The Diamond Year: A second golden Elizabethan Age?

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Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/61718807@N07/7555521830/

St Andrews has recently forged an intimate connection with the institution of monarchy. We are the university where ‘Kate met Wills’ (as the North Point seeks to remind us). Royalty has put this ancient university town on the global map. Every modern royal documentary now includes scenes of Wills and Kate in St Andrews.

Yet, William will, one day, ascend to the throne as King William III of the UK, head of state in 16 Commonwealth realms, Head of the Anglican Church, the Armed Forces and the Commonwealth of Nations. In the coming years, William will be expected to play a greater role in the royal machine.

The Queen’s father, George VI (the stammering guy in the ‘King’s Speech’) gloomily called it ‘the firm’. It is a profession which never ceases – marked by the anachronistic values of dynastic privilege and hereditary destiny. A job engulfed with obligation, formality and majesty.

In that context, monarchy is a difficult constitutional settlement to advocate; indeed, no modern democracy would conceive of re-institutionalising a monarch. Yet, somehow this institution has thrived in Elizabethan Britain and looks likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Historians remind us that monarchies are only toppled by revolution or warfare.

Quite honestly, I cannot see any of these on Britain’s horizon. Whilst flagging European monarchs were swept away in the 20th century, Britain remained curiously isolated from such pandemonium. The summer of 2012 marks a celebration of monarchy – an occasion for a collective spirit of rejoicing in the nation’s consciousness.

For the monarch does not just represent a single individual. It is the duty of the monarch to reflect and embody the nation. My succinct overview will highlight Elizabeth II’s background and reign and will explain how she can be assured of a noble place in the catalogue of Britain’s regal figureheads.

Elizabeth II (born in 1926) was forced to confront her destiny in 1936. Her uncle, Edward VIII, decided to abdicate in order to marry the notorious Mrs Simpson. Elizabeth’s life changed immeasurably. Elizabeth was to ascend to a throne which lay at the apex of a regimented establishment, stratified by the groupings of class, a ceremonial, regal figure at the zenith of the largest empire in the world (covering approximately one quarter of the globe). A daunting prospect, indeed. Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s reign has witnessed the loss of Britain’s imperial greatness; its influence on world affairs has diminished.

On the other hand, since 1952 (the year of the Queen’s accession), Britain has witnessed unparalleled prosperity, greater equality, the advent of a mass consumerist society, the breakdown of deference, the liberation of minority and discriminated social groups and increasing multiculturalism. Indeed, the face and fabric of Britain today is incalculably different to what it was in 1952.

However, Elizabeth II cannot be compared to her more politically interventionist ancestors. Although she may reign as Queen, she does not rule. She is not responsible for any political occurrences in Britain. Sovereign political power lies in Parliament. By contrast, her power is more ceremonial. Elizabeth II has appointed 12 prime ministers, the first of which was Winston Churchill.

He offered her a grand education in the duties of monarchy. Her life has consisted of state visits, provincial visits, banquets, charity galas and a multitude of other ceremonial occasions. She is essentially a regal actor on the public’s theatrical stage. Britain’s collective consciousness thrives on pomp and ceremony. She performs with unswerving majesty and grace and the people love her for it.

Looking to the beginning of her public life, her 21st birthday speech defined her life goals. She proclaimed, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family, to which we all belong.” She has unfailingly fulfilled her promise. A titanic sixty years on the throne is no easy undertaking. “Duty first, self second” has been her overriding motto. Those were the principles upon which the Windsor dynasty was built and they have served the royal house well.

Nevertheless, the Windsor dynasty is characterised by its ability to change in order to meet public expectations. The first modernisation scheme began in 1917. The royal name was bad for propaganda during World War One. George V, the Queen’s grandfather, changed the royal dynasty’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the quintessentially anglicised ‘Windsor’. The Windsors were expected to serve with moral righteousness and respectability. The family monarchy was born.

They were presented as the archetypical British family and these associations served them well. George V also stated that royals could henceforth marry ordinary Britons, rather than being restricted to foreign royals. Royal marriages could now be popularly presented as ‘love affairs’ rather than affairs of state. It initiated a celebratory royal weddings tradition which has continued to this day. The Queen attempted to continue her grandfather’s legacy with the family monarchy.

Nonetheless, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the dawn of the age of celebrity. A more omnipresent media offered no remorse or reserve. It had no sympathy for royal sensibilities and hunted for hints of royal scandal.

The days when the establishment could prevent the media from publishing anything unfavourable to the monarchy were dead. Princess Diana cultivated this lack of media deference for the monarchy by allowing the institution to be attacked as ‘uncaring’, ‘remote’ and ‘outdated’. Diana was an international superstar and she used media sympathisers to attack the royals with venom. In 1992, the Queen proclaimed that her year had been an ‘Annus Horribilis’.

It witnessed the divorce of Princess Anne, the breakdown of the marriages of Princes Charles and Andrew and Windsor Castle itself was consumed by fire. The symbolic home of the Windsor dynasty crumbled amidst familial degeneration. The family monarchy was in irreversible retreat. Nevertheless, the absolute nadir of the Queen’s reign was in 1997.

That summer, Diana died in Paris. The world was engulfed by grief. Such outpourings had never before been seen in Britain. A nation renowned for its stiff-upper lip and its composure in the face of adversity had suddenly and capriciously broken down in a flood of tears. The Queen, as a national figurehead, was expected to embody the nation. Yet this seemed to be a nation that she did not understand.

However, the Windsors did what they did best; the Queen, in the spirit of her forebears, demonstrated her capacity to transform the monarchy to meet the expectations of her people. The monarchy made extra efforts to acclimatise itself to a modern age.

The Queen began to visit hospitals, see the sick, drop in on schools and conduct other charitable activities – for which Diana was famous. Such changes were popular; the monarch was able to ‘meet’ her subjects.

In visits to Britain’s provinces, the Queen no longer remained in the company of aristocrats and local dignitaries; she was now available to meet all classes of society.

To conclude, in 1953, the media presented Elizabeth’s coronation as ushering in a ‘New Elizabethan Age’. It witnessed a surge of joyous optimism unseen in Britain for a long time. The nation was abandoning the austerity of the war years and was entering an age of optimism. Sixty years on, national celebrations are on the horizon once more. Britain will witness a surge of national euphoria. The culmination of the jubilee celebrations will appear on the Thames in the form of a royal barrage surrounded by an endless flotilla of boats. Such celebrations will be enthusiastically participated in by all classes of people.

The Queen’s triumph is her ability to transcend class. Unlike her ancestors, she is not associated with the aristocracy. The multitudinous waves of people who marched to Buckingham Palace after the wedding of William and Kate exemplify the popularity of the Royal family. Its unpopularity in the aftermath of the Diana years has been surmounted.

However, unlike Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, people do not see this as a final period of rejoicing to celebrate a Monarch’s life; people are already looking towards the unprecedented Platinum jubilee.

William Wales, the St Andrews student, will have a tough act to follow.

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