Published: 20 April 2016 at 09:53
VIEWPOINT: As the Queen turns 90, an Anglia Ruskin historian looks at how to keep the monarchy in good shape
by Dr Sean Lang, Senior Lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University
As Queen Elizabeth II hits 90 she could be forgiven for a certain feeling of quiet satisfaction at having proved the doubters wrong. Despite all the predictions that the monarchy would either give way to a republic or irrelevance, the British monarchy in the second decade of the 21st century seems stronger than ever.
Long forgotten are the dark days of 1997 following the death of Diana when it looked as if the monarchy might be swept away in a tide of public grief and anger: recent polling found 90% wanted her to continue rather than abdicate and unprecedented support for the institution of monarchy itself.
It’s tempting to ascribe this entirely to her own skill in handling this most peculiar of British public roles – even ardent republicans grudgingly recognise this. From Michael Dobbs’s 1993 production, To Play the King, to Mike Bartlett’s recent King Charles III there has been a widespread assumption that Prince Charles will lack her sure touch and bring the whole thing crashing down through his own well-meaning political ineptitude.
But low expectations of heirs to the throne are not always borne out. Edward VII and arguably even George IV proved abler monarchs than anyone had expected and, in Shakespeare’s anniversary year, perhaps we should remember Shakespeare’s apparently unpromising Prince Hal. In any case, given his age, Charles’s reign is unlikely to be long and the popular and PR-savvy William and Kate are waiting in the wings.
Nevertheless, the monarchy cannot be complacent: if it is to continue through this century it will need to keep adapting to change. Here are five points that the Queen and her heir might like to consider once she’s blown out the birthday candles.
It seems crazy to demand that the heir steer completely clear of politics – so that even his spidery handwritten notes to politicians provoke outrage – and yet expect him at a moment’s notice to step into a major constitutional role. Franklin D Roosevelt’s vice-president, John Nance Garner, described the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”, but the VP does at least preside over the Senate. Why not give the heir to the throne a politically neutral role – maybe speaker of the House of Lords?
Even Prince Harry seems to have sown his wild oats and established himself as an effective royal ambassador, but royal antics tend to come in generational cycles and the Queen’s great-grandchildren, George and Charlotte, won’t stay cherubic forever.
Nobody is surprised to learn that the Queen has views – she would hardly be human if she didn’t – but her ability to work harmoniously even with politicians whom, one assumes, she cannot abide is one of the monarchy’s strongest assets and should be preserved at all costs.
It also makes the rare occasions when she does let her views be known all the more effective. During the Scottish referendum the Queen let slip a few carefully chosen words when leaving church near Balmoral. And, more recently, she supposedly dropped hints about her opinion about the EU referendum – both ways, if you believe the press.
Honours now go to a wider range of people than they used to, so how about seeing the royals working in fields beyond the traditional pursuits of the armed forces and, er, the armed forces? When Prince Edward failed to make the grade as a Royal Marine he was regarded as a national embarrassment for preferring to pursue a civilian career in the arts and media, but why shouldn’t he? Let’s make a wider range of types of work “normal” for the royals.
The UK is a kingdom and if we do believe in holding it together, then the monarchy has a crucial role to play. The royals have been visiting Scotland regularly ever since George IV’s successful state visit in 1822 and a glance at any local paper in the land will reveal the sheer number of visits the royals make.
But to what extent does the Queen play the sort of direct role in the constitutional life of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that she does with the government and parliament of the United Kingdom? Appearances matter, as the royal family has long understood: visits and walkabouts can create a bond with ordinary people, but in a time of constitutional change a rethink and development of the monarch’s constitutional role throughout the kingdom may well be in order.