The Queen is a meddler. She’s better at it than her eldest son but that just means she’s smarter than the Prince of Wales (not hard) or has better advisers. Crucially, she knows she doesn’t have to say anything incriminating because most of the press can be relied on to “interpret” her remarks in the right way, while repeating the lofty fiction that the monarch is politically neutral.
Nothing could be further from the truth, which is why The Sun’s story about the Queen supposedly expressing strong Eurosceptic views over a lunch in 2011 sounds plausible. The Palace has complained to the press regulator IPSO on what appears to be a rather technical ground, claiming that the “Queen backs Brexit” headline was inaccurate because the term hadn’t been coined at the time.
But the more interesting question is why someone broke ranks and passed on the Queen’s allegedly critical remarks about the EU at this point in the referendum campaign.
The Queen has survived as long as she has, with her reputation mostly intact, because of the omerta that surrounds her conversations. It’s unusual for her political views to be repeated in public, which may be why she offers them without apparent reluctance or hesitation. When I heard her say at a Buckingham Palace party that she didn’t want Turkey to join the EU for a long time, she didn’t seem remotely anxious about offering a political and indeed unconstitutional opinion in front of numerous witnesses. If it really was the first time she had been so forthright at a social event, it’s a remarkable coincidence that she did it in front of a committed republican.
By contrast, the Queen’s public interventions are so subtle that they might best be described as gnomic. Thus she never actually said, at a key moment in the Scottish independence referendum, that she wanted the Scots to stay in the UK. She didn’t have to: she simply made some anodyne remarks to “well-wishers” outside Crathie Kirk, the parish church where members of the Royal Family worship when they stay at Balmoral, four days before the ballot. Her entire utterance amounted to 11 words – “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future” – and avoided any mention of the referendum. The Daily Mail swung into action, as it was supposed to do, reporting her remark as a “stark warning” about independence.
Was the Queen planning a similarly sphinx-like intervention close to the EU vote in June? Thanks to The Guardian, we now know that her intervention in the Scottish referendum was orchestrated to the last detail after No 10 went into meltdown at the prospect of a “yes” vote. The wording was decided during negotiations between the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, it was designed to make her support for the union clear without actually saying so.
I can’t help wondering whether last week’s leak to The Sun, if that is what it was, amounted to a pre-emptive strike, designed to prevent the Queen taking sides (in a non-partisan way, of course) in the crucial week leading up to the EU referendum. At the same time, I also can’t help thinking that this way of doing things – political interference with zero accountability – is profoundly inimical to democracy. It offers the monarch boundless influence without ever having to justify herself or engage in anything as low-rent as a debate, which carries the risk of upsetting people. She never has to commit herself to anything in public, a privilege denied even to candidates for parish councils.
That she is allowed to get away with it is in some degree a habit, stretching back to a time when most of the country showed automatic deference to authority figures. But it’s also a reflection, I think, of a corrosive cynicism towards elected politicians, who are at least open about their allegiance and even, on occasion, willing to risk offending voters. The result is a credulity that leads people to put their faith in individuals who belong to the much-derided Establishment, even when their opinions are no more deserving of respect than those of someone sitting next to you on the bus.
Barely had the furore over The Sun’s “Brexit” headline begun to subside when another self-appointed opinion-maker entered the fray. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who shares with the Queen the privilege of holding a constitutional position without having had to do anything as vulgar as stand for office, explained in an interview with The House magazine that there is no “correct Christian view” on the EU referendum.
Even if you believe the UK is an imperfect democracy, the answer doesn’t lie in giving oracular status to the Royal Family and religious leaders. We need more accountability, not less, and the number one target should be the Queen’s clandestine political influence.
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