The British monarchy in the time of Brexit
At the beginning of this week, Poland waited to welcome the royal couple, Prince William, second in succession to the throne, accompanied by his wife Catherine (Kate), the duchess of Cambridge.
The British embassy in Warsaw each year observes the birthday of Elisabeth II on 21 April, with celebration events often held in June because of English, and Polish, weather. And again it will be marked with a garden banquet, although later than usual as its timing will be adapted to the young royals’ visit. Attached to the individual invitations is a long list of court etiquette rules and, even a longer one, of security requirements.
Not a word about divorce from EU
As a general rule, the younger the generation, the farther it is sent on official trips abroad: William and Kate have already visited India and Australia. But these days Her Majesty’s government is having trouble with Europe, and the young and very popular couple are a perfect “soft tool” for improving the monarchy’s and UK’s image. And for building nice relations with European partners, especially now, when the official Brexit negotiations have started. The agenda envisages a meeting with President Andrzej Duda, a visit to the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk, and a ceremony in the embassy’s gardens. Naturally, Prince William and President Duda won’t speak about the UK’s divorce from the European Union or our bilateral relations. It’s a courtesy visit. But we are likely to hear warm words about Poland, its role in building a new history of the Continent, and about the good state of relations between Warsaw and London. After the successful Polish-British Belvedere Forum, which brought together the media, think tanks and non-governmental organisations of the two countries, the presence of the young royal couple indicates that relations between our countries are now better than they were a year ago, immediately after the UK’s referendum. Elizabeth II is closely following the domestic political scene: new developments and trends, and every Tuesday she meets with the prime minister – now, touch wood, her 13th, Theresa May; and even though she only reigns, not rules, she has a “constitutional to right to be consulted, to advise, and to warn,” which she has discreetly made use of. Because she has a reputation of a wise and experienced person, she can exert a greater impact on the UK public than is generally believed. And, clearly, new relations with Poland have not escaped her sharp eye.
In contrast to the condition of the British government and its political elites, which have not yet learnt from their defeat last year, the monarchy is doing fine and 2012 was a particularly successful year. First, the diamond jubilee events of Elizabeth II’s reign, deftly organised by Buckingham Palace’s able PR and marketing specialists. A year and a half of events, their gigantic scale and diversity, engaging all classes, age groups and professions, made the Diamond Jubilee a brilliant recipe for both social integration and for boosting the monarchy’s popularity. Admittedly, as the Guardian suggested, it will be “only needed until the UK becomes a republic,” but ratings shot up. And when the Guardian commissioned an opinion poll in June 2012, it turned out that nearly 70% of respondents admitted that “without the monarchy, Great Britain would be a worse place to live” while only 22% claimed the opposite to be true. And the number of republic supporters dropped from 19 to 13%. Second, the very beneficial impact of the 2012 Olympic Games on the UK economy. Unlike the Rio de Janeiro Games, they did not drain, but augmented the budget. And the Queen — just see the clip featuring James Bond — contributed to it. Add to that the sheer “Katemania,” with the duchess of Cambridge promoted by the conservative media as an icon of style, just as the leftist media used to do with Diana, the best weapon in republican hands. The exemplary lifestyle of the young couple — Harry is regarded as a “naughty boy whom the British love to hate” — the news of Kate’s pregnancies, and the growing public appreciation of Elizabeth’s hard work, wisdom and experience made things all the better. Even Andrew Marr, the author of the Diamond Queen, and his leftist BBC colleagues, David and Jonathan Dimbleby, or the cheeky John Humphreys of BBC Radio 4, spare no words to show their esteem. Of course, republicans keep on saying how expensive the British monarchy is and how it costs the taxpayer ₤ 40 m a year but, according to calculations of the leftist Independent, Norway’s monarchy is the most expensive for the taxpayer, while Britain’s, with its ₤ 0.6, ranks in the middle and “represents the cost of less than a cup of coffee at Costa Coffee."
