Closeup/The Monarchy

Uhfaded glory

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you...The Queen!

David Cobb October 3 1977
Closeup/The Monarchy

Uhfaded glory

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you...The Queen!

David Cobb October 3 1977

The young chap was fresh off the boat from Britain, wet behind the ears. He was working in Timmins, the gold-mining town in northern Ontario, and he hated it. He lived in a room eight feet square, one of several above a store on Pine Street; down the hall there was an old German, who did little but watch television with his door open. The German spoke poor English; the Limey chap, who disliked Krauts even more than racial prejudice, spoke to him not at all. Came Christmas, and the youth had never felt so lonely in his life. He decided to get royally drunk and was starting on this ritualistic form of self-abuse when there was a knock on the door. It was the German. “The Queen comes on,” he said. “English, no? Perhaps you watch with me?”

Long before, scarcely into prepubescence, the Limey had fallen in love with a photo of the young Princess Elizabeth making a wartime broadcast for the BBC. Stirred beyond his years, he had—via letter—offered his hand in marriage. He thought that this Christmas was hardly the time to renew an acquaintanceship so brusquely terminated by rejection. But in a spirit of what-the-hell, he said okay . . . which is how the Limey and the Kraut sat down together and watched one of Queen Elizabeth’s more boring Christmas messages, filled with stilted uplift about home and family, and how the Commonwealth brought people together.

“The usual bromides,” the Limey thought, and looked to see how the Kraut was taking them. The German was weeping, and remained so until the talk was over. At last he blew his nose, wiped his eyes and said: “Lovely lady, yes, our Queen?” The young chap, always unstrung in the presence of strong emotions, was enduringly astonished. Amazing how potent cheap music can be, Noel Coward once observed; as powerful as a message-laden vignette.

But all that was some years ago. October 14 to 19 the Queen visits Ottawa, her sole Canadian visit in her Silver Jubilee year, and when it is all over voices will be heard asking whether it was all worth it. Some of these voices will be in the media, and the answer—since creeping republicanism is spreading like poison ivy— will in some cases be a carefully phrased No. I wonder what the German in Timmins would make of it today, and how many feel as powerfully about the monarchy now as he did. Few, perhaps, as powerfully as a Canadian brigadier-general did in 1923. Speaking to a Sons of England meeting in Ottawa, St. Pierre Hughes suavely explained that “Canada is being flooded with the scum of central Europe who have no allegiance to the British Crown ... Steadily the Latins and Slavs are getting the upper hand.”

The changes since then have included the Sons of England: a yeasty group in the Twenties with more than 30,000 members, dedicated to preserving the English connection and fealty to the Crown, it expired in 1973 at 99, only slightly more than the average age of its few remaining members. And naturally, the Latins and Slavs the brigadier dreaded, pouring in in their tens of thousands, have upset the British balance. However, the most common mistake is to assume that those who support the Crown are nothing but a bunch of superannuated WASPS. The Monarchist League of Canada, founded seven years ago with 16 people, now has more than 12,000 members across Canada—and only about 35% of them are British-descended, or less than the national per capita average of a little more than 40%.

“Among the rest are hundreds of Italians in southern Ontario, hundreds of Ukrainians in the west,” says John Aimers. He is a young Quebecker who teaches school in Montreal and founded the league when he was 18 “because I sensed a growing erosion of the Crown’s importance by the Liberal government.” The Monarchist League believes that the Crown is our best guarantee of freedom, parliamentary democracy, minority rights. “The trouble,” Aimers maintains, “is that we’re far too genteel, we hear nothing but the clever manipulators of the CBC, or writers like Allan Fotheringham in Maclean’s. I think there’s something wrong when Canada can spend $2.5 million to mark the U.S. Centennial but nothing like that for the Queen’s Jubilee. There should be a massive revolt of Canadians to prevent a remarkable institution disappearing against the will, as I see it, of the average guy. If we don’t do something, we’ll be a republic in 10 years.”

Apart from the Monarchist League of Canada, who will care? In June, a poll conducted by the CBC’S Newsmagazine suggested that 85% of Canadians realize Canada is a parliamentary democracy but that only 29% know that it is a monarchy; that 68% think the head of state is the Prime Minister, 15% know it to be the Queen. To a third question—The head of state is the Queen; should the Queen and her descendants continue as such?—51% said yes, 48% no. Such curious ambivalence makes Prime Minister Trudeau’s reluctance about the subject more understandable. After attending some of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in England, he was asked about his views on the monarchy by a group of Oxford University students. “It would be better if we were in some common room without the media,” he began, “but let me try to answer that without losing half the votes in Canada.” The answer, from a man who in more intemperate days regarded the Queen as being lower on his list of priorities than skiing: he could not afford the “emotional energy” needed to fight a symbol others believed in. A symbol, the Prime Minister might have added, that costs Canada absolutely nothing to maintain.*

The trouble is that it’s a symbol that has a lessening effect on a large number of Canadians today. If the Prime Minister’s “half the votes of Canada” is correct—and it seems to be backed by the third part of Newsmagazine’s poll—the Crown is hardly the uniting force it is meant to be. Last year, in another poll, 65% of Quebeckers thought the Queen had no place opening the Olympic Games. Romantics with long memories recalled that once before the Queen and Prince Philip had been enthusiastically welcomed by the same province: but that was 23 years before and times have changed many francophone reactions to the Crown—to at best indifference, at worst active resentment.

