For Britain’s royal family, August means Aberdeenshire. Specifically, the multi-turreted Victorian grandeur of Balmoral. It’s a fixture in the Sovereign’s calendar, but different this year because of Covid-19. We’re told there’ll be fewer visitors allowed into the royal social bubble. A sensible precaution. The Queen and Prince Philip are now both well into their 90s.
With the Queen on the throne, the monarchy can ride out the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Her son, Andrew, has become more deeply embroiled in allegations of scandal this year. Her grandson, Harry, has lost many of the fans who once enjoyed his unbuttoned bloke-ishness and genuine front-line service in Afghanistan.
Even if Her Majesty could turn all her notional royal assets, from Windsor Castle to the Crown Jewels, into cash – she’d still be a minority shareholder in Amazon. – Colin Brazier
Further afield however, the decision this month by former King Juan Carlos of Spain to choose exile, is a reminder of how fragile the public consent required for constitutional monarchies to exist, can be. The royal household in Balmoral will be watching the reign in Spain closely. (One of the several things that struck me during my tenure as a royal correspondent was the extent to which members of the monarchical club looked out for one another.)
For instance, my first trip overseas trip following Her Majesty was to the Sultanate of Brunei. It was memorable for the disappointment of fellow members of the royal “rat pack” – as Britain’s royal reporters and photographers were colloquially known – who discovered that the gifts brought to our hotel rooms were more modest than hitherto had been the case (there were rumours of Rolex wrist watches in years gone by). But it was memorable also for the sense in which the Queen and Sultan “got” each other. Both belonged to a truly exclusive hereditary club, ejection from which had happened far and wide and bloodily throughout the twentieth century.
Of course, the parallels are limited. The Queen, I would say, is fairly unusual in that her religious convictions are utterly sincere and at the core of her strong sense of public service. We are told, and she makes this pretty clear from time to time when she addresses the nation, that her Christianity is central to what she is. Monarchs, given the historical link between wielding temporal and spiritual power, are often seen as defenders of a nation’s faith. For some, this is simply window dressing. You can probably think of several kings or queens around the world, whose role requires moral rectitude, but whose actual behaviour falls far short of what’s expected.
Some of these themes came out conversationally during dinner recently at a friend’s house. Her guests included a lovely Australian couple, one of whom was a relatively senior figure at one of the world’s biggest social media companies. Afterwards, I thought about the power that rests in the hands of the men who founded and still own portions of these tech giants. Their wealth far exceeds the relatively puny and static resources of the Queen (reputed to have a personal fortune of £350m). She is rich by everyday standards, but on her uppers compared to Jeff Bezos ($191bn), Bill Gates ($112bn), or Elon Musk ($70bn). Even if Her Majesty could turn all her notional royal assets, from Windsor Castle to the Crown Jewels, into cash – she’d still be a minority shareholder in Amazon.
Does it matter? We pay for what’s useful, don’t we? And although I know there are strong arguments for the balancing constitutional role played by a sovereign, and the number of Chinese tourists they draw to London, there’s no sense that the monarchy helps me sort out life’s everyday problems like, say, Google does.
And in some respects, our newly-crowned heads of the digital realm do things monarchs were meant to be good at, better than the royals. Noblesse oblige? Who disburses more of their fortune – Bill Gates or Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al-Saud?
Monarchies are built on doubt. For the Queen, this is wrapped up in her sincere Christianity. – Colin Brazier
But, I suppose, this is the problem with viewing everything through the prism of hard cash. The royals must be viewed through a different lens. For one thing, they offer a sheet anchor where the tech Titans offer revolution. Monarchy’s cause is unfashionable, but no less important for that. As the late Roger Scruton said, there is nothing obviously attractive about championing slow change. Who, he asked, wants to go on a march chanting “hesitate”? Ancient institutions, be that the royal household or the Holy See, think in terms of hundreds of years. The same can’t be said for Twitter or Tik Tok.
But perhaps most importantly, monarchies are built on doubt. For the Queen, this is wrapped up in her sincere Christianity. It forces her to embrace humility, when all around her there is servility. And even those monarchs who only pay lip service to faith, still doubt. They know they owe their place to history, birth and atavism. The meritocrats of Silicon Valley do not doubt. Like the communist party’s civil service in modern China, they have climbed to the top of the meritocracy by dint of unyielding ambition, unstinting diligence and ruthlessness. The latter increasingly rule our lives. I’m not sure that’s necessarily an unalloyed good.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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