The dif­fi­cult ques­tion of the royal fam­ily:

What changes a new monarch may bring to the Bri­tish tra­di­tion

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon

How a new monarch may change the Bri­tish tra­di­tion

On a cold dull day in Fe­bru­ary 1952, a 25-year old princess came to the Bri­tish throne on the death of her fa­ther King Ge­orge VI. Queen El­iz­a­beth II, as she be­came, has now been 66 years on the throne – longer than any Bri­tish king or queen for the past 1,000 years and among the long­est-reign­ing mon­archs in the world.

The Queen is now aged 91, and has rarely been so pop­u­lar. At a time when Bri­tain’s gov­ern­ment is floun­der­ing and many peo­ple have lost faith in politi­cians, the Queen is seen as an em­blem of sta­bil­ity and con­ti­nu­ity. She is still vis­i­bly per­form­ing royal du­ties, still pay­ing reg­u­lar vis­its all around the coun­try, re­ceiv­ing for­eign am­bas­sadors and states­men and hold­ing a weekly au­di­ence with the Prime Min­is­ter. Peo­ple born af­ter she came to the throne are al­ready pen­sion­ers. Most Bri­tons do not re­mem­ber any other head of state.

Yet, dis­creetly, prepa­ra­tions are al­ready be­ing made for her death. Plans for the state fu­neral have been re­vised and re­hearsed. News­pa­pers are get­ting the lengthy obit­u­ar­ies ready for pub­li­ca­tion. Tele­vi­sion is

draw­ing up sched­ules for morn­ing-to-night cov­er­age of her life and her times. And the Com­mon­wealth, an or­gan­i­sa­tion where the Queen has al­ways played a piv­otal role and which is close to her heart, is wrestling with the dif­fi­cult ques­tion of who should suc­ceed her.

It will not be an easy ques­tion to an­swer. The Com­mon­wealth is not like the monar­chy, where the el­dest child suc­ceeds au­to­mat­i­cally. Prince Charles, who will be­come king when his mother dies, may not be a pop­u­lar choice to head a body that has grad­u­ally drifted away from the Bri­tish crown, once the of­fi­cial head of state of most of its mem­bers. To­day’s Com­mon­wealth is a group of 52 dif­fer­ent in­de­pen­dent na­tions, mostly English-speak­ing, that are spread across the globe. They range from large and pop­u­lous na­tions such as In­dia, Canada, Aus­tralia, Pak­istan, Nige­ria and South Africa to small is­lands in the Caribbean and states scat­tered across Asia and Africa.

The Com­mon­wealth, largely but not en­tirely made up of for­mer colonies in the Bri­tish Em­pire, has no po­lit­i­cal power, few com­mon struc­tures, no uni­fied or­gan­i­sa­tion and no sin­gle po­lit­i­cal agenda. But it has a dense net­work of ed­u­ca­tional, le­gal, trade and cul­tural ex­changes that bind this group­ing to­gether in a com­mon set of demo­cratic val­ues. These links are re­freshed ev­ery four years, when the Com­mon­wealth heads of gov­ern­ment meet for a sum­mit with for­mal dis­cus­sions on the agenda and in­for­mal talks dur­ing a brief “re­treat”. They meet in a dif­fer­ent Com­mon­wealth coun­try each time, and un­til now the Queen has al­ways trav­elled to that coun­try to open the meet­ing. This year it is the turn of Bri­tain to play host, and in two weeks’ time the Queen will greet all the vis­i­tors to Lon­don. It is likely to be the last time that she opens a Com­mon­wealth con­fer­ence.

In­evitably, dis­creet sound­ings will be taken dur­ing the com­ing sum­mit on who should suc­ceed the Queen. When she came to the throne, only a few big na­tions such as Canada, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and South Africa were in­de­pen­dent, and most still owed some al­le­giance to the Bri­tish crown. Two oth­ers, In­dia and Pak­istan, had achieved in­de­pen­dence only in 1947, and be­came republics rather than keep for­mal links to Bri­tain. The Queen, seen as a non-po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, was the ob­vi­ous sym­bolic head of the or­gan­i­sa­tion. And she in turn has al­ways made the Com­mon­wealth one of her pri­or­i­ties, trav­el­ling re­peat­edly to most of the big­ger na­tions and keep­ing in close per­sonal touch with many of its lead­ers. It was said that Nel­son Man­dela was the only leader who could call her sim­ply “El­iz­a­beth” and who could tele­phone her when­ever he wanted.

