Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: Why I’m renouncing republicanism

I know that as a lifelong lefty, a hereditary monarchy should be antithetical to my beliefs. So why do I find myself impressed by the senior royals?
January 24, 2024

Having struggled frantically through nine decades of life, I hoped for a modicum of peace in old age. A bit of wisdom, perhaps? A few answers to cosmic questions? Forget it. My dominant emotion as I get near to oblivion is uncertainty. 

For instance, my body. Which bit is going to cease to function next? The ominous risk of “having a fall” haunts me. From “bestrid[ing] the narrow world like a Colossus”, I now need something to hang on to. My unreliable heartbeat necessitates medications to thin my blood, thereby giving me the dubious choice of a stroke or bleeding to death.

But the worst manifestation of uncertainty is the turmoil it causes in my belief system. What do I really believe in? Rather than: what do I think I should believe?

I have always thought of myself as a lefty, dedicated to equality, and—coming from a working-class background—deeply resentful of the class system. “Many a time and oft” I have declared that inherited wealth and status are grossly unfair. Am I now old enough to sheepishly confess that I am glad we will not become a republic in my lifetime? To admit that this Quaker, this socialist, was thrilled to be offered a damehood? That I am still the child who, during the war, listened to messages on the wireless from the little princesses and loved them and their pretty frocks. I was flabbergasted when the one who became queen gave me a prize.

All this dishonourable confusion came to the fore when I was invited last year to take part in a huge Christmas carol concert in Westminster Abbey, where I would be able to introduce my besotted granddaughter Rosie to the organiser, Catherine, Princess of Wales.

At a time when the Covid inquiry was exposing the ugly, amoral incompetence of our government, it was healing to be in a congregation of 2,000 people who have dedicated their lives to the care of young children. They came from all over Britain and were glowing with excitement at the recognition of their service. One midwife told me it was the best day of her life, and several others concurred. The austere abbey was warmed by the feeling of community and, above all, infectious affection for the royals. I know, I know, a bit of the old me was disturbed too. 

While Rosie and I waited to greet the princess, I was reminded of the first time I met the Queen, many years ago. We were given a little lecture about how we should not say anything if she did not speak first. We were told how to address her, how to curtsy, and a lot of stuff about gloves. If her Maj was not wearing them, we should put ours on to shake her hand. Panic stations—I had no gloves. Eventually a man wearing a lot of gold braid and feathers solemnly handed me a pair of white cotton ones. He then giggled, and pointed at a man hiding behind a pillar—a long-term fan of mine who worked on the housekeeping staff at the palace, giving me the thumbs up. Beneath the grandeur was fun and warmth.

There was no such formality for the current Princess of Wales. She strode in looking sensational and started chatting to everyone. The techies on the show told me that she had worked very hard getting it organised and that Prince William, who was also there, had spent the morning visiting the homeless in hostels and selling the Big Issue. His mother trained him well.

What’s more, at a time when the arts are threatened by a philistine government that could not care less about culture, it is a relief to have a king who goes to the theatre, knows about music and the environment, and seems to care about the wellbeing of his subjects. I am reminded of a tale about Winston Churchill, which I hope is true. When he was asked to cut the arts budget to buy more arms during the war, he refused, saying, “But what are we fighting for?”

After watching the faithless ex-prime minister lying about evidence of his laziness and neglect, it was refreshing to see the beautiful royal parents and children, smiling and waving at the proud, good people in the abbey. Like them, I loved all the pomp and ceremony and choral magic. For three hours we forgot the ugly world outside.

Of course, the hereditary system is nonsense, but we do not seem to have done very well with voting, either. We have chosen some awful leaders. At the end of the service, as the minor royals processed past us, some of them looked unappealing—almost a caricature of the upper class—but we struck lucky with the late dedicated Queen and the present dignified King, and the next lot seem to bode well too. I wish them well. 

At 90 years old, it is time to face my hypocrisy, embrace my contradictions and uncertainties and be brutally, embarrassingly honest with myself. And you.