A republican tribute to the queen
God bless this quiet rebel against the regressive new elites.
So it is 70 years since Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Seven decades since the start of the second Elizabethan age. Three generations of Brits, 14 prime ministers and 14 American presidents have been either ruled or wowed by Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, and the third longest in world history. And I know what I, as a committed republican, am expected to do during this Platinum Jubilee. I am meant to roll my eyes at all the pomp and regalia and flag-waving. I am meant to be sniffy about the little people – usually older people – who will get out their Elizabeth-themed crockery and raise a cup of tea, or something stronger, to our gracious queen. I am meant to moan about how the monarchy treated poor Meghan, and how the queen continues to cosy up to iffy Andrew, and then wring my hands over the neo-colonialism, patriarchy and unwokeness of it all.
But I won’t be doing any of that. On the contrary, I will raise a glass to the queen too. I know Republicans for Elizabeth is a little like Jews for Jesus, but there we are. I won’t only be opting out of Jubilee bellyaching because it will inevitably be riddled with Guardianista snobbery, with well-read republicans in the leafier parts of the UK chortling with horror at the old ladies waving their plastic flags and the portly blokes belting out ‘God Save the Queen’ (official, not Sex Pistol) after seven too many. No, I’m also opting out because there is actually much to celebrate in the person of Elizabeth II. In the values she embodies, the virtues she has clung to for dear life, the quiet, unspoken resistance she has mounted to the regressive pleas and pressure from the new establishment to ‘open up’, show the world her wounds, weep on cue. She might be 96, but the queen’s a wonderful role model for those of us nonplussed by the culture of narcissism, and convinced that there is still merit in the virtues of duty, service and devotion to a cause bigger than the self.
So let us republicans pay tribute to the queen on this 70th year of her reign. To my mind, one of the most impressive things about Her Majesty is her consciousness of history. She strikes me as one of the few people in public life today – the only person? – who is aware of herself as a historical figure. Where all others have been corrupted by the demands of presentism, lured into the trap of a hyper short-termism that revolves entirely around the question of how one is being perceived and portrayed right now, the queen keeps a longer, more historical view. She is aware of herself as a person made by history, and who in turn makes history, rather than allowing herself to become one of those slavish courtiers to instant moral gratification that are legion in public life today. Because of her unique role in the nation and in the constitution, she has held on to that thing that was once far more common in public life, and in general life too – the historical sense; the feeling of oneself as a conduit between past and present; the sense of rootedness.
Fundamentally, the queen personifies historical continuity. And in our era of anti-historical hysteria, of Year Zero frenzy, that is incredibly valuable. Ours is a time in which we are constantly being wrenched from history. Schoolchildren are taught to feel shame towards Britain’s past. University students view British history as a litany of imperial crimes. Politicians apologise for historical events they had no hand in. Radical activists deface statues of historical figures they disdain. Officials openly ponder removing offensive historical monuments and street names. It all speaks to a great rupture between the people of Britain and their history. Few appreciate just how socially ruinous this flight from our history is likely to be. Our furious anti-historical moment nurtures narrow, presentist thinking. Worse, the more that people are taught to loathe the traditions and the past of their nation, the less pride they will take in their nation; the less sense of belonging they will feel.
In such circumstances, with the new elites continually seeking to erase history’s shameful paraphernalia, the queen plays a strikingly countercultural role. She continues, stubbornly, by dint of her position, to embody history. She is history made flesh. Her every appearance and act is an implicit manifestation of history in the present, in defiance of the elites who strive to distance the now from the past as thoroughly and violently as they can. This is why many are still drawn to the queen and to what strikes the Smart Set as the pointless pomp that surrounds her – because they see in it all a connection to the past. They see in this diminutive wearer of the crown not someone they must worship or even necessarily tug the forelock to, but rather someone whose very existence, however frail it might now be, represents a snub to the elitist project of disconnecting modern Britons from British history and starting everything all over again in a Year Zero of woke moral conformism.
This is not to say that we have to go crazy for what the queen represents from history – monarchical privilege, the hereditary principle, the crown as sovereign. It is simply to appreciate that she represents history at all, that she is a living, breathing link to times and ideas we are instructed to abhor. Having said that, there are also things the queen represents that are good, and worth celebrating on this Platinum Jubilee. On the virtue front, she’s countercultural too. Her entire life stands as a prominent reprimand to the narcissism and emotional indulgence and studied frailty that are the shallow values of the early 21st century. In keeping her counsel for seven long decades – a Herculean achievement when every signal we receive tells us to confess all – she represents an obstinate reminder that there is a different way to live, to be, than our therapeutic, identitarian era would have us believe. Did you know that you do not in fact have to devote your one life on God’s good Earth to massaging your self-esteem, engaging in identity play and seeking validation in the disembodied universe of virtual likes? That you can rise above all of that, above the self, and make your life about other, larger things? Well, you can. That is what the queen’s life tells us too.
Something curious and almost unbelievable has happened with the queen over the past three decades – she has gone from being the ultimate representative of the establishment to being a polite, noiseless rebel against the establishment. The new establishment, that is. My formative understanding of the queen comes not from her coronation of 1953 or from the Silver Jubilee of 1977 – events I am too young to have experienced – but from the tumultuous events of 1997, following the death of Princess Diana, when I was just starting out in journalism. I have always considered what was done to the queen in that deranged moment to be one of the worst instances of bullying in public life this country has ever witnessed. From the cynical spinners of Downing St, newly occupied by the Blairites, to the leader writers of liberal broadsheets and the bigwigs of the BBC, a concerted and deeply unpleasant effort was made to shatter the queen’s resolve, to compel her to emote, to make her bend the knee to us. Not us as in the people, but us as in an emergent new elite repelled by the old virtues of stoicism, duty and social solidarity and far more keen on the neoliberal ideologies of hyper-individuation and the public confession of mental frailties that its power-hungry state might then step in to manage.
