On British royalty and the longevity of the institution
When I moved to England in the late ‘70s, the first thing that struck me was the popularity of the royal family. I was there when Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977, after 25 years on the throne.
For a young married woman and a mother who had to take up the duties of a monarch at the age of just 25, this was a difficult task. But she performed well and won the approval of the society still recovering after the traumas of the Second World War. A young queen became a symbol of unity and optimism for the future.
Millions of special jubilee mugs with the picture of Elizabeth II were distributed to the schoolchildren all over the country who proudly brought them home to decorate their bedrooms. Coming from Greece where royalty was something of an anathema, synonymous with continuous interference in the democratic will of the people, I was surprised. In Greece, by then, we had finished with a nasty period of military rule and a long period of the monarchy.
I had difficulty in explaining that unchallenged respect across the whole political spectrum towards the British monarchy. In vain, I tried opening the subject to my British friends about their antiquated hereditary class system. The standard answer I received was that the queen “symbolizes the nation and our cultural and historic continuation” and that the “British monarchy is like our national flag”.
No one would have imagined, though, that the certainty that the British royal family is a rock-hard institution to last forever would have been turned upside down, just a few years later.
Marking her 40th anniversary on the British throne, Elizabeth II looked back on that year as an “annus horribilis” (a terrible year). Her second son, Prince Andrew, divorced from his wife following a series of scandals exposed by British tabloids.
Her daughter, Anne divorced, and her daughter-in-law Princess Diana published “Her True Story,” revealing her husband Prince Charles’ infidelity with Camilla, who was married to another man at the time. She now is Charles’ wife. Everything was overexposed in the media. As if all that was not enough, a terrible fire nearly destroyed the historic Windsor Castle, the official residence of the queen. The year ended as badly as it started.
Prince Charles, heir to the throne, separated from his wife, Princess Diana. That terrible year caused a grave blow to the image of the British monarchy, and I remember that some friends, whose children had kept the queen’s silver jubilee mugs as precious memorabilia, had second thoughts about the usefulness of the institution.
By now, Elizabeth II, who was born in 1926, has celebrated several more anniversaries. In 2002, her Golden Jubilee for half a century on the throne, in 2012 the Diamond Jubilee for the 60th year on the throne and the Sapphire Jubilee in 2017 for the 65th year on the throne. Already preparations have started for the Platinum Jubilee in 2023 for the 70th year by which the queen will be 96 years old.
The queen may indeed celebrate her Platinum Jubilee. But will the British monarch last that long? Today’s Britain is very different from what it was even a few years ago. Polarization has split the society with the Brexit affair being the latest symptom. Traditions and institutions are at stake or are being discredited. Parliament, government and British political parties are not having good days.
So, when the terrible story about the Duke of York’s association with the late convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein hit the news, the reaction of the British media was as if nothing had changed since 1992. The duke of York, the second royal son, was labeled as “outcast,” and the press said that “the palace is in crisis.”
Unlike 1992, this time, the palace establishment who consults the British monarchs on what to do in moments of crisis reacted speedily. The duke was forced to “step back” from public life “for the foreseeable future,” which is expected to be quite long. Still, is this affair going to shake the trust in the British monarchy?
Probably not, at least for as long as the strong-willed Queen remains at the helm. Figures confirm that. According to last year’s official poll, seven out of 10 Britons support having a monarchy, and 62 percent believe that Britain will have a hereditary monarchy in 100 years.
That was why, perhaps, Boris Johnson in this week’s TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn, stated that the royal family is “beyond reproach.”