On face value, the most irrelevant news of the day is that Queen Elizabeth II became the longest ever-serving British monarch. She overtook her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s record, figuratively ruling for 63 years and 216 days. It hardly constitutes news at all, the fact of a woman remaining alive in a job from which she can’t be fired. But to argue that the Queen and her reign are an archaic irrelevancy is one of the worst lines of argument from republicans (anti-monarchists, that is, not Grand Old Party faithfuls.)
The Queen is not, as political jester Russell Brand put it, merely a “little old lady in a shiny hat.” I don’t say this in support of the institution of monarchy; I’d eagerly see Buckingham Palace gutted for use by the London Commune any day. It’s a joke ever worth repeating that the royal family remains the worst of Britain’s fabled welfare scroungers. But it takes a political analysis as shallow as Brand’s to call the monarchy irrelevant. It is frightfully important in the very worst of ways.
Elizabeth II is good at her job, and makes no mistakes about what that job is. She is a symbol that manages to avoid signifying what it really represents—namely, gross inherited privilege and insurmountable hierarchy. But subtlety’s her game. It is a role she’s perfected in contrast to Queen Victoria’s all too human mourning and secrecy after her husband Prince Albert died, and certainly in stark opposition to King Edward VIII’s scandalous love affair, abdication and (perturbingly considered less scandalous) his open sympathy for the Nazis. Elizabeth has made an art of being seen while lacking any qualities of tabloid spectacle. As such, her reign has been celebrated for its constancy. And therein I see its pernicious force. For all the reduction of royal power to the nominal, the Queen, hollowed of actual sovereignty, still manages to keep her subjects docile.
The Queen’s ability to elicit so much adulation is striking given her reserved, if frosty public persona. But it is here that her role is so perfectly mastered. She is that perfect empty vessel into which vacuous notions of British nationalism can be poured. The human equivalent of a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. And lest hipster kitsch reproductions have clouded our memories, that poster was war memory propaganda. The Luftwaffe’s blitz killed around 40,000 British civilians; it was no time to keep calm and carry on. And nor is now, as five years under Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has seen Britain’s welfare state eviscerated.
These five years of brutal Tory Britain have been characterized by structural attacks on Britain’s most vulnerable, and punctuated by Royal celebration. The wedding of Prince William and Kate, two royal progeny presented by an essentially voiceless Duchess of Cambridge, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and now her record-breaking longevity. Each time again and again Britons lined streets in droves, Union Jack flags clutched, to collectively cheer for their figure heads. Meanwhile the Conservatives’ welfare cuts have helped usher 760,000 Britons into poverty, with an increase of 300,000 children now living below the breadline (according to 2015 New Policy Institute Statistics). “This is the state weaponised against the vulnerable,” noted my friend, leftist writer Laurie Penny in a troubling report on the deadly effects of the Tories’ disability benefits cuts.
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If there is stability in the separation of figureheads from democratic politics it is this: while government’s policies can create rampant misery, be it Thatcher’s assault on the poor in the 1980s, or Cameron’s now, the loyalty accorded to the head of state by so many has remained untouched. At the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, 69 percent of respondents in Britain said they believed the country would be worse off without the Queen. If she is indeed a symbol of constancy it lies in the maintenance of the status quo that keeps people in their place. It could seem deviously dystopian, were it not so ancient and thus normalized.
The answer to Britain’s woes, of course, is not to resurrect the guillotine. Undoing the yoke of oppressive hierarchies is not so simply as ending the monarchy. As if the U.S. were any sort of just panacea since eschewing King George. Republicanism is not a solution, and would be a misplaced focus for British resistance at a time when the struggles of the poor and working classes, as well as thousands of desperate refugees present as urgent. But this again highlights the dark fact of the British monarchy: at a time when precarity reigns, the Queen’s rule is stable.