Much will change when she dies. For a start, sev­eral coun­tries that still ac­knowl­edge her as their for­mal head of state – Canada, Aus­tralia and sev­eral Caribbean na­tions – are likely to see a new push to drop the con­nec­tion to the monar­chy and de­clare them­selves republics. But there may also be a wish to change the sym­bolic head of the Com­mon­wealth, in­stead of ask­ing King Charles III to suc­ceed his mother. Could it per­haps be an em­i­nent In­dian, Cana­dian or Aus­tralian? Could it be a ro­tat­ing head? Or should the Com­mon­wealth func­tion with­out any sym­bolic head?

Most peo­ple in Bri­tain ex­pect the Queen to con­tinue in of­fice for some years to come. She is re­mark­ably fit for her age. Her mother was 101 on her death. The Queen is still as­sid­u­ous in read­ing her dis­patches, en­ter­tain­ing over­seas vis­i­tors and prom­i­nent Bri­tons at Buck­ing­ham Palace and trav­el­ling – es­pe­cially to race cour­ses, where she in­dulges her pas­sion for horse rac­ing. For many Bri­tons, she has been in of­fice so long that she has al­ready be­come a part of his­tory: films, doc­u­men­taries and de­scrip­tions of life in 1952 seem al­most unimag­in­able to to­day’s younger gen­er­a­tion. And a num­ber of high pro­file plays, films and tele­vi­sion se­ries have por­trayed the Queen in ear­lier years, when the his­tor­i­cal facts seem so re­mote that fic­tional in­ci­dents are now freely mixed into the nar­ra­tive.

The Queen some­times sees her­self as a fig­ure from his­tory. She gave an in­ter­view to tele­vi­sion a month ago – the first in­ter­view she has ever given to any broad­caster or jour­nal­ist in all her reign – when she looked back on her coro­na­tion and de­scribed her feel­ings and the at­mos­phere at the time. Few Bri­tons were sur­prised that she gave an in­ter­view; most were im­pressed at the sharp­ness of both her mind and some of her an­swers.

Bri­tain it­self has be­come a very dif­fer­ent coun­try – with the im­mi­gra­tion of eth­nic mi­nori­ties mak­ing it a multi-cul­tural and multi-faith so­ci­ety. And the monar­chy has been skilled in adapt­ing to the changed cir­cum­stances. Change is con­tin­u­ous, but also grad­ual so that there is no vis­i­ble break from tra­di­tion. Al­most imperceptibly the monar­chy re­flects the con­tem­po­rary val­ues, ideas and make-up of Bri­tain to­day. Per­haps a sym­bol of this is the forth­com­ing mar­riage in May of Prince Harry, the Queen’s grand­son, to Meghan Markle. Fifty years ago she would have been thought highly un­suit­able: she is a di­vorcee, she is Amer­i­can, she is an ac­tress and she is of mixed race. To­day all those qual­i­ties would seem to make her a per­fect mir­ror of Bri­tain to­day. And in a sub­tle re­minder that the Vic­to­rian moral­ity that once so sternly gov­erned Bri­tish so­ci­ety is chang­ing, the Queen in­vited Meghan to stay at Wind­sor Cas­tle over the Christ­mas pe­riod with the rest of the royal fam­ily. It is fair to as­sume that she was dis­creetly al­lowed to sleep with Harry.

In­evitably, given her age, the Queen has now re­stricted her du­ties and timetable. She no longer wears the crown and full re­galia when open­ing a new ses­sion of Par­lia­ment each year. She no longer makes lengthy trips abroad on state vis­its. She asks Prince Charles or her grand­son to hand out medals at the reg­u­lar in­vesti­ture cer­e­monies. And she has turned over a num­ber of rou­tine du­ties to the younger mem­bers of her fam­ily.

But, un­like the royal fam­i­lies in Spain or the Nether­lands, there is no ques­tion of her ab­di­cat­ing or re­tir­ing. As a young princess she made a vow in 1947 dur­ing a state visit to South Africa when she was 21, fa­mously say­ing: “I de­clare be­fore you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be de­voted to your ser­vice”. It has cer­tain been a long one. And in chang­ing and chal­leng­ing times for Bri­tain, most peo­ple are happy she is still there.


Long live the Queen. El­iz­a­beth II made a vow in 1947 dur­ing a state visit to South Africa, fa­mously say­ing: “I de­clare be­fore you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be de­voted to your ser­vice”. In chang­ing and chal­leng­ing times...

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