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.