(* No such niceties, of course, hedge about William Hamilton, the British Labor MP who is constantly going on about the Crown’s cost to Britain. Total cost in 1976: about $15 million (eight million pounds), or slightly less than the country’s National Health bill for tranquilizers of two years before. Hamilton is predictable now, trotting out his diatribes about “the Royal layabouts” to the decreasing numbers who listen. The Queen might take heart from the fact that the fourth of Queen Victoria’s would-be assassins was also named William Hamilton; nothing was found in his revolver, even less in his brain, and he was detained “during Her Majesty ’s pleasure. ”)

In Britain, the Jubilee year has supplied its own share of extraordinary English idiocies, notably one from the Lord Chamberlain, arbiter in matters of what is royally fitting, who turned down a request from a Lancashire pottery to make Jubilee potties on the grounds that they would be “in bad taste.” The Lord Chamberlain did, however, allow the pottery to make Jubilee planters: potties with an extra handle. Nothing, idiotic or otherwise, has been heard from playwright John Osborne (Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer) who in 1957 called the monarchy “a gold filling in a mouth full of decay.’’The same year Lord Altrincham created an even greater furor (such is the drawing power of the peerage) with a much more detailed assault: in a magazine piece he condemned her entourage and her speaking style (“that of a priggish schoolgirl, a prefect and a recent candidate for confirmation”), and added: “When she has lost the bloom of youth the Queen’s reputation will depend, far more than it does now, upon her personality... As yet there is little sign that such a personality is emerging.”

For his pains Altrincham was called “a bounder—he should be shot,” by the Earl of Strathmore (family motto: In Thee O Lord I Put My Trust), and was punched in the face on TV. Today, writing as plain John Grigg, Altrincham has come to his senses—and the Queen has become a better speaker, developed a warmer personality. She deserves, he wrote this summer, “much of the praise now lavished on her. She has done her duty almost to perfection (and) already has to be hailed as unquestionably a good queen. In the rest of her reign, will she prove that she can be a great one?”

To her admirers she is well on the way. When on the sudden death of her father George VI in February 1952 she acceded to the throne—as near as one can calculate, while sitting in a tree looking at elephants in Kenya’s Aberdare Forest—she became at once a fairy-tale queen: young, attractive, vulnerable, married to a brisk blond prince of Danish blood, she would herald a new Elizabethan era to rival, nay eclipse, the splendors achieved by Elizabeth I, whose speech to her fleet at Tilbury on the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588 (“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England, too”) struck the kind of chords that echo down centuries. Elizabeth II, the fairy queen, was expected to do no less. It hasn’t turned out that way, of course: real income is double what it was for the average worker 25 years ago, the numbers of homes with cars and phones have quadrupled, but the grey litany of unemployment, explosive increases in the cost of living, endless strikes and a couldn’t-care lethargy have made the old country look like a rotten plum too long on the bough.

The second Elizabeth could never have emulated the first for constitutional reasons. The latter was an executive monarch who ran the show: I ruled, II reigned. What II offers is less charismatic: she believes and diligently pursues the old verities—the importance of home, duty, loyalties. And so when the trendy Sixties came along, with loyalties to nothing but pop singers and the latest gear, the monarchy dipped in popularity. Philip was seen to be brusque rather than brisk, a man with a tendency to rough witticisms whose primary humor came from the breathtaking confidence with which they were uttered; the jug-eared heir-apparent, Charles, was considered by the King’s Road sharpies to have been dealt a regrettably short deck; and the Queen herself was mocked as dowdy, marvelously mimicable, hopelessly un-with it. “How apt!" you could hear the mockers say when they found out the Palace staff called the Queen. Brenda, Philip. Keith, and Margaret, Yvonne.

Then the Sixties ended, and after the hangover from all that relentless swinging the Royals were seen to be much the same as they were before—and the better for not having changed: they were the ship of state’s keel, rather than its rudder. And while everything else was plainly working badly, the monarchy was plainly working well. The Queen was particularly reassuring, comfortable, simpática without guile. If she was strange about her dreadful yapping little Welsh corgis... well, she was also a horse breeder who really knew her stuff. “If it were not for my Archbishop of Canterbury,” she once explained, as head of the Church of England, “I should be off in my plane to Longchamps every Sunday.” People could understand that; besides, it was healthier than books.

Still, the monarchy works only as well as the monarch, and since the dreadful William IV (1765-1837) the Crown has been lucky in the choice of who has worn it. Victoria went on a bit long, true, but she restored dignity to a cheapened office. Edward VII, with all his mistresses, was too old (59) when he came to the throne, but he stayed just long enough to lend his name to a decade of elegance and style. His second son, George V, called himself (accurately) “a very ordinary fellow” but he was a disciplined one and admired because of it; Grandpapa England to his granddaughter Elizabeth. George’s wife was the redoubtable Queen Mary, who had married him only after first being engaged to his elder brother, the licentious Duke of Clarence; mercifully Clarence, a satyr who would put even his father to shame and was treated at least once for VD, died before he could reach the throne. Just as mercifully, Mary’s eldest son abdicated: Edward VIlI’s flirtation with fascism and his dereliction of royal duties have been regarded by his successors, according to Robert Lacey’s wide-ranging Majesty, as a stain on the monarchy and the House of Windsor.

