This afternoon, in both Houses of Parliament, when elected representatives reconvene, politics will meet monarchy for the first time since Prince Philip’s death last Friday. This mixture is the strange British hybrid of constitutional monarchy and it is notable, among all the heartfelt eulogies for the duke’s passing, how so little commentary actually makes a good case for the monarchy.
Monarchy is not just a branch of celebrity. Every individual celebrity in the modern cult is more disposable than monarchy will ever be. The royal family is not The Circle. The abiding charm of monarchy relies on its mixture of modern celebrity with the ancient rites of hereditary succession. It is impossible, with the death of the longest serving royal consort in British history, not to imagine that we will soon see the hereditary principle in operation, a transition that nobody under the age of 70 has ever witnessed before.
Of course, the senior members of the royal family are, by any measure, extraordinarily famous and there is a risk in this. The idea of a family on the throne does make the monarchy vulnerable to the shortcomings of its members. The reason that Walter Bagehot suggested, in The English Constitution, that a family on the throne was “an interesting idea” was that it alarmed him. The chain of command is only as strong as its weakest link.
Not that there is nothing new about the follies of the current crop. The sons of George III, with the Prince Regent especially flamboyant, drank and gambled their way round town, running up handsome debts. As Prince of Wales, Edward VII was always found at the gaming table when he wasn’t in bed with some lady dowager or other. And that’s without even mentioning Edward VIII who threw it all away for an American adventure with Wallis Simpson.
There have been happy families on the throne. Think of George III and Charlotte and their jolly brood, the devoted George V and Mary or even George VI and Elizabeth with the two young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. No matter how strong the partnership between the Queen and her husband, it is not plausible, with multiple divorces behind them, Andrew declining to be questioned in the Jeffrey Epstein case and Harry in Californian exile, to say that the royal family is an especially happy gathering.
The ideas of domesticity and fidelity, the exemplary family which shows the best of the nation, is a dangerous model for monarchy. It worked with George V, who was known as “Grandpapa England”, and it has worked with Queen Elizabeth, whose clever strategy has been to say nothing. As her loyal consort, notwithstanding the occasional overheard candid remark, the Duke of Edinburgh has followed the same course. With thousands of public engagements behind him it was notable from all the tributes how little we really knew about him. This has been a deliberate ploy and a wise one.
Quiet domesticity was the way Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth dramatized a constitutional position that was unknown to, say, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Though the Queen was drawn into the appointments of Harold Macmillan in 1957 and Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, she was nothing like as involved as her father was with Winston Churchill in 1940 or his father before him in 1916 with David Lloyd George. The monarchy has effectively withdrawn from politics, which is a point that the Prince of Wales might need to learn before he takes the throne.
The Houses of Parliament will be united today, as they rarely are and should not be. They are the active part of the constitution, in which disagreement has to be negotiated. The monarchy plays its part by being passive. The absence of monarchy from politics is the key to its longevity. Instead of searching for all the many things the royal family does, we should praise the fact they do next to nothing.
Monarchy ought not to be defended with the silly argument that it is good for tourism. You cannot defend a British institution on the grounds that coachloads of visitors like it. The much stronger argument is that the human desire for glamour and unifying mythologies is innate and cannot be turned off. Better to cater for that desire with an institution that cares nothing for partisan politics because it is, in essence, empty. The alternative to hereditary silence might be very raucous and we have seen from elsewhere what that might look like.