British monarchy’s resilience
Queen Elizabeth II, the British monarch who was seen as an epitome of “soft power” died on September 8, 2022 at the ripe age of 96. She had clocked 70 years and 214 days on the throne, becoming the second longest ruling monarch in the world. She was second only to King Louis xiv of France aka the Sun King. He was on the throne for 72 years and 110 days but Queen Elizabeth had a more significant impact on British life and tradition because she became the Queen at 26 whereas King Louis xiv became the King when he was only four years old and he died at the age of 76.
Queen Elizabeth was what is generally known as a constitutional monarch. Such monarchies exist in The Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Thailand and Japan. That type of monarchy is different from the absolute monarchies that exist in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Brunei and Oman. In this type of monarchy, the monarchs operate with the unquestioning divine right of kings. In the case of constitutional monarchy the King or Queen merely reigns but does not rule.
In the days to come the accomplishments of the dead Queen will come under scrutiny and the relevance of the monarchy will be subjected to debate as it often is when a monarch departs and another arrives. The Queen, as a youngster, showed courage when at the beginning of the Second World War, Buckingham Palace was bombed. She opted to join the war but she was denied the opportunity because she was a minor. But in 1945 when she was 18 she was given permission to join the military effort and she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territory Service (ATS) where she trained for six weeks as an auto mechanic. About 335 members of the ATS were killed during that war but Elizabeth survived.
She is commended for providing stability in the post war period with the steady, calm, cool and collected manner in which she discharged her responsibility. This stability was extended to other parts of the Commonwealth and even though there were only eight member states of the Commonwealth when she became Queen, at her death the number had risen to 56 countries and territories.
Even though the Queen was a staunch defender of tradition, she also managed to marry tradition with modernity, accommodating the benefits of the industrial and technological revolutions of the modern era. Conservative as the monarchy is in 1969 the Queen allowed a documentary film crew to follow her and her family around for more than two months, giving them access to the royal family’s private life. They produced a two-hour documentary titled “The Royal Family” and because it was a rare happening more than 30 million people watched it. This must have opened the door to the tabloid invasion of the royal family’s privacy in subsequent years.
As part of her desire to make the royal family more responsive to public criticism in 1997, she decided, in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, to make her first live broadcast speech in 50 years. This seemed to be part of her modernising process of the monarchy and her readiness to embrace change. She sent out, as evidence of her with-it-ness, the first royal tweet in 2014 and also got her annual Christmas message recorded on film.
In the 1990s, three of her four children were divorced, forcing her to accept divorce as an existential reality that she could not wish away. And her grandson, Harry married a black American divorcee, Meghan Markle a few years ago. The Queen accepted the situation with equanimity.
During her reign the Queen showed considerable courage. The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland had bitter and bloody conflicts between them, because Britain had dominated Ireland for centuries. But Ireland was fractured into two states when the nationalist party Sinn Fein declared a new Irish Republic. Violence between both countries took many lives. In 2011 Queen Elizabeth took the courageous step of making a state visit to Ireland. She placed a wreath at the monument to those who died fighting the United Kingdom for Irish freedom and bowed her head respectfully. This singular action earned her enormous respect in Ireland and around the world and reset the relations between both countries.
In 1991, Queen Elizabeth became the first British monarch to address a joint session of the United States Congress. On that occasion she received three standing ovations as she switched on her charm offensive, praising the special relationship that exists between the two countries. That relationship grew from strength to strength during her reign.
The Queen’s most significant achievement is in the area of charity. She supported more than 600 charities in Britain and about 3000 worldwide in areas of poverty reduction and improvement in access to education. She won the hearts of many Britons when she approved that taxes be paid on royal income that had been exempt for years. She also asked that the royal yacht be sold to reduce the cost of maintaining the royal family. This financial pruning of the royal expenditure must have slightly blunted the edge of public criticism against the royal family.
She is also commended for her support for racial justice in Britain and around the Commonwealth. In 1961 when she danced with the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah many British racists were outraged but the Queen had eloquently made a point in support of racial equality. She also reportedly worked behind the scenes to get the Commonwealth to condemn South Africa’s apartheid system even though her Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, supported apartheid. The Queen was also said to support the Black Lives Matter Movement. When Thatcher opposed sanctions on apartheid South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo lashed her by saying that even though she was called Iron lady she had deteriorated into a Wooden lady.
Despite the manifest benefits of the British monarchy to its country, the monarchy still comes under criticism from time to time on several grounds. First is that the monarchy is a big burden on the British tax payers who have to fund the maintenance of the Royal palaces, trips, royal engagements and the general maintenance of the royal household.
It is estimated that it cost the taxpayers the sum of £87.5 million last year. Second, the selection of the British monarch is hereditary not democratic and this calls its legitimacy to question. This is seen as unfair, elitist and unaccountable since its selection is not done by democratic elections. It is an unearned privilege. Third, although this is rare, by royal prerogative the monarch can grant the Prime Minister powers to declare war or sign treaties without a vote in parliament. Fourth, it is said that the monarch only acts in the interest of the government of the day and does not represent ordinary voters. But the truth is that the government of the day represents at any given time the majority of the voters at the time.
The bare fact is that while the British monarchy may have its critics the bulk of the citizens appear to appreciate the stability and respect that the monarchy brings to Britain and the Commonwealth. That is why the Commonwealth has now grown to 56 nations and territories despite the advances in technology and globalisation. It means that there is something to cherish in the monarchy even in 21st century Britain.
With the ascendancy of Prince Charles to the throne as King Charles III the British monarchy is not likely to go away any time soon. King Charles III is beginning his reign at the time that a new Prime Minister, Ms Liz Truss is starting her rule. Truss is the third female to be sworn into that office. Before she took over from Mr Boris Johnson as Prime Minister she had held several cabinet posts which must have prepared her for the high office she now occupies.
Charles as Prince of Wales has been in a position to understand the ceremonial duties of an occupant of the monarchy. But both of them need acculturation to their new offices and also need time to master the four corners of their roles. Britain like many other countries is going through a series of economic crises, which have culminated in strikes by various groups recently.
The Prime Minister will certainly need the support and cooperation of King Charles III in the matter of managing the affairs of her high office. Britain is yet to overcome the trauma of its unexpected vote to leave the European Union. That is a decision that Britain has not been able to live down but with the support of an experienced and mature man as monarch Britain can paper over the cracks.