What the Queen Does for a Living

Queen Elizabeth II, 1963
Queen Elizabeth II in New Zealand, 1963. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

At first glance, the queen appears hardly essential to the survival of Great Britain. She signs her name to Parliamentary laws and “accepts” every new prime minister, but these are just formal ceremonies: the British government could function easily without them.

Meanwhile, the queen, throughout her 60-plus-year reign, has been steadily giving up privileges other monarchs took for granted. Her royal household — including her family, her staff, and the upkeep on several houses — is $60 million each year. While this is a princely sum, it has been frozen for 20 years and its purchasing power has dropped by 75 percent. Moreover, the queen now pays income tax, which further reduces that figure.

It’s a precarious position, this queen business. Without any true power of her own, her income is subject to the approval of Parliament, which can deny any expense it doesn’t like. Meanwhile, there is a significant number of Britons who call for the end to a monarchy that seems expensive and silly to them.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth must regularly appear among her subjects and work her royal charm to build support and allegiance to herself. As British journalist Malcom Muggeridge observed in the Post back in 1957:

When, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, a monarch only reigns, with no ruling powers whatsoever, it is inevitable that the focus of interest should be transferred from the office to the person.

It is the queen herself, her family, her associates, her way of life, which hold the public attention. The role she has inherited is purely symbolic, and the functions that go with it are purely ceremonial. Because she has no power, she must be, in herself, wondrous. If she were ordinary, she would be nothing.

She must be alluring, removed from the necessities and inadequacies of ordinary men and women — a creature of this world in the sense that she has a home, a husband, and children, and yet not quite of this world in that she is a queen.

Muggeridge concedes the queen does a fairly good job of projecting this royal mystique, despite the disenchanted mood of post-war Britain.

The monarchy has grown more glamorous in circumstances which, theoretically, should have reduced it to the proportions of a Scandinavian dynasty.

Debutantes throng more numerously and eagerly than ever to be presented at court. Mayors and other local dignitaries proudly rustle up gray top hats for the Buckingham Palace garden parties. Labor ministers lay aside their red ties and delightedly attire themselves in knee breeches to attend upon Her Majesty.

This is the queen’s greatest, and most historic service to the country: dispensing royal approval and honors. Each year, hundreds of British citizens are nominated for knighthood, or an order of chivalry like Commander of the British Empire. The queen, advised by the Prime Minister’s cabinet, grants these awards to a handful of distinguished, and proud, men and women. The title lack the privileges they once conveyed, but they’re still highly valued. Few Britons turn down them down.

Strangely enough, people are still clamorous for these baubles, which constitute an inexpensive form of political patronage. Happy the government that can bribe with knighthoods, baronetcies and peerages rather than with jobs and money. It is so much cheaper and less complicated.

The queen would seem to be essential to this procedure. If the honors were conferred by a president or a prime minister, the odds are that they would lose some of their allure. The worthy alderman kneels ecstatically with creaking joints before the queen to receive the accolade; the aged party hack finds one more canter in him when it is a question of being elevated to the peerage by Her Majesty in person.

Answering the question posed by his article, “Does England Really Need a Queen?” Muggeridge concludes:

Queen Elizabeth II, 1963
Queen Elizabeth II prepares to speak to a harbor throng near her yacht in New Zealand. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

The British monarchy does fulfill a purpose. It provides a symbolic head of state transcending the politicians who go in and out of office, who, as King Lear so wonderfully said, “ebb and flow by the moon.”

It expresses that continuity which has enabled Britain to survive two great revolutions — the French and the Russian — and two ruinous and destructive world wars, without being torn by civil conflict. But this function must not only be fulfilled. It must be seen to be fulfilled.

The queen, in other words, must be put across, not only as a charming wife and mother who dresses pleasingly, if not always elegantly, who wins hearts wherever she goes, and who presides gracefully over a lunch or dinner table even when her guests include politicians, writers and statesmen, rather than her own intimates, sharing her own simple, unintellectual tastes.

She must be put across, as well, a useful unifying element in a society full of actual and potential discord.

This post was updated on September 10, 2015.

