not need the help of drugs, or booze, to behave in a thoroughly deranged manner.
Back in England, Fergie continued to act oddly. She consulted Madame Vasso, a middle-aged Greek hypnotherapist and palm reader who treats people for cancer and “lumps” and drug problems. She does other things, too, like give interviews to the press. Fergie visited her at her apartment in a run-down part of North London and, in a room dominated by (what else?) a large, blue Perspex pyramid, was treated for pains in the back and the neck, apparently caused by tension. “I put my hands on her back and she said she could feel the heat,” said Madame Vasso. “She kept her clothes on.” Later, the Palace decided that Madame Vasso did not have the gravitas required in a royal physician—last year she was bound over to keep the peace after being charged with common assault—and Fergie stopped seeing her.
Who would swap places with the Duchess of York? To the tension pains in her back and neck must be added the weight problem that has plagued her off and on since she married Andy and became the tabloids’ Public Enemy Number One. Might she become the first member of the royal family (orthe first ex-daughter-in-law of the Queen) to join a 12-step program? Anything is possible, not to say likely. The last thing the Queen needs is another divorce inthe family. For one thing, she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and therefore spiritual mother of the nation; for another, the upper middle classes—who, along with swooning expat Americans and jumped-up insurance salesmen, are the monarchy’s best friends—might not stand for it.
The UMCs are only human, after all. Behind their Ralph Lauren exteriors beat hearts of purest dross. Now that the recession is biting hard in the Home Counties, they must be wondering why the royals should go on having all the fun when they are having to cancel their winter holidays in the Caribbean. What is now a minor irritation could turn to boiling resentment if a high-taxing Labour government came to power. In that event the Queen’s tax privilege would no longer be something to shrug off, a subject of concern only to polytechnic riffraff. Chances are it would become a political issue among affluent Tories; that is, a very serious issue indeed. When the politics of envy hits the Home Counties, it is time for the royal family to count its spoons and lower its profile.
Even the Tories, therefore, cannot indefinitely ignore the royal tax question. The apparent injustice is just too great for a social democracy to live with. The Queen is the richest person in Britain. Her fortune is estimated, by Fortune, at £5.1 billion. She receives £7.9 million a year from the state in the form of a Civil List, and out of this issupposed to pay for the royal household. She does indeed pay some of her own and her family’s bills—the Duke of York, for example, gets an allowance of £250,000 a year—but the state picks up the tab for the royal yacht (£9.2 million a year), the Queen’s flight (£56.7 million), the royal train (£2.3 million), and the royal palaces and residences (£25.7 million). Taking these and other expenses into account, the cost of the monarchy is £57 million a year. Meanwhile the Queen’s private income continues to grow. According to Phillip Hall’s Royal Fortune, Her Majesty has £341 million in stocks; if she were taxed on the dividends she would be paying the Exchequer more than £7 million a year.
No right minded conservative could object to keeping the royal family in the manner to which it has grown accustomed—unless the royal family were seen not to be serving the interests of the nation. As Walter Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution: “There are arguments for not having a Court and there are arguments for having a splendid Court; but there are no arguments for having a mean Court.”
In the Thatcher years, however, arguments began to be heard on the right for no Court. They were based on the feeling that the Queen was actually working against the interests of the government. Mrs. Thatcher’s admirers put the word out that the Queen was privately criticizing some of No. 10’s gung-ho policies. In 1986 the Sunday Times reported that the Queen was unhappy about the way the miners’ strike had been handled (i.e., with mounted police and baton charges); that she had “misgivings” about the Libyan bombing; and that she believed Mrs. Thatcher lacked compassion for the underprivileged. The story was subsequently denied, but the feeling remained in some New Right quarters that the Queen was not, in Mrs. Thatcher’s expression, “one of us.”
That was evidently the view of Brian Micklethwait, of the Libertarian Alliance, who, again in 1986, caused a sensation when he suggested, in Economic Affairs,that the royal family should be privatized. His suggestion might not have excited much, or any, indignation had it not been for the fact that the magazine it appeared in is the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a Thatcherite think tank. Right-wing republicanism was now securely on the agenda.
For the past ten years the Sunday Times has led the republican way. Last February, at the height of the Gulf war, it ran an editorial strongly attacking the younger members of the royal family for their frivolous behavior while our lads were facing possible death: “… on the home front, too many of the young royals and their entourages carry on regardless with their peacetime lifestyles, parading a mixture of upper-class decadence and insensitivity which disgusts the public and demeans the monarchy.”
