Monday, February 6, 2012

The Diamond Queen? Let's think about that...

Yes, it's the Queen's sixtieth anniversary as monarch of the UK and head of state of a bunch of other former colonies. Wonderful.

Before I go on, I should say this as a disclaimer: I have nothing against the Queen as a person. As far as I see, she seems like a nice woman, overall. True, it's been said that she cordially detested Diana after her divorce with Charles, and the way she initially dealt with Diana's death made much of the public question their loyalty to her person, but no-one's perfect. Queen Victoria, after the death of her husband, Albert, was not seen in public for something like thirty years. Thirty years! That's like if Elizabeth's husband, Philip, had died in, say 1970, and she stayed out of sight in Balmoral till the turn of the millenium. No wonder that the calls for the abolition of the monarchy reached their height during the middle of Victoria's long years of isolation.

No, the point of what I am saying is not to defame the Queen or the monarchy as a whole. In general, I'm a constitutional agnostic: I'm indifferent to if the head of state is elected or born to rule, so long as the government is democratic. What I'm objecting to is the sickly-sweet, gushy, pseudo-hagiographic portrayals of the Queen by the media. She's not a saint, or a national treasure, really: she's just a person who's had a very specific upbringing.
Yes, the Queen has been there for sixty years; yes, she has been, to paraphrase the media "the stalwart of British values and continuity through decades of unprecedented social and technological change" - but come on! So, by that definition, has practically any person over the age of seventy.
Any person who grew up during the Second World War can say the same thing, and, moreso can any person who actually fought for the country during those "darkest hours". I respect the Queen as much as I respect any person who has done something for the sake of others; but it would be much more fitting for the media to, rather than glorify "The Diamond Queen", better to celebrate "The Diamond Generation" - the generation that fought for the survival of Britain and (what was then) the Empire.

The Queen is now well into her eighties. That age, and the anachronism of her values, were starkly exposed with the death of Diana; she was seen to be out of touch, not realising that the idea of "stiff upper lip" had been slowly growing out of fashion for years. It took the midas touch of Tony Blair to carefully point her in the right direction, and show a public human side that did not come instinctively. That must have been a real eye-opener for the Queen at the time; for a monarch that had known nine Prime Ministers to be outshone by a fortysomething political newcomer.
Yes, the Queen has been through a lot in her life. Her younger sister, Margaret, was often stealing the limelight with her with her larger-than-life charisma and relationships. Yes, if Margaret had been the elder sister, the monarchy would rarely have seemed dull to the public. Margaret shared her charisma and love for the risque with her uncle, Edward VIII, and her great-grandfather, Edward VII. Margaret was also like her mother, the forever-popular and charismatic Queen Mother; Elizabeth, however, was her father's daughter.
If one was being unkind, where the media uses euphemisms as "a reign of assured stability", you could say that the Queen's long reign has been pretty dull compared to some previous monarchs. But I am not unkind: any monarch's reign mostly depends on the personality of the monarch, and the Queen has from the start of the reign made it clear that she sees her role as maintaining a sort of symbolic rock of understated but secure British values.

In terms of values, it can fairly be argued that the Queen no longer "represents British values", as Britain has not just socially progressed, but has been socially transformed almost beyond recognition from 1952, when Elizabeth Windsor became Queen. Not only is she one of the longest-reigning monarchs of the UK, but she has been monarch through a time of unprecedented social change (and I say this even though I realise am repeating the same sickly-sweet phrases the media use). By that definition, there is an argument for saying that the Queen should abdicate in favour of someone more suited to reflect British values as they stand in 2012 rather than in 1952.
But that would be to misunderstand the Queen's temperament. She is not the kind of person to abdicate for sake of convenience; for her, it is a lifelong commitment that she made upon her coronation. If that means she is still Queen come 2020 and beyond, then so be it.

That's what it means to have a monarchy: a monarch is for life, not just for Christmas.

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