All that ‘Show us you care!’ hysteria of the post-Diana moment – where a baying graduate mob of advisers, commentators and academics screamed at the queen to lower her flags, lower her guard, and conform to the cult of emotionalism – was fundamentally a cultural coup by a new elite against the old elite. In their minds, if they could make even the queen take part in the post-stoic orgy of emotional revelation, then they would have brought to heel not only the establishment but the entire country. All of us. Pleb and Regina alike. We would be citizens less of a constitutional monarchy than of an emotionally incontinent brave new nation in which the elites justified their rule by emphasising their own expertise and everyone else’s haplessness. The queen held out as best she could, though the amoral ruffians of Alastair Campbell’s spin unit in Downing Street, who knew the PR benefit of everything and the value of absolutely nothing, did manage to cajole her into making a televised statement ‘as a grandmother’ from Buckingham Palace. Her fury at this forced exposure of her internal life is well known.
It would be a very foolish republican who celebrated that late 1990s bullying of the queen by the ambitious cynics of an authoritarian new elite. For that Liz-bashing moment represented not the expansion of democracy, but its further diminution. Those were the birth pangs of a new system of governance based on technocratic, therapeutic rule, in which the masses were medicalised and the elites assumed the role of caretakers of our emotions, of our relationships, of our health. If being a subject of the monarch is bad – in my republican view, at least – then being a patient of the nanny state is far worse. Progressives really should have stood with the stoic queen against her sarcastic tormentors in the new elite. But they didn’t. And, as a result, all the things that some of us warned about as we watched Britain turn itself into a Dianafied nation of emotional saps have come to fruition – mental disarray has surged, social atomisation is rampant, and unhappiness is the lot of those who have successfully been convinced to think more about their own image and esteem than about the people and the world all around them. The queen reigns, but it’s Diana’s world now.
Since 1997, there have been other efforts to break down the queen and her old-fashioned, apparently self-destructive forbearance. The Cult of Meghan is the latest elite coup against the disobedient monarch. Cheered on by every representative of the new cultural establishment – from the Guardian to Oprah Winfrey to the Netflix set – Meghan and Harry are the heirs to the Blairite project of problematising the queen’s stoicism and depicting it as damaging to the queen herself and everyone around her. The monarchy offers little in the way of therapeutic treatment, Meghan claims – did she think she was marrying into a hippy retreat? – and it is racist to boot. ‘Confess! Apologise! Become more like us!’ – that is the demand the Meghanites make of the queen as they, like earlier elite loathers of queenly virtue, try to make Elizabeth genuflect to the new, to wokeness, to emotional correctness. The queen’s response to the Cult of Meghan’s accusations against the palace was perfect. ‘Recollections may vary’, a spokesperson said. I want that on a t-shirt. It is the politest way anyone has ever said ‘Bullshit’.
Formally, still, the queen is the establishment. But informally, in the swirling sphere of cultural values, she’s about as non-establishment as it gets. For me – and I know this is controversial – her most clearly rebellious act of recent years was her decision to be walked into the Westminster Abbey service for her late husband the Duke of Edinburgh by Prince Andrew. The chattering classes’ least favourite royal. The man judged by the woke to be a certified nonce, despite having never been put on trial for such depravity. Imagine how many of her courtiers must have told her this was a bad idea. Imagine how much gnashing of teeth there was in Downing Street. But she did it anyway. It seemed to be her latest subtle signal that she will not cave in to the middle-class mob. Here, her unspoken revolt was against the regressive new idea that people can be cancelled for life on the basis of accusation alone.
People value the constancy of the queen. You don’t need a PhD in political matters to understand why. We live under a borderline psychotic trend of cultural churn. The chaotic flux of the elites is the landscape we all inhabit. Historical figures are deleted overnight. Language changes with unprecedented ferocity – every month seems to bring with it new linguistic rules for how to refer to ethnic-minority people, gay people, trans people. Values we took for granted just a couple of decades ago – such as that it’s a good thing for children to be raised by their mother and father – have been re-christened as bigotries. Even saying men are not women can land you in hot water now, and earn you months and months of rape threats and death threats. ‘It’s called progress, deal with it’, say the modern morality police who masquerade as revolutionaries. It’s not progress, though. The relentless churn of speech codes and new identitarian diktats is thoroughly, depressingly regressive. It is motored by disdain for the ideals of self-possession and social responsibility that many people still feel an attachment to, and by a desire to replace such virtues with the controlling, hyper-atomising tendencies of the neoliberal elites and their witless footsoldiers in the woke set. Listen, guys, the actual queen, with her unspoken resistance to the sacralisation of the emotional self, is more progressive than you now.
I want a Republic of Britain because I believe in democracy. I believe that ordinary people are capable of governing their minds, their lives and their communities without requiring the godly guidance of princes, priests or experts. And here’s the thing, the remarkable thing: today, the queen, wittingly or not, makes a better fist of standing up for what would be the founding ideals of republican life – namely, trust in people’s capacity for mental self-possession and in the goodness of committing oneself to a national project – than her noisy, sneering critics do. So, for this Jubilee, I’m with Elizabeth. I’m with our countercultural monarch. I want this 96-year-old personification of history to have the time of her life. I want the love for her to infuriate the new elites who love only themselves. Ma’am, I will never bow to you, but this weekend I will salute you.
Picture by: Getty.