Britain’s resilient monarchy amid government meltdown
In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher appointed me Britain’s minister of culture. In those days, we called it minister for the arts because to a generation like hers that had grown up in the age of fascism, “minister of culture” suggested the head of the secret police.
During my time, the French government — Britain had, for ten years, been a member of the European Economic Community — gave its close neighbour and ancient rival the honour of having a great exhibition of the most internationally renowned of all English painters.
The 19th-century genius J.M.W. Turner had oil paintings displayed at the Louvre and watercolours in Bordeaux. There were royal visits and speeches and parties and crates of champagne.
The old rivalry was not dead, however. Plastered all over Paris — on walls, buses, newspaper kiosks, public conveniences — were blow-ups of a Turner painting of the 1830s. This was “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.” A great architect, Charles Barry, was commissioned after the fire to rebuild the two houses of parliament.
They front the Thames and surround the medieval assembly room of Westminster Hall, which survived the fire. Together with the great clock tower that houses Big Ben, this new Palace of Westminster became the most iconographic building of London and indeed of the British Empire. For London, it became the equivalent of Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Today, in a warm and, for Britain, relatively dry, early summer, Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, Soho, Notting Hill and London’s many and varied leafy parks attract tourists from all over the world. Even two incompetent neo-Soviet assassins pretended to be tourists on their botched murderous visit to Salisbury last year.
Today, the iconographic tower of Big Ben is under scaffolding. It looks like any run-of-the-mill, high-rise building. The mother of parliaments beneath it is in symbolic as well as architectural disrepair.
Modern health and safety legislation should close these huge buildings immediately. They are a risk to all who enter them. Modern communications cabling has been stuffed behind walls already stuffed with late 19th- and early 20th-century wiring. The Thames can flood from below. Rain drips in from above. It is astonishing to all familiar with the Palace of Westminster that Notre Dame caught fire first.
The case for parliament moving out is not only a physical one. The British government is in meltdown. The governing party is about to evict its leader without having a clear idea as to whom it would like as a successor or how the present parliamentary arithmetic would change under a newcomer.
When she goes, Theresa May will be the third Conservative prime minister to lose office not at the hands of the electorate but on account of her party’s internal quarrel about membership of the European Union. While another Conservative leader, John Major, succeeded in serving out his term before being rejected by the electorate in favour of Tony Blair, he had felt obliged to stand in an internal party election over the same perennial quarrel.
Under the British system, the Queen is an absolute dictator, bound only by existing legislation. She kindly delegates her powers, however, to whomsoever can form an executive drawn from the elected members of the House of Commons.
Such an individual becomes head of Her Majesty’s Government. His or her principal opponent becomes head of Her Majesty’s Opposition. The European issue has split both government and opposition and very few of the people who elect them have the faintest idea where the two parties stand on an issue decided by referendum in 2016. The British, narrowly but in huge numbers, voted to “Leave.” Referendums and representative democracy do not mix well. A referendum is binary: yes or no, in or out.
Members of parliament are not delegates of their constituents. They represent what they believe to be their constituents’ interests. If you win a seat in parliament, you are morally and constitutionally obliged to represent the people who voted against as well as for you.
The present parliament is what the British call a hung parliament. The governing party has no clear majority and must seek allies to stay in office. This is uncommon under the British winner-take-all voting system. Present polling does not suggest that the opposition Labour Party would necessarily command a clear majority either. Parliament, like its building, is in a mess.
Up the road from Westminster, along the Whitehall and Pall Mall thoroughfares made famous all over the world by television coverage of royal weddings and the Queen’s State Openings of Parliament, there is another palace.
Buckingham Palace is in an altogether better state. There is considerable public interest, not confined to Britain, in what is going on there. Visitors enjoy considerable access to the building, not least to a gallery exhibiting art from the Royal Collection, one of the finest in the world.
At 93, Queen Elizabeth II has proven to be a model of sense and sensibility. At 97, her caustic, funny and often outspoken consort, Prince Philip, has “retired.” He still appears at her side on important occasions such as royal weddings.
The most recent of these, of the younger of Prince Charles’s and Lady Diana Spencer’s two sons to an American media star of Afro-Caribbean descent, sent the shares of what is now a multiracial, multicultural Britain soaring. And Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has decided to call her son Archie.
The English will bet on flies climbing up a wall. The nation’s bookmakers will by now have recovered losses incurred by the favourite winning this spring’s Grand National. There has never been a royal Archie.
As head of the multiracial Commonwealth of Nations, a role she has always taken most seriously, the Queen has been colour-blind throughout her long reign. Her being photographed as a white great-grandmother beside a black grandmother and looking as happy as she always looks at race meetings has set a wonderful seal on what is now the longest reign.
At Prince Charles’s 70th birthday last year, Queen Elizabeth paid a short, witty and deeply affectionate tribute to both the heir to the throne and to his second wife, Camilla. Parliament may have lost its way but the monarchy is still branding Britain as a stable and interesting country with a stable and interesting future and the roof and wiring of Buckingham Palace require only minor repairs.