Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Subject Sends His Humblest Felicitiations to Her Majesty on the Joyous Occasion of Her 90th Birthday

Glen Newey · The Queen’s Birthday

Long-lived monarchs need long memories, so they can remember what needs to be forgotten. John Aubrey recounts the disastrous gaffe by the 17th Earl of Oxford – famous as one of the people who didn't write Shakespeare's plays – while ‘making obeisance’ at court to Elizabeth I. After it, Aubrey says, the disgraced earl escaped by going on his travels, to return to the royal presence seven years later. ‘My Lord,’ Elizabeth greeted him, ‘I had forgott the Fart.’

The second Queen Elizabeth has forgotten her youthful Nazi salute, along with the other fascism-lite imbroglios in which the Firm has snarled itself over the years. Likewise the queenly garlands lobbed to Nicolae Ceaușescu, late dictator of Romania – the then foreign secretary, now Lord Owen, thought it would be nice to have a pal in the Soviet bloc’s southern underbelly, and the genocidal kleptocrat’s liberal cred was duly talked up. Before the visit, the French president, Giscard d'Estaing, rang the queen to warn her that during their visit to Paris the Ceaușescus had ripped out all the gewgaws they could grab. The queen dispatched snatch-squads of footmen round the palace to nail down the silverware. It didn't stop Ceaușescu becoming a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, a gong hurriedly clawed back twenty-four hours before he was shot. Denmark’s Queen Margrethe got in a day earlier, revoking the Order of the Elephant doled out to the dictator in 1980; that one’s been struck from the Danish rolls. Some things even elephants would rather forget.

In Walter Bagehot's phrase, monarchy demands a ban on 'letting daylight' – that is, the truth – 'in upon the magic'. You don't want to picture the queen on the can. Marion Crawford, her governess, was ostracised for life after spilling the (entirely anodyne) beans in The Little Princesses. 'She has gone off her head,’ the Queen Mother spat after vetting the book, which touched on her Bowes-Lyon clan's less than pulsating intellectual life. A court flunkey, Thomas Harvey, offered that it had spawned 'three not negligible poetesses', though one 'had disgraced herself by marrying a Papist, so we don't mention her at Court'. The book had made Princess Elizabeth 'deeply shocked & hurt & furious'. In a vain move to appease her mother, the publishers axed the story of the princess's scratching out from a school textbook the name of the inventor of chloroform – a man called Simpson. As censors know, the fact of censorship itself needs censoring.

Despite these traumas the queen has batted through to ninety. As with Diana's death, and the traipsing pageant of sprogs, weddings and jubilees, the birthday’s another of those moments when the country morphs into a twee version of North Korea. The Beeb goes into auto-drool; ITV is even worse. Mugshots of the supreme leader stare glassily out as bands blare and brass hats prink. She's taking on the holographic aura of her mother, whose last decades plied the pale between chiffon and outright inexistence. One of the better portraits of the queen, Chris Levine's Equanimity, actually is a hologram. Better still is the daub done for her 80th birthday by the child-molester Rolf Harris, as part of a 'BBC tribute'; the Beeb says the current whereabouts of this chef d'oeuvre are unknown. One of Harris's victims tipped off the queen as it was being painted.

Despite her years, the sovereign, known to Private Eye as Brenda, doesn't seem to be planning her own Brexit. Far younger monarchs in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have quit on grounds of age; even old Ratzo of the Holy See has shuffled off his subcinctorium. Meanwhile, the queen adheres to the throne as stubbornly as a seagull-splat baked to a sunshine roof. Commentators trot out the palace line that she sticks at it from a pitiless sense of duty. But everyone knows she knows that every extra day her reign grinds on is one less for that of Charles III. No one, maybe not even the dauphin himself, is clamouring to see the crown teeter atop those jug ears. Perhaps a corgi could be made regent till death or dementia claims him. The official plan, if the queen becomes permanently incapacitated, is that a quinquevirate including the Commons speaker John Bercow, Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, and Prince Philip – assuming he’s still available – will appoint a regent, presumably Charles. Or maybe they'll go for the corgi after all. Vivat regina!

Read more in the London Review of Books

Glen Newey: Bum Decade for the Royals · 23 January 2003

John Sutherland: Royalties · 14 June 1990

Linda Colley: Send them to Eton! · 19 August 1993

Caroline Murphy: Squidging about · 22 January 2004


  • 21 April 2016 at 5:35pm
    Graucho says:
    The great catch 22 of political power is that the things people have to do to attain it generally make them unfit to hold it. The heredity principal defies all democratic logic, yet there is one important thing to be said for it. The Queen has had to climb no greasy poles, do no smoke filled back room deals, owe any fixers favours in payback. Furthermore, should we be unfortunate enough to get a bad un on the throne, parliament can remove them without resort to the axe. In a very British way we have muddled our way through a system that roughly works.

