The Royal Rorschach Blot
Glen Newey salutes her majesty
Why do people love the queen? Or, to put a slightly different question: what do people love when they love the queen? Whatever it is, this week’s Guardian/ICM poll suggests that a lot of people still do. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents thought Britain would be worse off, and only 22 per cent better off, without her. As politicians sink ever deeper in public esteem, so the queen rises. Over the coming weekend the country’s usually scabrous public sphere will turn, as it did when Diana croaked, as deferential as Zimbabwe’s.
As few will want reminding, her majesty has now sat for sixty years. You can go far in life by failing to die, and this the queen has so far managed to do. Among the world’s heads of state only Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej has lasted longer. When the ‘bogey’ of an elected head of state is conjured to freeze republican gizzards nowadays, the pet bête noire is a UK republic under, say, President Bojo or Blair; years ago it was Jeffrey Archer or even Steve ‘Shagger’ Norris (though nothing in republicanism rules out choosing a head of state by sortition). By the same token, however, the queen wouldn’t be so adored if she had to decide whether to slap VAT on hot pasties.
Her negative capability is not merely constitutional. Think of the period spanned by her reign, and the image rears up of a long stick of pink rock, with the queen’s mug running implacably through the middle of it. And what a mug it is, well captured by the hologram recently donated to the National Portrait Gallery. The point is not quite that, as the Prince of Wales and others comment, the queen never changes. It’s more that she is like nothing on earth, and it seems people like nothing more than nothing.
The queen ‘represents’ the nation by being quite unlike anyone in it. Nobody – not even Brian Sewell – speaks the Queen’s English as she does. And no one else dresses like her, either. Some time in the 1960s she seems to have decided that her outer garment of choice should be modelled on the uniform of a Soviet tank commander around the time of the Kursk offensive, and since then has rarely been seen without some version of this coat, bespoke-tailored but obliterating all bodily contours, in shades of cornflower, crushed rose and phlegm.
Memories of Christmas days past are shaded by the regina monologues, the queen’s mogadonnish 3 p.m. telly broadcasts, like a séance at which the medium herself had passed to the other side. One yearned for her to crack a joke or cuss or come out as lesbian, but nothing interesting ever happened, and after years the realisation dawned that the boringness was the point. At a pre-gurgitation of the jubilee junketing in Westminster Hall a couple of months back, the Commons speaker, John Bercow, oozed away about how the monarch rules a ‘kaleidoscope’ nation. Cameras cut to the Queen and consort on a dais, looking about as kaleidoscopic as a gas bill – indeed less animated than their Madame Tussaud effigies. But whose heart wouldn’t warm to them alongside a coxcomb like Bercow?
So it’s the very bugger-allness of the queen, her Rorschach-blot quality, that has proven her great strength. She does manage something approaching animation when one of her racehorses wins or a corgi whelps, but these are but fleeting ripples on the waters of somnolence. Her nullity oils projective identification across the divide of wealth, breeding and influence, with the sovereign as both royal and ordinary. By contrast, on the surviving evidence, the only other diamond jubilant in the monarchy’s history, Queen Victoria, always looked as if she’d just sat on a thistle, and nobody thought they were just like her. Subjects adore the idols they deserve. Or as Nietzsche put it, when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.