In 1932, arguably Europe’s oldest political institution embraced the newest communication innovation, radio. Britain’s King George V gave the first royal Christmas broadcast, during which he coughed. His subjects were smitten. “A King who coughs is a fellow human being,” said the Spectator, for readers who harbored doubts about this.
The death at age 96 of George V’s granddaughter, herself a great-grandmother, underscores continuity in an era of disjunctions.
Elizabeth II became queen in 1952 at 25, when her prime minister was Winston Churchill. Her father, George VI, died at 56; her mother, however, lived to 101, and Elizabeth easily surpassed (in September 2015) Victoria as the longest occupant of Britain’s 1,000-year-old throne. During a reign that extended through 14 U.S. presidencies, beginning with Harry S. Truman’s, and seven papacies, she met and made (very) small talk with perhaps 3 million people.
Although she was exquisitely polite, there were limits to the forbearance she would permit her duties to require. When handed a speech that said “I am very glad to be back in Birmingham,” she crossed out “very.” This was not much of a royal prerogative, but better than nothing.
The original justification for monarchy was: It is God’s will. That useful fiction from humanity’s infancy solved, with varying degrees of occasionally blood-soaked success, the problem of sovereignty: Where was it to be located? This was before humanity achieved the democratic enlightenment of “vox populi vox Dei.” During Britain’s transition to democracy, the monarchy was a constitutional necessity, a notion still honored in terminology: The prime minister is just that – the sovereign’s first minister.
The prime minister is head of government, but not head of state. The separation of those functions inoculates Britain from the infantilism peculiar to the American republic. Here the cult of the presidency invests absurd glory and expectations in that office’s occupants, who generally are mediocrities because politicians, like lawyers and plumbers and columnists, etc., produce a bell-shaped curve.
In Walter Bagehot’s famous formulation, the modern monarch is part of the “dignified” as distinct from the “efficient” part of the state. (The absence of a monarch does not explain why in George III’s former American colonies the state is short of both dignity and efficiency.) The monarch’s role, he says, is “to be consulted,” “to encourage” and “to warn.” And to do none of this publicly. In 1936, in the depth of the Depression, King Edward VIII, shocked by unemployment he saw in Wales, exclaimed, “Something must be done to find them work.” This was considered a grave constitutional impropriety – an opinion that was impertinent because it was pertinent to Parliament’s business.
British royalty has been shorn of serious duties of governance and exists primarily to perform public liturgies for a civic religion with even fewer serious believers than attend Church of England services. As one of Elizabeth I’s subjects wrote,
“And what have kings, that privates do not too, “Save ceremony, save general ceremony?”
Because much of what royalty does amounts to public relations for itself, its occupational hazard is infantilism, to which several merry wives of Windsor and their disoriented husbands succumbed in recent decades. Bad taste is bad business when you are in the magnificence trade, but the phenomenon of lumpenroyalty – Faulkner’s Snopes family gussied up for endless pageantry – is not new. William IV, who died in 1837, had 10 illegitimate children by one of his mistresses, which perhaps counted as a kind of monogamy.
But monarchy remains useful. Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation ceremony vivified for war-fatigued Britain the collective sentiments that make a community. Symbolically divested of authority when stripped of the robes in which she had arrived at Westminster Abbey, she stood alone in a white shift and promised obedience to the nation’s laws and customs. Kneeling before the archbishop of Canterbury, she was anointed, thereby placed in the tradition of the kings of Israel and England. She was given a sword, symbol of power, and an orb, symbol of her wide sphere of responsibility.
Her power consisted in her example of behaving responsibly toward duties she inherited. Her coronation came four days after one of her Commonwealth subjects, New Zealander Edmund Hillary, became, with Tenzing Norgay, his Nepali Sherpa, the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest. There was talk of a new Elizabethan age. Soon, however, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Its revival was propelled by another woman, the most important politician during Elizabeth II’s reign, a grocer’s daughter named Margaret.