BACK in 1955, the British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge was effectively hounded out of the conservatively elitist Garrick Club for contributing a thoughtful essay to the New Statesman on the role of the monarchy.
“Nothing is more difficult,” he commented at the time, “than to maintain the prestige of an institution which is accorded the respect and accoutrements of power without the reality. The tendency for such an institution to peter out in fantasy is very great. It is like the king in chess. If he ventures into the middle of the board the game is lost. He has to be kept in the background and ringed round with pieces more powerful than himself….”
“The probability,” he goes on to say in a piece reproduced by the Statesman on the occasion of this week’s diamond jubilee, “is, I suppose, that the monarchy has become a kind of ersatz religion.”
Muggeridge’s article serves as a reminder that many of what are often considered late-20th-century concerns about the British monarchy, including its complex relationship with the media in general and the tabloid press in particular, actually go back much further.
In a period when prurient attention was being focused on the relationship between Princess Margaret and the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend, he concluded with the comment: “The royal family and their advisers have really got to make up their minds — do they want to be part of the mystique of the century of the common man or to be an institutional monarchy; to ride, as it were, in a glass coach or on bicycles; to provide the tabloids with a running serial or to live simply and unaffectedly among their subjects like the Dutch and Scandinavian royal families. What they cannot do is have it both ways.”
Consciously or otherwise, the Windsors chose the glass coach and the running serial, of which the diamond jubilee, marking Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, is indubitably a part.
When the intellectually inclined singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, in a passing comment on this week’s celebrations, noted that the broad public inclination to party ought not to be interpreted as symbolising blanket popular support for the monarchical institution, just as Christmas celebrations hardly reflect blind faith in the Christian doctrine, he was inundated with hate mail, some of which suggested that if he couldn’t abide the Windsors, he should go live in a communist country.
“I guess those people would be happier if Britain was more like North Korea, where the head of state enjoys 100 per cent support of the people,” Bragg wryly noted.
With almost every report offering a clichéd comment about how a typically wet London Sunday did not dampen enthusiasm for the pageantry of this week’s diamond jubilee celebrations, it hardly seems illogical to conclude that the average Briton’s infatuation with the anachronistic institution is stronger and the republican impulse weaker, than it was during the Windsors’ annus horribilis two decades ago, shortly before Princess Diana’s demise.
However, Tony Blair, that great moderniser, stridently strove as a loyal subject to shore up the monarchy.
For a considerable period now, the monarch has been associated more with pomp than with power. Although Elizabeth inaugurates sessions of parliament each year and prime ministers technically serve at her pleasure, these functions are viewed largely as formalities.
Her discretionary right to influence the course of political events remains unexercised, not least in view of the likelihood that the very subjects who relish the periodic displays of funny hats would find it thoroughly disenchanting.
It is useful to remember, after all, that the English beheaded their king long before the French thought of it. The republic did not last, unfortunately. Perhaps it ought to have been reinstituted in the early 20th century, when Edward VIII abdicated because he could not live without the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, thereby making way for the present lot.
The abdication was fortuitous for Britain, which soon found itself at war with a nation whose Nazi leader both Edward and Mrs Simpson adored.
The republican impulse was weak then, and it was thoroughly overshadowed this week: by most accounts, only a few hundred Britons publicly went against the tide on Sunday by congregating with placards demanding the hardly extraordinary right to be citizens rather than subjects.
Their cause appears ill-placed for the time being to gather too many adherents, let alone acquire critical mass, although such things can change unexpectedly with the realisation that the chief remaining purpose of the monarchy is as an opiate that can be deployed to distract attention from everyday frustrations and that woes will eventually seep in.
What might trigger it cannot be foreseen, and in the interim there are likely to be many more marriages and funerals (the Duke of Edinburgh was hospitalised on Monday).
It is not uncommon, even for some republicans, to describe the reigning monarch as a nice old lady — ignoring the fact that, even if one were to accept that, surely there are a great many nicer old ladies cast in far less privileged roles purely because of accidents of birth — and implying that her passing on will be a game-changer.
There will surely be some reluctance in lands far removed from London to accept the longest-serving Prince of Wales as the king of, say, Australia or Canada. But even that will depend largely on whether the strength of common sense can overpower the stench of the opiate.
Farouk, the last monarch of Egypt, is quoted as having said in 1948 (four years before he was overthrown) that before long there would be only five kings left in the world — the kings of clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades and England.
It remains likely that the house of cards will outlive the House of Windsor, but the timing of the transition depends on how soon the majority of Britons become conscious that a grown-up nation ought to be able to stay calm and carry on without the infantile absurdity of requiring a nanny as a supposed symbol of unity or authority.