Who is the queen and, just to remind you, what functions does the monarchy perform? It ensures the British public three fundamental values: stability, integration, and continuity. Just by looking at the political chaos, the uncertainty of the future at many state institutions, and the divisions within British society, you will see how much these three values are needed today. The royal couple’s visit to Poland in July is a sign of cooperation between the Foreign Office and Buckingham Palace – here the monarchy is seen as giving a helping hand to the political establishment, lost in chaos. Elizabeth is the head of state, a parliamentary monarchy, and the supreme military commander and head of the Anglican Church, with the title “Defender of Faith,” which Prince Charles wants to change to “Defender of Faiths.” She appoints, “after being consulted,” or in other words effectively approves, prime ministers, ministers, Supreme Court judges, bishops, diplomats and governors — being the head of the 16 Commonwealth states. Her duties include endorsing a new government formed by a winning party after general elections, and accepting a cabinet’s resignation. Let me also recall Elizabeth II’s diplomatic role. It is her official banquets in Buckingham Palace and overseas visits that have paved the way for British politicians, diplomats, and business people. The queen accepts lists of candidates for Orders of the British Empire, which entitle their holders to use the title of “sir” and “dame” — many of its recipients include media, show business, and sport celebrities, a fact which is not without consequence for their attitude towards the monarchy. She is also the patron of 620 charities, which each year collect millions of pounds. Plus around 300 charity projects supported by Princess Anne, and a few foundations as part of the Prince's Trust. Were Great Britain to become a republic, more than a thousand charity organisations would be left penniless! Finally, and on a lighter note, Elizabeth II is the best “export commodity,” for she alone attracts to the UK over 30 m tourists each year, who boost the government coffers.
Not to lose reputation
The monarchy didn’t always have such good press. It has been hit by two serious crises in the past 25 years. The first came in 1992, when Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton was published and became a worldwide bestseller. The book was a propagandist, accusatory version of thorny relations between the Princess of Wales and the royal family. It portrayed the British monarchy as out of date, staggeringly expensive and distancing itself from the ordinary people. Elizabeth II showed sagacity when just one year later she started to pay income tax, even though she had had been exempt from this tax under a 1932 agreement with the government. She then reduced the Civil List, or members of the royal family financed from the public purse, from 13 to three: the queen, Prince Phillip and the late Queen Mother. Her body language changed too: she could be more often seen smiling and, as the Guardian quipped, she switched from talking to her handbag to talking to people."
The other breakthrough moment came with Diana’s death in 1997, when the crowds surrounding Kensington Palace, manipulated by the leftist and liberal media, went hysterical and accused Elizabeth II and her husband Philip of murdering Lady Di — with the then owner of Harrods and father of Diana’s last partner, Dodi Mohammed Al-Fayed, partly to blame for this. When you look at this affair from a 2017 perspective: marriage between the Princess of Wales and a Muslim, the son of an arms dealer — it can give you the creeps. Paradoxically, Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labour Party turned out to be a big ally of the queen, with his perfect grasp of the dangerous liaisons between power and the media, he would offer valuable advice to Elizabeth II during their Tuesday meetings.
Royal branded goods
These days the British monarchy is doing well — thanks to the queen’s hard work, flexibility and the understanding of “milestone wisdom,” as well as the PR talent employed by Buckingham Palace. The situation could change, however, when after Elizabeth II’s death — long live the Queen! — the throne goes to the rather unpopular Prince Charles, who tries to explain his failures — see the most recent biography, Charles: The Heart of a King by Catherine Mayer — with a deficit of motherly love in his childhood or the later follies of his wife Diana suffering from bulimia. Charles is the patron of the huge Prince’s Trust, which each year provides education and employment opportunities to 150 thousand young people from disadvantaged communities. Equally commendable is his passion for the production of organic food, with quality produce bearing the prince’s logo at the posh Waitrose supermarket. He cannot be blamed for his predilection for Islamic art and Sufi poetry, either. But the very close contacts with the Saudis and lobbying for huge sums of money to be accepted from them to build a mosque in Oxford with a minaret towering above the roofs of the ancient universities won’t exactly win him fans, any more than his New Age inclinations or the company of people like Laurens van der Post, a confabulating philosopher, or representatives of Friends of the Earth. The crown prince’s authority is not helped by his book Harmony, which dangerously drifts towards holism and “virtuous circles.”
It must be said at this point that skipping one generation in the succession to the throne in favour of Prince William is out of the question. Charles could be passed over for succession only in two cases: if he died or abdicated himself. Nevertheless, Lord Norton, professor at University Hall and an expert on constitutional law, argues that “abdication is alien to our system of monarchy, i.e. to our law.”
Conservatism with style
The British monarchy of the Brexit period is thus thriving, and even giving a helping hand to the shaky state. I have long wondered where this contrast comes from. After the last elections, the answer seems obvious: the generation of today’s Tories has no vision, with a programme tainted with copied Labour slogans and political correctness. It was not without a reason that Daily Telegraph wrote after the elections: “Theresa May has the most leftist agenda in a half century." Since David Cameron’s memorable manifesto of 2010 and the transfer of some points from the Labour Party’s programme many things have changed. Gone is the clear conservative message, the distinct political project, the awareness of obligations to society; the principles have been watered down. And although she has carried out many reforms, Elizabeth II may well have stopped at the right moment.
Elżbieta Królikowska-Avis is a columnist, writer, and translator of English literature. She was a Polish correspondent in the UK. For a few years she wrote for the BBC and The Polish Daily, which comes out in London.