Despite its foesâ€™ predictions, the monarchy has thrived â€“ but there are still dangers lurking, warns Peter Oborne.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, the crowned heads of Europe gathered in London for the Coronation of George V, grandfather to the Queen. Magnificent though the occasion was, many astute observers believed the system of rule on display stood no chance of lasting out the 20th century.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw dismissed monarchy as a â€œuniversal hallucinationâ€ of the people that would soon pass away. Hâ€‰G Wells, the radical novelist, warned that monarchy had as much chance of survival â€œas the Lama of Tibet has of becoming Emperor of this earthâ€.
These predictions seemed perfectly reasonable. At the dawn of the last century, the ancient monarchies of Europe were feudal, absurd and hopelessly out of touch with the democratic spirit of the age. Furthermore, the critics were soon to be proved brutally right. Within a very few years of George Vâ€™s coronation, many of the great dynasties had been destroyed. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian heir apparent, was shot dead in Sarajevo alongside his wife Sophie just three years later. The Kingâ€™s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was forced into exile at the end of the First World War. The Romanovs in Russia were slaughtered.
Amid the carnage, however, the British Royal family survived. There have been moments of difficulty, of which the abdication crisis in 1936 and the popular convulsion which followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 have proved the most threatening. But the monarchy has pulled through â€“ and it has rarely looked stronger than this week, as we approach the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
So it is important to address the glaring question: what explains the survival of what appears at first sight to be such an anachronism?
Part of the answer is highly intelligent pragmatism. Conventional wisdom holds that the Windsors are stupid. In fact, they have always had a sure instinct as to when and how to adapt. Blind resistance to change led to the deposition of the French Bourbons in 1792, and took Charles I to the scaffold in 1649. So modern British monarchs have compromised, whether by bowing to pressure and paying income tax (as the Queen has since 1993) or agreeing last week to consider altering the laws of succession to reflection contemporary notions of gender equality (although a move to allow Catholics to marry into the Royal family has, as this newspaper reported yesterday, been abandoned after objections from the Church of England).
Yet these political tactics, however astute, do not begin to explain the powerful affection felt by the British people for the monarchy. We are a country that values ritual, custom, tradition. We are profoundly conscious of our often glorious, sometimes tragic and occasionally disgraceful past. The monarchy is the national expression of our common reverence for experience.
So the Royal family defines what we are as a nation. Britain is not â€“ as Tony Blair mistakenly diagnosed 15 years ago â€“ â€œa young countryâ€. William the Conqueror was crowned at Westminster Abbey, where Prince William will make his wedding vows on Friday. Parliament has sat for nearly eight centuries, while the institution of monarchy itself dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.
But the relationship between the Queen and her subjects goes deeper still. This is because the monarchy does not merely define us as a nation: it defines us as individuals. Our respect and affection for the Queen is rooted in our collective unconscious. There is something deep, instinctive and even primeval going on here, which goes right to the very core of our nature as social beings.
It is irrational. It is sentimental. It is absurd. At times it is completely dotty. And yet the monarchy works. This is because it humanises what can otherwise appear a distant and impersonal state. People who find if very hard to relate to an Act of Parliament, to a Brussels directive, a law lord or a permanent secretary (all essential parts of government) get the point of the Royal family. We share their tragedies, joys and family dramas. There is something about hereditary rule that people like. This observation does not just apply to backward societies â€“ it is also the case in the United States, with its dynasties of Bushes, Clintons and Kennedys. So the monarchy brings us together as a nation.
Only one group is left out: intellectuals. Whether of Left or Right, they have always despised the institution of monarchy. There is no way that it would ever fit in with their grand, abstract schemes for the transformation of society. Tony Benn, Britainâ€™s most distinguished republican, likes to ask whether we would place our trust in a hereditary airline pilot or doctor. There is no answer to this question. The institution is illogical.
But that does not mean that the monarchy serves no purpose. On the contrary: I believe that it plays a profoundly important role in British public life. This is because it occupies public space that would otherwise be grabbed by rival political parties. The alternative to the Queen as head of state is probably a Thatcher or a Blair; either would be divisive and factional.
And consider this: the Armed Forces owe their exclusive allegiance to the Queen as head of state, and not to the ruling political party. This is not a debating point. In many of the worldâ€™s dictatorships, the military is used for ugly internal repression aimed at rival parties (we saw just a flicker of how these delicate relationships can go wrong in Britain, too, when the Secret Intelligence Service forgot its duty of impartiality and became too close to Tony Blair and New Labour in the run-up to the Iraq War).
In short, the presence of a Royal family at the heart of our national affairs is one of the main reasons for Britainâ€™s extraordinary political stability over the past 200 years. During the Second World War, the socialist writer George Orwell acknowledged as much, when he observed that the presence of royalty had helped save Britain from fascism during the crisis-ridden Thirties.
They were not so lucky on the Continent. The abolition of the German monarchy in 1918 was one of the factors that enabled Hitler to seize total power, with such devastating and terrible effect. In Italy, the gutlessness of King Victor Emmanuel III played a key role in enabling the rise of Mussolini. In his fine history of the Spanish Civil War, the historian Antony Beevor speculates that the departure of Alfonso XIII from the national scene in the early Thirties helped enable the rise of the far Right and General Franco. Later on, when Franco died, Alfonsoâ€™s grandson Juan Carlos returned as king and paved the way for democracy.
The intellectual Left (and the far Right) cannot cope with these basic truths. That is why, as the wedding day has come closer, over the past few weeks parts of the press â€“ led by The Guardian and The Independent â€“ have aimed a barrage of abuse and mockery at the Royal family.
Much of it is too cheap and offensive to repeat. Some of it is ludicrously self-important â€“ such as an unpleasant article, full of contempt and invective, from The Independentâ€™s Joan Smith, who bitterly complained that â€œthe Queen once cut me dead when I said ‘helloâ€™ to her and didnâ€™t curtsyâ€.
But there are certain sinister elements. The Guardian has produced a lesson plan on the monarchy for schoolteachers, complete with PowerPoint slides, to be used in class ahead of the big day. It is blatant anti-royal propaganda, and the author is unashamed in declaring her aim: â€œThe PowerPoint gives [pupils] the vocabulary, information and spark for their own ideas to ready them for the final challenge: should the monarchy be abolished?â€
This weekâ€™s wedding will be a great day, with Prince William and Catherine Middleton creating the promise of a new and more relaxed era for the Royal family. But amid the glow of national goodwill, the royal couple should not be complacent. Their more intelligent enemies have come to realise that the republican cause is hopeless while the Queen remains alive. But when she passes away, they will strike once again. The Royal family will need to draw on all its reserves of pragmatism and quiet wisdom if it is to last the 21st century.