Chippy talk of upper-class decadence naturally does not play well in High Tory circles. In the Sunday Telegraph, in an article headed “Not Long to Reign Over Us,” Peregrine Worsthorne horsewhipped the republican right: in the old days, he wrote, it was the Communists who threatened the existing order; nowadays it was Rupert Murdoch (owner of the Times newspapers) and those in the Conservative party who shared Murdoch’s prejudices. But there was a twist. Worsthorne argued that by allowing itself to be popularized, and therefore trivialized, the royal family was to blame for its own misfortunes and for the fact that the monarchy’s prospects had seldom seemed bleaker. Thus even High Tories yield to lèse-majesté, if only by being more regal than the royal family.
One thing that excites particular disgust among High Tories—and here they find themselves in bed with the New Right—is the Queen’s sentimental attachment to the Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth of Nations is an organization that has nothing to offer the world but, at best, wittering banalities (vide Brian Mulroney) and, at worst, base tyranny (vide Daniel arap Moi). As head of the Commonwealth, of course, the Queen is duty-bound to be civil to Commonwealth leaders, even if they are Australians. Yet she is more than civil, she is adoring. Like Mrs.Kinnock, she loves the Commonwealth, especially its Third World members, and the Commonwealth loves her. Since the war, the Queen of England has done as much as any practicing liberal (Jimmy Carter and Willy Brandt included) to promote Third World humbug.
It is all so demeaning for her subjects. It is absurd, too. Royalists would argue, with some justification, that there is bound to be absurdity when the monarch is tied to the consensus, as Queen Elizabeth is in the case of the Commonwealth. But the monarchy is quite capable of being absurd without at the same time being fashionable. Consider: the Queen inherited her most resounding title, Defender of the Faith, from Henry VIII. The title, which appears on our coins to this day, was bestowed upon Henry by Pope Leo X in recognition of the king’s treatise against Protestantism. The faith Henry defended was thus the Catholic faith. The faith the Queen defends, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is the Protestant faith. Only in England.
Here’s a further complication. Protestantism has lost some of its allure for the Queen’s consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, who, we learn, is “rediscovering” his Greek Orthodox roots. Although the Duke converted to Anglicanism in 1947, when he married the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England, he now seems to be more impressed by the faith of his fathers than by the faith of his wife. Is this because he has mulled over the ancient texts and decided that Orthodoxy was right not to include the filioque clause in the Creed? Apparently not. What attracts him about Orthodoxy is that it is hierarchical and (more to the point, surely) less “sluggish” than Anglicanism in its response to environmental issues. The Duke is president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (previously the World Wildlife Fund) and is a militant enthusiast for family planning. Martin Palmer, his adviser on ecology and religious affairs, says that the Duke is not intending to leave the Church of England. But what is there to leave?
Defending the faith, or supremely governing the Church of England, is one of the monarch’s principal raisons d’être. But there are only 1.8 million active Anglicans in a population of 55 million. The failure of the Established Church is not the Queen’s fault. The Anglican revolution, like the French and the Russian revolutions, has run its course. Last year, Gorbachev found that he had no party left to lead. Pretty soon the Queen will find that she has no faith/Church left to defend. This is no longer an Anglican, far less a Christian, state.
If indeed it is a state at all. The old constitutional formulas—for example, that sovereignty is vested in the Queen in Parliament—are no longer convincing. Her Majesty’s Government has been busy these past twenty years surrendering its sovereignty to Brussels, in effect making Her Majesty redundant. Of course, being redundant does not mean you are out of a job. On the other hand, a sovereign monarch needs a sovereign territory—a state—over which to preside. A head of state without a state is in a pretty pickle. Now there is another consideration. The Scottish Nationalists are on the march; so are the Welsh; and even in England, traditional hub of empire, there are stirrings of nationalism. The United Kingdom is not united. Can the monarchy survive the twin challenges of resurgent nationalism and European federalism? Those who believe it can point to the success of the so-called democratic monarchies on the Continent. But they never were monarchies in the British sense, never big dollar-earners. Can anyone imagine Queen Elizabeth getting on a bicycle, like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and going shopping at Safeway? Great Britain is a nuclear power, for crying out loud. It’s all or nothing for the British people, and as the events of 1776 serve to remind us, republicanism is in our blood.
The fall of the Berlin Wall took us all by surprise. So too, if it should come to that, will the fall of the House of Windsor. If Europe does not bring it down, then presumably the job will be done by a sudden constitutional crisis, an abdication perhaps, or another divorce, or even a change of religion. With brooding Charles and bubbly Diana there are endless permutations and possibilities. On this reading, at any rate, it will all be over in a moment. The Queen, or her successor, will have to try to get by on £5.1 billion, and the former United Kingdom will have to choose a head of state. The only losers will be the tabloids. Since the war, the royal family has been the British substitute for Hollywood. When the monarchy goes, the tabloids will have to rely on Hollywood alone for their soap. Let’s hope Hollywood can keep up the supply. We need our cakes and ale.