Long to reign over us? PROFILE: The Queen

What does the future hold for the troubled monarch, who is 70 tomorrow, asks Frank Prochaska

Share
Related Topics
"The heart of kings is unsearchable," says Proverbs. Even in our intrusive, media-driven age, the phrase has application to Queen Elizabeth II. Her many biographers have treated her as though she were a public monument and not a living being at all. Clearly, she is dutiful and likes dogs, horses, the Commonwealth and her grandchildren, but this is hardly the stuff of a full-blooded biography. One of the few things that can be said about the Queen with certainty is that she has extraordinary self-control. Is there anyone else in the world so widely seen, yet so little known? Like Bagehot's royal magician, she has contrived to efface herself in her office, leaving friends and enemies alike to wonder and to fantasise.

A monarch's personality cannot be unaffected by its institutionalisation. The Queen's has taken on the baggage of her office. Indeed, one of the things that sets the Queen apart from her subjects is the weight of the past. Unlike most children she had a built-in reverence for age and history, which absorbed her individuality in the interest of the monarchy's greater good, in the certainty that she would have to abide by ancestral vocations and a fixed inheritance.

Her parents were, naturally enough, a formative influence. They passed on an exceptional sense of public service and a set of values that were inter-war, if not Victorian, in flavour. Her first public address, in May 1944, was to promote the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney, east London, a charitable institution named after her mother, where she pledged her support for voluntary traditions at a time when state intervention in welfare was growing by leaps and bounds.

Like her father and grandfather before her, Queen Elizabeth II has sought to provide both a unifying symbol of the nation and a benevolent image that would offer a focus for civil society. Middle England found the monarchy a theatre of loyalty, which gave the nation's disparate elements a sense of belonging, unity and purpose. The reverence for monarchy encouraged people to feel that they were part of an unfolding historical narrative, and not simply dedicating their lives to mammon.

In recent years, such sentiments have begun to dissolve. Tabloid invention and the self-destructive tendencies of members of the Royal Family have led to a resurgence of republicanism. Yet there may be a greater, long- term threat to the monarchy - the acceleration of cultural change.

New technologies, demands for institutional efficiency, European union, ethnic diversity, and the globalisation of culture threaten to undermine the historical narrative so long identified with British royalty. Interest in traditional forms of British history, so often taught around kings and queens, shows signs of collapsing into heritage.However much attention she may give to modern life (and she is always opening institutions and inspecting innovative technology), she is bound to carry a weight of the past with her and feel to many that she remains in the 1950s.

As so much of the monarchy's mystery has been dissipated by the decline of deference, royal misdemeanours, and the malice of the media, it seems likely that the monarchy will be judged in future on more practical grounds: the benefits it brings society. As the Queen knows, the Crown's bedrock of support has shifted over this century from political circles to the armed services and especially the charitable sector. Such a shift was at least partly a policy designed by palace advisers and implemented with flair by Prince Albert, Edward VII and George V. The Queen has added her own touches to the tradition, for instance the sizeable contribution to the fund set up to commemorate the murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence.

The most important development has been its growing identification with worthy causes and voluntary institutions. As the Crown's political power declined, members of the Royal Family forged a new and popular role as patrons, promoters, and fund-raisers for the deserving and underprivileged. This humdrum charitable activity has become more important than the "dignified" duties of the monarchy. Through philanthropic work at home and abroad, the Queen has been able to swim with the tide of post-war and post-imperial social currents - egalitarianism and internationalism - and helped to disengage the Crown from the old ruling class in the minds of the public.

Today, the dutiful members of the Royal Family spend more time on good works than on anything else - there were about 2,000 royal charitable engagements in 1994. The Crown's patronage list extends to more than 3,000 organisations (the Queen alone has 800). Voluntary work is the "efficient" part of monarchy. As the historian David Cannadine remarked, "charitable activity has become the place where the royal culture of hierarchical condescension, and the popular culture of social aspiration, have successfully merged."

The Queen gave away pounds 208,385 from her private income in 1994 to voluntary causes. An educated estimate would be that the extended Royal Family's patronage is worth at least pounds 100m a year to the voluntary sector, probably much more. Such sums have a wider significance when put in the context of the cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer (pounds 78m on 1990-91 figures). If a republic were to be declared, would or could a president carry out 2,000 charitable engagements a year to such effect?

The Queen's credentials as a social democrat should not be underestimated. One of the strongest arguments in favour of retaining a monarchy is that by propping up so many voluntary societies it acts as a defender of civic life and liberty, a bulwark against the arbitrary tendencies of government. The likely failure of any government to conquer social ills, combined with the sense of individual powerlessness that will arise from European union and the growth of a vacuous global culture, should provide fresh opportunities for the monarchy to ally itself with popular causes beyond conventional politics.

The best hope for the future of the Crown will probably lie in the development of its social policy - the active promotion of civic welfare, social pluralism, and the associational democracy so dear to the Victorian royal family. The question for the Queen is whether she can persuade her heirs to serve likewise.

The writer's `Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy' is published by Yale University Press.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn