Royalty rots the brain

Three generations of royal mothers have spoken powerfully to unconscious fantasies of maternal longing

Joan Smith@polblonde
Tuesday 31 December 2013 03:01
comments

I remember more of the words to the Sex Pistols' version of "God Save the Queen" than the real thing, so I'm pleased to hear it has been released again. Sadly, though, the once-subversive punk anthem is likely to be treated with as much indulgence as anything else to do with the Royal Family in the run-up to next month's Golden Jubilee. The country is supposedly awash with warm feelings for the monarchy, which means that people who had begun to feel a bit embarrassed about expressing royalist sentiments have discovered a new licence to churn out the same old twaddle about service, duty and tradition. The republican case is based on envy, we have been told since the funeral of the Queen Mother, an event that has been interpreted as demonstrating the astonishing degree of support the monarchy still commands.

If this is the case, and I am not convinced, the things that have been written in recent weeks have only served to strengthen my opposition to royalty as an institution: clearly, it rots the brain. The Queen and her immediate relatives are endowed by royal correspondents and members of the public alike with qualities they don't have; the Windsors may be perfectly nice people, but to a rational observer it is clear that they are conservative, not particularly cultured, not particularly hard-working – compared to anyone with a proper job – and have the usual patrician expectations of the very rich.

This is not to criticise them personally, but to point out the disjunction between what the Royal Family does and its image. The Queen is bright enough to realise this, and to behave in public in a way that allows some of the old monarchical mystique to survive. So was her mother, who knew the value of saying very little and allowing herself to function as a screen for strangers' fantasies. In that sense, the royals have something in common with film stars and pop singers, although the fantasies they inspire are more distant. The exception is Princess Diana, who invited a degree of personal identification, especially from other women, rare for the Royal Family.

The Diana phenomenon is usually discussed as a destabilising force for the Windsors, but to see it only in these terms is a mistake. Ardent supporters of the monarchy rationalise its appeal, but in doing so they ignore the far more important role it plays in the unconscious. They overlook the extraordinary piece of luck which has placed women on the throne in their own right for more than half of the last two centuries, while two other royal women have exerted an equally powerful grip on the public imagination. "She was always a good mother", people said after Diana's death, while some even claimed that the mourning had brought about reconciliation with their own mothers. They used almost identical words about the Queen Mother, who cleverly invited the comment with the title she invented for herself after the death of her husband, George VI.

This has very little to do with whether the women in question were good mothers in real life; the Royal Family follows the custom, which I consider very nearly a form of child abuse, of sending their sons away to be educated. But this is not what people remember about Diana. Motherhood has been undergoing a revolution in recent years, with the latest figures showing that women are having fewer children than ever, and three generations of royal mothers have spoken powerfully to unconscious fantasies of maternal longing.

That is one of the reasons why so many people went to see the nation's favourite granny lying in state, just as they turned out in their thousands for Diana. I am not an enthusiast for historical theories about matriarchy, when we are supposed to have been ruled by earth mothers who have mysteriously left no trace, but the prevalence of female deities in pagan pantheons suggests a human tendency towards mother-worship. Monotheistic religions ignore this instinct, except for Catholicism which has been canny enough to make a cult of the Virgin Mary. In this country the Royal Family has managed to fill the gap in the market, but these are primitive, irrational yearnings. A modern democracy should not need a Queen to play the role of mother of the nation.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments