The odd spectacle of Britons—even liberal, Republican Britons—believing that the Queen can stop Brexit is more complicated than the wishful thinking it might at first appear to beby Padraid Reidy / August 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Of all the bizarre political phenomena conjured by Brexit, the recent spectacle of liberal and even left-wing people beseeching the stars for rescue by Regina ex Machina must be the most intriguing and baffling.
“Everyone write to the queen. Do it today. She’s in Balmoral,” urged writer and anti-Brexit campaigner Emma Kennedy in a now-deleted tweet as the news broke that Boris Johnson was to seek the monarch’s permission to prorogue parliament, followed swiftly by “DON’T DO IT YOUR GLORIOUS MAJ! DON’T DO IT.”
DON’T DO IT YOUR GLORIOUS MAJ!
DON’T DO IT.
— Emma Kennedy (@EmmaKennedy) August 28, 2019
Times journalist Matt Chorley tweeted a gif of a stern-faced Queen Elizabeth with the legend “ONE IS NOT AMUSED” emblazoned across it.
Labour MP Kate Osamor was horrified: “THE. QUEEN. DID. NOT. SAVE. US.” she posted, after the Queen was reported to have signed off on the suspension.
The. Queen. Did. Not. Save. Us.
— Kate Osamor || Labour & Co-op MP for Edmonton (@KateOsamor) August 28, 2019
The Guardian’s John Crace sympathetically imagined the queen longing for drug-induced oblivion, and hating “the current madhouse in parliament.” Jenny Eclair, meanwhile, was “really disappointed in the Queen.”
One expects a certain devotion to the monarchy and other institutions from Conservatives—the nomenclature unavoidably suggests an attachment to longevity, obdurance, and obedience.
But such are the times we live in. Brexiteers have been accused, most notably by Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, of basking in Empire nostalgia—but those on the remain side of the debate are not immune to seeking refuge in the nation’s institutions and old certainties.
To call oneself a true conservative, one must display a tinge of nihilism; to be liberal, meanwhile, is to cling to what’s left of the world you knew out of fear of the barbarism that lies beyond.
The Austrian novelist Joseph Roth was the master chronicler of this feeling. (Though born in what is now Ukraine, Roth held his Austrian citizen as close to his heart as so many British Remainers cling to their newly-acquired Irish passports.) The current travails of the European Union have been compared before to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Roth, more than anyone, has informed how we make that comparison, with his narration of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-national dreamscape brought low by an arrogant metropolitan elite and the rise of nationalism on the empire’s fringes.
Roth’s Mittel European meisterwerk The Radetzky March documents the decline of the empire through the decline of a family from their place at the right hand of Emperor Franz Josef to drunk, hopeless lingering on the empire’s fringes. Throughout, Roth and his characters cling to the character of the emperor himself: not just imperial in his bearing, but kingly in his wisdom and saintly in his judgement. The emperor is not a symbol. In a very Catholic way, he embodies the empire itself. The demise of the royals coincides with the demise of the empire, the end of certainty and the encroaching of barbarism. In the poignant ending to the first half of the novel, Ukrainian peasants sing of the nobility and fidelity of the emperor and his wife;
“Oh, our emperor is a good fine man,
And our lady is his wife, the Empress.
He rides ahead of all his lancers brave,
And she remains alone in the castle,
And she waits for him…
She waits for the Emperor—our Empress.”
“The Empress had died long ago,” notes the narration. “But the Ruthenian peasants believed she was still alive.”
In a profane place and time such as modern Britain, it would feel odd to attribute the virtue of saintliness or fidelity to anyone, even the monarch. So instead, we have endowed Elizabeth with the modern equivalent: relatability. (The gap between saintliness and relatability is not that great; at school, we were told to choose a confirmation name based on which saint we felt closest to.)
For many Britons, the Queen is permanently thinking what they’re thinking. Her constitutionally enforced unknowability makes her a vessel for the nation’s ego. And so, in gifs and memes, newspaper articles and comic novels, the Queen becomes irreverent, sassy, a drinker, fond of a good time at the horses, exhausted by her idiot ministers and wastrel children.
She is also intensely practical: in the late Sue Townsend’s The Queen And I, set in an imaginary Britain where the royals have been deposed and sent to live in a council estate, Elizabeth quickly adapts to life on the dole while various other members of the family lose it in various ways. What could be more British, more us, then keeping calm and carrying on even in the face of a palace-to-pauper reversal?
Meanwhile, the Netflix series The Crown has created a queen not really of her time and breeding, but a queen who does the type of things we imagine we might do if we were in her situation. This sense will only be heightened when actor Claire Foy is replaced in the title role by Olivia Coleman, a woman whose supposed relatability in the eye of the public possibly equals that of the actual queen. (This week, more than one commentator jokingly called for Coleman to replace the real monarch.)
All of which leaves us with the bizarre spectacle of Britons, even liberal Britons, even Britons who may identify as republicans, or at least not as monarchists, being saddened when the Queen acts as the empty vessel of state her constitutional role demands she is.
Strip away the drama, though, and fear of betrayal by the Queen is simply an expression of fear of betrayal by the state. Public patriotism outside of sports tournaments seems suspect to many, but a belief in the Queen’s personal decency remains a safe expression. Britain may be weary of politics, but it still longs for its Empress.