PLATINUM JUBILEE SPECIAL

Queen Elizabeth II: What does it mean to be both a human and a national symbol?

As Her Majesty marks 70 years on the throne, Emma Mackenzie explores how the royal family navigates the public tightrope between symbolism and human emotion

Some believe the monarch to be one of Britain’s most crucial symbols: author Tina Brown has said that “people won’t know how to be British” once the Queen has popped her clogs and left this mortal plane. Others believe the role the royal family plays is far less pivotal. Glen Newey’s now infamous essay About as Useful as a String Condom remains one of the greatest expositions of this argument in cultural criticism today, nearly 20 years on from when it was penned in the aftermath of the Golden Jubilee.

That we will all flounder and forget how to exist as a country as Brown suggests seems unlikely, and Newey’s scathing deconstruction of the monarchy’s inherently anti-democratic nature, while apt in many ways, misses out the kind of “magic” surrounding the royal family that really does draw some people in. The fact remains that this family — in all their dysfunctional glory — has been designated as the national one.

In this constitutional monarchy, we are constantly reminded of the symbolic nature of the House of Windsor. Their power and the role they play in the political theatre of parliament is only symbolic, we are assured, so it is supposedly no threat to democracy, but what does it mean to be a living, breathing symbol? Negotiating the balance between their own humanity and their public role is a fine art. If it is not managed well, the firm faces only crisis and irrelevancy.

If one of our symbols becomes entirely too human, cracks appear in the national mask

If one of our symbols becomes entirely too human, cracks appear in the national mask. They cannot be part of nation-building mythology and simultaneously have personal problems, strong opinions, or character flaws. Take Prince Andrew’s recent attendance of the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service: on a human level, there may have been those that would have sympathised if he had not been allowed to go to a service in honour of his recently deceased father. But the royal family are not mere humans, and his attendance — in pride of place by the Queen no less — was not agreeable to the public, who wondered if it was a signal he was being welcomed back into the fold. This is the crux of the matter: part-human and whole symbol, every action will always be dissected for greater meaning.

When Meghan and Harry decided in 2020 that they wanted to step away from life in the royal family, they immediately saw the consequences of the prioritisation of the self over the symbolic. That they had decided their own mental health and wellbeing as a family was more important than their royal duties was to many unforgivable: their popularity plummeted. There is a strange sense that, as symbols, they belong to the public rather than themselves. Working royals are, in a way, bought and paid for, so any perceived dereliction of duty in the name of self interest makes the mysticism and tradition of royalty seem suddenly absurd. Only human after all, nothing special to see here, their privilege and wealth is then only an offence to the British people.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry stepped down as senior royals in 2020

Diana, once called the People’s Princess, was beloved by many precisely because she seemed more explicitly human than the rest. However, being too exposed also handed over the keys to her own destruction. The fault lines of vulnerability were there, ready to be exploited. A human cannot survive within the mechanisms of this public role by presenting their private face anymore than the institution of the monarchy can.

It was after the death of Diana that accusations of the royal family being too unfeeling and remote brought about another crisis. The public required of them some kind of emotional response. Famously, this led to an about turn from the Windsors and the Queen made public remarks on the effect the tragedy had on her family. The country wanted to mourn together, and the young William and Harry were set to work comforting members of the public — something they have since admitted to finding strange and personally damaging.

When members of the royal family are too remote or lacking signs of humanity their purpose simply vanishes. They are supposed to represent Britain and we don’t want them made entirely of stone. After all, it would be far cheaper to just build a statue than fund the royal circus.

The royal family are supposed to represent Britain and we don’t want them made entirely of stone

The Queen seems to be old hat at this balancing act. She has said “I must be seen to be believed.” Continuous acts of faith are certainly required to keep the royal magic show on the road. As a symbol, she has to make herself one worth believing in. In 1980, she said “service demands sacrifice,” which do seem to be words she has lived by. Every time she has denied herself or sacrificed for her symbolic duties, she has found herself more popular. It creates a sense in the public that she is willing to humble herself before them; that her duty to them is more important than her personal happiness. Conversely, the less humanity she allows herself, the more the public imagination bestows upon her.

This sense in the public imagination that the Queen has, above all others in her family, a propensity towards self sacrifice has only been fed by the fictional representations created of her. Omid Djalili said recently after taking part in a musical and theatrical event in honour of the platinum jubilee, “There’s no denying, you know, especially having seen The Crown, you can’t not feel affection for a woman who came on the throne and then said, ‘I promise however long I live, be it long or short, that I will serve my people and serve my country’ and the fact that she has done that, even when people have behaved badly all around her, she has been very steadfast and very true to her word.” Djalili’s comments serve as a reminder that the Queen’s public face is as much a fiction as Claire Foy and Olivia Colman’s interpretations of her. Like a perfect pop song, she has combined specificity with blankness, and almost every listener can hear a reflection of their own life as it plays.

The trick, as the Queen has found, is to seem just human enough

The trick then, is to seem just human enough. The Queen knows it must be secondary to the symbolic, but it still has to be tangible. She loves corgis and beams at horse shows. She tells jokes about her advanced age and makes world leaders laugh when posing for photographs. The new documentary, Elizabeth: the Unseen Queen is made up of home videos that make great use of the universal aspects of nostalgia and sentimentality. It offers glimpses into her humanity, but nothing more than that. The Cambridges do something similar with the family photographs they release on their children’s birthdays: an illusion of intimacy and normal domesticity is created. They managed to curate so far a wholesome display of “personality” without ever really letting their guards down. Given the public tightrope they are walking, who can blame them.

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