Finding Some Good in the Royals

Queen Elizabeth II stepping out of car
Queen Elizabeth II visiting New Zealand in 1963. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

With three recent events, the British Royal Family has once again moved into the media spotlight. First came the announced engagement of Prince William, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson. Then came the release of the movie The King’s Speech, about King George VI and his struggle to master his chronic stutter. Just yesterday, the car carrying Prince Charles and his consort was attacked by college students rioting over tuition hikes.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that any mention of the ‘royals’ in America prompts the old debate of whether there’s any justification for a monarchy today. The duties of the queen, and all her family members, are entirely ceremonial. They are living symbols of a long tradition. But they are symbols and this is an literal age.

Americans should have a natural prejudice against kings and queens, or any inherited privilege. The United States only came into existence after fighting for independence from King George III — Queen Elizabeth’s great, great, great, great grandfather. Thomas Jefferson branded that king an “absolute tyrant” and believed that aristocracy was a “mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should ever be made to prevent its ascendancy.” In the following centuries, as the U.S. and England competed for global prominence, American writers, teachers, and politicians frequently denounced the English throne, and its occupants — “those pets of privilege,” as Mark Twain called them.

Yet the American attitude toward the Royals is curiously ambivalent. Millions of Americans became admirers of Princess Diana. For some, she embodied the fairytale romance of the princess bride. But many others admired what they perceived as her grace, poise, and commitment to social causes. Americans may be biased against aristocracy, but we are drawn to any display of heroism and virtue. We seek role models of courage, judgment, maturity, and dedication. Like it or not, we have often found these democratic qualities among the last people we would expect — the ultra-privileged.

The Post published several articles about the British royal family in the 20th century. Every one of them noted approvingly how England’s kings and queens displayed such American virtues as modesty, simplicity, and informality. The authors of “King George” in 1933 praised the frugality of the King George V and Queen Mary.

[The royal family] ungrudgingly fulfilled the countless ceremonial duties falling to their share. … They were content to live self-effacingly with the shadows for a while. Their expenditures were modest, considering their rank. The small dress bills [of Mary] would have amazed women of the New York Four Hundred, it was said at the time. Indeed, even when she became Princess of Wales, the future Queen Mary still most creditably refused to be extravagant.

King George V, they concluded, didn’t even talk like a king.

[His] an unstilted style of saying things, far removed from the old-time public utterances of royalty.

His son, the Prince of Wales — and later, briefly, King Edward VIII — was a nice guy with class:

charming, urbane, with a delightful suavity of manner, [he] puts everybody at ease, allaying all feelings of natural shyness and timidity.

His brother, the future King George VI, had a natural affinity for the commoner:

With the bluffness of the sailor … he had about him a certain “hale-fellow-well-met” air. The straight-from-the-shoulder simplicity with which he talked … rang delightfully true. Pretense was so alien to him … one could see that here was a prince who, in mixing with people, could not easily conceal his liking for them.

If the Post writers purred in their assessment of the kings, they nearly swooned over young Queen Elizabeth II. Even before she had a chance to prove herself as monarch, journalists were pulling out their most rhapsodic prose for her. Paul Gallico promptly declared her “a young, gracious, and really lovely queen.” Jan Morris gushed —

There is no getting away from the mystique of the English monarchy. … I defy any man of sensibility, still less any woman, to resist the magic of this extraordinary lineage, when you meet it face to face. It is a phenomenon unique in its kind. Profound your instincts of equality may be, and blaring your dislike of snobbery, but when it comes to the royal point you will almost certainly succumb. An inescapable mystic allure invests the queen of England when you see her standing in her own palace, a handsome woman in herself, and in her significance marvelously alluring.

One of the classic European experiences of our time is to wander on to Pall Mall in London one high summer day and glimpse above the shoulders of the crowd this royal lady, in a tricorn hat and scarlet tunic, pink-cheeked and grave-faced, side-saddle on a tall chestnut, leading her glittering Horse Guards toward Admiralty Arch. Here we see a last figure of towering romance, of folk loyalties and earth instincts, a last shining reminder of the world that was, before reality broke in.

Reality, in fact, never broke in. It was there all along. All that display and ceremony, the fancy dress and glittering guards, were only incidentally meant to impress commoners and, later, attract tourists.  The monarch’s true purpose, as Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out in his 1957 Post article “Does England Really Need a Queen?” has been, and continues to be, political.

Next: The Queen’s Real Job

This post was updated on September 10, 2015.