Nobody would have believed Britain and her Empire was lucky with George VI. He was a stammering, diffident man who on hearing of his brother’s abdication plans went to his mother and wept. He seemed such an unlikely second choice that there was even some urgent discussion about whether he should be passed over in favor of the Duke of Kent, his younger brother, who had had a bout of drug addiction in the Twenties but possessed much more confidence and panache. Panache proved unnecessary: George VI was loved because of his stammer and diffidence, not in spite of them—and besides, he stayed in Buckingham Palace through the Blitz. His elder daughter, it turned out, wanted the job no more than he had. Since the Crown is passed on through the male line, if any, she began praying daily and fervently for a brother as soon as she realized what was ultimately in store.

There is no record of how long these prayers lasted, but we can be thankful she is older than Margaret, whose reputation for bored and tetchy arrogance unfortunately precedes her. The Queen has grown with the job and her weekly audiences with her prime ministers have surprised some of them who expected little more than a listening head requiring the most cursory briefings. Her grasp of world and domestic affairs is acute and she never ignores her daily reading of “the boxes”—those secret reports from various departments sent for her perusal (and so wantonly ignored by her uncle, who would leave them lying about where guests could read them, or use them as coasters for martinis). Once early on in his first term as Prime Minister. Harold Wilson was caught out in an audience, unprepared on a subject the Queen knew inside out from the boxes. He did not make the same mistake again and in 1976 the memory must have still been clear. “I shall certainly advise my successor to do his homework before his Audience,” Wilson said in his retirement speech, “or he will feel like an unprepared schoolboy.” Peter Townsend, former suitor of Princess Margaret, fleshed out the idea once and privately in the late Sixties. “The Royal Family are no fools, any of them—it’s just some of the people you have to go through to get to them. Good Lord!”

Similarly the public perception of her as defined by the smiling face, the waving hand, does her less than justice. Underneath the surface geniality, people strike rock. Allan King, the Canadian film maker ( Who Has Seen The Wind; One Night Stand) who made a special film with her for Expo Year, 1967, remembers her as “funny, friendly—but the moment she thinks you presume too much, a wall of ice goes up. She’s a very tough lady.”

Once, after a Palace reception, her foreign secretary of the time presumed too much with his good-night kisses. First the royal hand, then the royal wrist. He was moving on to the royal forearm when he was reined in short with a touch of whip to the flanks. “Far enough, Foreign Secretary,” said the head of state, in a voice that seemed to issue from the Outer Hebrides.

The corollary of this is that the Queen is not easily frightened. Former Home Secretary R. A. (now Lord) Butler remembers going with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to advise heron behalf of the British cabinet not to undertake a certain trip to Ghana because of a real danger of assassination; such advice the Queen being constitutionally bound to accept. She heard them out, and replied: “I thank you for your advice, but if I have not courage, what am I? I ask you to return to my ministers and ask them to reconsider their advice to me.” Now that’s Elizabethan; so, of course, they did, and she went, and the trip was a colossal success. Similarly she showed no fear in Quebec, 1964, when death threats were also in the air: “I’ll be as safe as houses,” she said. Nor did she flinch at visiting Northern Ireland in August. If she weren’t vulnerable, and moved everywhere in armored cars flanked by motorcycle escorts-what on earth, she reasons, would be the point?

“In royalty’s mystery is its life,” wrote the Victorian, Walter Bagehot, who defined the uses and limitations of the modern Crown. “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” The world’s biking monarchies don’t see it that way, and by being more obviously in step with egalitarian times display no feel for history, inspire no sense of awe. The British Royals, going back 900 years, are antiquated but not anachronisms; they still supply Bagehot’s mystery in an age that does not encourage it, and manage to be star attractions almost everywhere they go.

Even in those places where they don’t go. Cumberland, a former coal-mining town of about 2,000 on northern Vancouver Island which has actively celebrated Empire Day (May 24) for 89 years, was peremptorily dropped at the last minute from the Queen’s touring schedule in 1971 a winding blow to the inhabitants who had spent months preparing for it. William Moncrief, mayor then as now, was bitter at the time but has got over it passably well: his town spent a week celebrating the Jubilee this year. “The Crown,” says Moncrief, “is what holds us together.”

Not many at the moment would agree with him 3,000 miles away in Quebec, but that, if one is of a sufficiently monarchist turn of mind, can be seen as part of the mystery. In many ways the monarchy must be taken on faith; the fact that many do, and apparently derive no lasting harm from it but much pleasure, would be fully understood by Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French scientist-philosopher. “The heart has its reasons,” he wrote, “that reason knows nothing of.” The long-ago German in Timmins knew that, too.