One part of our unwritten constitution has been functioning perfectly during the Brexit upheaval: the monarchy. Unhappy behaviour by some younger royals reminds us how jealously the institution must be protected. It will also be essential to guard the monarchy’s impartial ‘light above politics’ (Roger Scruton’s happy phrase) with more care than ever in the inevitable Brexit arguments of the next few months.
Since Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, aged only 25, she has provided a comforting, non-political presence throughout immense and often unsettling change in this country. There is no way in which a succession of republican presidents (probably politicians kicked upstairs) could have done the same. Imagine Presidents Wilson, Major or Blair on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Nor can I.
Or imagine a president today who was known to have strong views one way or another on Brexit. It would be intolerable. The Queen’s reign is by no means over, but she became our longest-reigning monarch in 2015 when she overtook her great-great-grandmother Victoria. Her Platinum Jubilee is now in hailing distance in early 2022.
Her reign has been always informed by her lack of pomp and boundless sense of duty. ‘I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view,’ she once said. ‘To give of my best in all that that day brings — and to put my trust in God.’ Her belief in Christ’s message of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ informed the graceful advice she gave to all Brexit warriors in her last Christmas broadcast (the only words she is allowed every year to write herself): ‘Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.’
Those who speak of abolishing our constitutional monarchy (as Corbyn et al do with cruel and banal Marxist monotony) should reflect on the fact that it has long been the envy of the democratic world. With good reason. The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote during the war that Britain was exceptional among European powers in maintaining ‘a centuries-long tradition of liberty’. This was, she understood, guaranteed by the seemingly least powerful part of the constitution, the monarch.
Snobs and intellectuals may cavil, but Andrew Marr, who followed the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, marvelled at her extraordinary workload and her ‘mighty force field’: ‘I have watched her talk to scaffolders, cooks, railways workers, people running charity shops, army wives — many of the people virtually ignored by the media and the metropolitan elite.’ He rightly praised her as ‘a profoundly reassuring part of national life’. She learned that from her father, George VI, a vital reassuring focus of the nation during the war.
Misbehaviour by younger members of the royal family is always damaging and it must be corrected. But it should not lead us to doubt the precious, enduring value of our apolitical head of state. One of the Queen’s Private Secretaries used to raise his glass, saying: ‘May the Queen live for ever.’ An understandable sentiment, but perhaps not what she would wish for.
Fortunately the Prince of Wales has shown similar reassuring dedication and love of country — think only of the thousands upon thousands of young people he has helped through his Prince’s Trust. He and the Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge after them, clearly understand their roles in continuing the genius of constitutional monarchy — which, as Simone Weil appreciated, is crucial to our liberty.