September 14, 1997
The danger with jumping to a conclusion is underestimating the distance involved. Sometimes the gap between cause and effect appears shorter and straighter than it really is, and the jumper who assumes too much ends up like the coyote in the roadrunner cartoons—stuck in mid-air after trying to bridge two unbridgeable cliffs.
This image crosses my mind as I read Chicken Little commentators proclaim that the sky is falling in on Britain’s monarchy. In fairness, the impetus to jump to this conclusion in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is understandable.
The pandemic grief that Diana’s death caused, the massive public support for Earl Spencer’s acerbic, anti-Royal eulogy, and broad public criticism of the Royals for their impersonal first reaction to her death all seem to betoken a monarchy with a distinctly bleak future.
Writing in the Globe and Mail, James Laxer, political science professor and member of the Chicken Little brigade, predicted that Britain will become a republic in the next couple of decades. He blamed the decline and fall of the monarchy on Thatcherite individualism, which he said ruined the social order of Britain, alienating the Royals from their supporters among the working class.
At first glance it seems a trifle unfair to base an assessment of an apolitical constitutional monarch on the conduct of an elected government. Iron Maggie may have turned economic individualism into a political religion, but the inference that this bears any relation to popular views about the monarchy is a non sequitur. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think the monarchy can survive in “a relentlessly individualistic social order,” to use his words.
In the Financial Post, Allan Fotheringham also painted a quasi-apocalyptic picture. He said Spencer’s eulogy was a historic occasion that signaled “the end of England as we know it” and that the volume of flowers for Diana shook the House of Windsor to its foundations. But at least he stopped short of taking republican arguments seriously.
As Laxer ponders life from the coyote’s point of view, let’s evaluate the state of the Windsors less impetuously.
Diana’s death did lower the public’s perception of the Royals, insofar as she was the only spark of life in an otherwise formal, stuffed-shirted family, but the effect is temporary. The monarchy has been stirred but not shaken. All it took to regain at least some measure of public favour was for the Queen to come down from Balmoral Castle, her Scottish Mount Olympus, to commiserate with her people. The effect was immediate.
After her address to the nation following Diana’s death, the Globe reported: “Sentiment that had turned against the Royal Family swung back in its favour. The newspapers which had been on the attack earlier in the week, suddenly changed course.”
Britons have a long history of ambivalence toward their monarchs. King John ran afoul of the barons and was forced to sign the Magna Carta; at least two civil wars have been fought; Charles I was beheaded; William of Orange was asked to reign in order to rid Britain of the Stupid Stuarts; and George III went mad. Counterpoising these are strong monarchs Edward III, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Victoria and George VI. Notwithstanding the interregnum of Oliver and Richard Cromwell, the institution of the monarchy has endured.
The example of Victoria sheds the best light on the current and future state of the Royal Family. After her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, Victoria went into a deep funk for four years. As the film Mrs. Brown relates, Victoria was so disconsolate after Albert’s death she withdrew from public life, virtually abdicating her royal duties. Her ministers and advisors, including her son, the future Edward VII, warned her that her prolonged absence was playing into the hands of anti-monarchists. Still, she wouldn’t come out of her self-imposed emotional exile; that is, until John Brown came.
Brown, a favourite of Prince Albert, was brought down from Scotland to take the Queen riding and comfort her, and the film decorously hints at a love affair. But the point is that he brought Victoria out of her lethargy and back to public life. When Brown died, there was great upwelling of public affection for Victoria and her popularity reached new heights
Britons don’t demand much of their monarchs. As I read it, they want them to uphold cultural and political traditions, and demonstrate affection for the people. When the monarch is perceived as being aloof and insular, then debate surrounding the institution heats up. But the criticism is personal more than political, and this is where Laxer’s rhetoric exceeds his leap.
The parallels between Victoria and Elizabeth II are not perfect but close enough. The Royals could defeat much criticism by spending more time at Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. But then the public has to do its part. If it wants a visible, involved monarchy it shouldn’t tolerate irresponsible publications that set out to profit by destroying their lives and majesty.
The only thing that Diana’s death did was force the Windsors out of their lethargy. Ironically, it took a death of a Royal Family member to send Victoria into exile, but hopefully it may be what forces the Windsors out of theirs.