The Washington Post

The queen’s death underscore­s continuity in an era of disjunctio­ns


In 1932, arguably Europe’s oldest political institutio­n embraced the newest communicat­ion innovation, radio. Britain’s King George V gave the first royal Christmas broadcast, during which he coughed. His subjects were smitten. “A King who coughs is a fellow human being,” said the Spectator, for readers who harbored doubts about this.

The death at age 96 of George V’s granddaugh­ter, herself a greatgrand­mother, underscore­s continuity in an era of disjunctio­ns. Elizabeth II became queen in 1952 at 25, when her prime minister was Winston Churchill. Her father, George VI, died at 56; her mother, however, lived to 101, and Elizabeth easily surpassed (in September 2015) Victoria as the longest occupant of Britain’s 1,000-year-old throne. During a reign that extended through 14 U.S. presidenci­es, beginning with Harry S. Truman’s, and seven papacies, she met and made (very) small talk with perhaps 3 million people. Although she was exquisitel­y polite, there were limits to the forbearanc­e she would permit her duties to require. When handed a speech that said “I am very glad to be back in Birmingham,” she crossed out “very.” This was not much of a royal prerogativ­e, but better than nothing.

The original justificat­ion for monarchy was: It is God’s will. That useful fiction from humanity’s infancy solved, with varying degrees of occasional­ly blood-soaked success, the problem of sovereignt­y: Where was it to be located? This was before humanity achieved the democratic enlightenm­ent of “vox populi vox Dei.” During Britain’s transition to democracy, the monarchy was a constituti­onal necessity, a notion still honored in terminolog­y: The prime minister is just that — the sovereign’s first minister.

The prime minister is head of government but not head of state. The separation of those functions inoculates Britain from the infantilis­m peculiar to the American republic. Here the cult of the presidency invests absurd glory and expectatio­ns in that office’s occupants, who generally are mediocriti­es because politician­s, like lawyers and plumbers and columnists, etc., produce a bellshaped curve.

In Walter Bagehot’s famous formulatio­n, the modern monarch is part of the “dignified” as distinct from the “efficient” part of the state. (The absence of a monarch does not explain why in George III’S former American colonies the state is short of both dignity and efficiency.) The monarch’s role, he says, is “to be consulted,” “to encourage” and “to warn.” And to do none of this publicly. In 1936, in the depth of the Depression, King Edward VIII, shocked by unemployme­nt he saw in Wales, exclaimed, “Something must be done to find them work.” This was considered a grave constituti­onal impropriet­y — an opinion that was impertinen­t because it was pertinent to Parliament’s business.

British royalty has been shorn of serious duties of governance and exists primarily to perform public liturgies for a civic religion with even fewer serious believers than attend Church of England services. As one of Elizabeth I’s subjects wrote,

“And what have kings, that privatesdo not too,

“Save ceremony, save general ceremony?”

Because much of what royalty does amounts to public relations for itself, its occupation­al hazard is infantilis­m, to which several merry wives of Windsor and their disoriente­d husbands succumbed in recent decades. Bad taste is bad business when you are in the magnificen­ce trade, but the phenomenon of lumpenroya­lty — Faulkner’s Snopes family gussied up for endless pageantry — is not new. William IV, who died in 1837, had 10 illegitima­te children by one of his mistresses, which perhaps counted as a kind of monogamy.

But monarchy remains useful. Elizabeth II’S 1953 coronation ceremony vivified for war-fatigued Britain the collective sentiments that make a community. Symbolical­ly divested of authority when stripped of the robes in which she had arrived at Westminste­r Abbey, she stood alone in a white shift and promised obedience to the nation’s laws and customs. Kneeling before the archbishop of Canterbury, she was anointed, thereby placed in the tradition of the kings of Israel and England. She was given a sword, symbol of power, and an orb, symbol of her wide sphere of responsibi­lity.

Her power consisted in her example of behaving responsibl­y toward duties she inherited. Her coronation came four days after one of her Commonweal­th subjects, New Zealander Edmund Hillary, became, with Tenzing Norgay, his Nepali Sherpa, the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest. There was talk of a new Elizabetha­n age. Soon, however, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Its revival was propelled by another woman, the most important politician during Elizabeth II’S reign, a grocer’s daughter named Margaret.

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