The Queen might be admired, but the crown has seldom seemed so empty

Catherine Bennett
Photograph: Ray Tang/REX/Shutterstock

We have Helena Bonham Carter to thank for the revelation that the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, dead these many years, is now available – as she never was in life – for civil consultations with subjects. In that respect, at least, heaven seems to have done her a power of good.

Bonham Carter was eager for tips, via a psychic, on how to portray Margaret in the forthcoming tranche of The Crown, during which Margaret, spoiler if you weren’t alive then, gets off with Roddy Llewellyn, divorces and smokes a lot.

The princess had approved her casting, Bonham Carter revealed, and urged her to “get the smoking right”. As essential as this is in a series that prides itself on detail, you can’t help wishing – because who knows when another psychic will announce: “I’m getting a Margaret, she’s with me now” – that the conversation had taken a more discursive turn.

Lack of clarity over what the Queen could, or should, do in the current chaos is what makes her role so exploitable

Forget Margaret’s acting notes; what, given that she seems to speak more freely than any living member of her family, could this restless spirit tell us about the successive humiliations to befall her sister over the past year? Any thoughts on the wisdom of the Queen honouring the extended Trump family? And while we’re on sex offenders, what does the Queen think about Prince Andrew’s friendship with Jeffrey Epstein? How about being gossiped about by David Cameron? Or lied to by his successor?

And maybe, more than any of the above, does she think the swift descent of her kingdom into a divided, declining and vandal-led international laughing stock might tell us something about the true value of a constitutional monarchy? Even, simply, as an investment?

Lack of clarity over what, constitutionally, the Queen could, or should, do in the current chaos is what makes her role so deliciously exploitable by the current thugocracy, recently reported to be grubbing up some obscure 1950 get-out called the Lascelles Principles that might facilitate another attempt to turn traditional royal reticence to crude political advantage. Her only retaliation, some think, would be withholding an honour that entitles beneficiaries to parade in fancy dress with Prince Andrew.

More broadly, the Queen’s function is detailed on the palace’s website under “the role of the Monarchy”. Next to a picture of the Queen looking super-busy with a red box we learn that, along with constitutional and diplomatic duties, she “has a less formal role as ‘Head of Nation’. The Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.”

If it’s hardly the Queen’s fault that the Tories have cultivated utterly irreconcilable expressions of national identity, and thereby the spread of partisanship, rage and lies, this development inevitably leaves her numinous healingy powers looking a bit thin. That’s assuming they have not, for years, been overstated. “A royalty mints the sovereign soul,” Ted Hughes wrote, for the Queen Mother’s 90th, “Of wise man and of clown.” True, that was before Boris Johnson.

Recognition of “success and excellence”? Again, not entirely her fault but: Sir Geoffrey Boycott, Sir Philip Green, Sir Craig Oliver, Prince Andrew, “Royal Fellow of the Royal Society”?

This pretty much leaves royal apologists clinging, from the official list of functions, to royal support for “the ideal of voluntary service”. An offer that may impress any altruists who cherish the good opinion of, say, Princess Eugenie.

Peter Morgan’s acclaimed 2013 play, The Audience, tended to confirm the claims of ex-premiers that the Queen’s covert influence, sharing wisdom and experience at weekly briefings, is another pearl beyond price. But if Cameron’s record were not enough – assuming her insights are still Morgan-dialogue quality – to indicate worrying limits to contemporary wisdom-uptake, the antics of her current PM suggest that the Queen might as well, to borrow from Rebekah Vardy, advise a pigeon.

Brexit is surely a gift for republicans: the demonstrable irrelevance, to the national mood, of the royal family

In hindsight, the Queen’s (her description) “annus horribilis” in 1992, when all she had to worry about was a few divorces and a fire at Windsor Castle, looks relatively beatific. There was no suggestion, then, that she might be manipulable to the point of being constitutionally irrelevant. Those Tories weren’t conniving in the fracture of her kingdom. In fact, it was a doting minister, Peter Brooke, who had caused resentment by promising up to £40m for castle restoration. After Diana’s death (the Queen was to be depicted by Morgan mournfully communing with a fleeing stag), it was, on the other hand, Labour politicians who helped soothe indignant subjects: Alastair Campbell wrote, of a family he’d once despised:“It is bizarre in a way, finding myself in the position of not only defending, but also thinking ideas to build them up.” Watching the funeral, “I felt some sense of authorship”.

Since then, the job of saving the Queen seems to have reverted, not entirely successfully, to God. To the point that some updating may be required to quite recent biographies and to the 2015 tributes when she became Britain’s longest-serving monarch. “Our system works perfectly,” announced Simon Heffer, whose fellow Telegraph contributor is currently committed, guided by No 10’s pound-shop Mephistopheles, to proving the opposite.

Such tributes might now look less risible if the crown had, regardless of Westminster-engineered embarrassments, somehow supplied the symbolic, mystical sort of identity claimed by the palace. But yet another, unintended, consequence of Brexit is surely a gift for republicans: the demonstrable irrelevance to the national mood of the royal family, even when headed by a venerated sage.

What, recently, has this costly dynasty brought to the catastrophe? Two weddings, various christenings and the hand of friendship for sexual perverts? If it never did much for wisdom and stability, as The Crown fans will discover, the spectacle of Princess Margaret and Roddy was rarely less than hilarious.

* Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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