  • 21 April 2016 at 9:02pm
    David A. McM. Wilson says:
    Mr. Newey here manages do outdo himself. Never content with moderately reasoned critiques of the Monarchy and other institutions, he seems positively to delight in personal attacks, delivered in sneering tones, with the occasional disgusting metaphor thrown in for shock value. Quite how the general enthusiasm of the British public for its sovereign - who is, at the very worst, a dignified and not-terribly-expensive figurehead - makes this country "a twee version of North Korea" is not apparent to me; though perhaps Mr. Newey, arbiter of good taste and right thinking that he is, may possess some special powers of discernment that I lack.

  • 22 April 2016 at 5:43am
    philip proust says:
    Very amusing little tribute, Glen Newey.

    The existence of Elizabeth II underpins a long-lived and deeply-layered system of deference and contempt based on birth and money. The monarchy deserves to be satirised - and then dismantled.

    The Royal Family: comprised of snobs who are yet philistines.

    • 22 April 2016 at 6:20am
      Joe Morison says: @ philip proust
      The monarchy represents what you say, but if you got rid of them now they’d just be replaced by someone who represents the new plutocracy - if you think this lot look down on us and are philistines …

      They are old money and believe in service as well as themselves. The problem today is new money that hides itself, not money regulated by us to put on a brilliant show. Make the world fairer and the Royals will follow, it’s the new plutocrats our energy should be directed at.

  • 22 April 2016 at 6:32am
    Joe Morison says:
    I admitted to myself that I’d changed my mind about the monarchy on the day of the recent royal wedding. It was a better party in Soho than Pride, and that’s saying something.

    I remember dancing with my wife in Old Compton Street, hugging old friends and strangers. The music came from an anti-wedding sound system; next to it, still amid all the movement, stood Stewart Lee, perplexed by our elation.

  • 22 April 2016 at 6:55am
    cufflink says:
    As a mere LRB groundling I stand in awe of Glen's inimitable soliloquies delivered with such bite and erudite perception from high up there on the boards.
    Is he our definitive diarist and commentator for the next age, a sophisticted Pepys through the keyhole? Or is he a devastating cod-pieced Greville unbent to apply the whip to the inner parts of our lives?
    His reports from Blogdingnag give eloquent testestimony to the facade of unintelligible ceremony and crass hypocrisy that surround us.

    • 22 April 2016 at 10:55am
      Eddie Fez says: @ cufflink
      It's considered bad form to comment unbidden on one's own articles Mr Newey.

      Mr. Wilson, you realise that is the desired response. Again, are you sure you aren't Glen Newey?

      This seems restrained to me by recent standards. Though as is often the case, a point of any substance seems elusive. The monarchy has historical links to fascism, the media fawn over them, no one wants Charlie, etc. All very familiar, even cosy.

      I believe Mr. Newey rather admires John Gray. Where they may differ, beyond personal style, is in the latter's investment in the role of illusion. The monarchy perhaps provides an example, and while I pay them little attention myself, which is a lot easier than this article suggests, I'm open to an adjusted version of Joe Morison's argument.

      This vacuum sealed dumbshow seems considerably less sinister than the middle class everyman presentation of the upcoming plutocracy, cloaked as it is in the apparently unarguable benefits of metrical systemisation. The networked modern socius is their readiest collaborator. So may we glimpse a future state, if not quite the current one. Humanism not included, beyond slogans on T shirts.

      But the LRB, which for some time has been largely a political rather than literary review, takes little notice of emergent right wing thought, preferring to believe intellection the sole province of the left, and thereby busy itself with a mixture of disdainful critique and involuted handwringing. Meanwhile ground has long been stolen. Wealth does not trickle down. Ideas do.

      Speculations as to the working nature of a British republic would be welcome. Where would this emotional investment the monarchy inspires, positive and negative (both seen above), go? Would it just disappear? I suspect not.

      In the meantime one turns to the TLS with some relief- smug establishment airs and all- because it actually reviews books. The distraction is welcome at the present moment.

  • 22 April 2016 at 10:20pm
    Simon Wood says:
    God save the Queen. She is one of us. People born under the shadow of the Second World War share a certain feeling, spirit, of we are all in it together. We were mortified, so to speak, following the revelations of 1945.

    But after the Queen, sous les pavés, la déluge.

  • 29 April 2016 at 6:13am
    seanmcg says:
    Give me the dysfunctional Royals any day in preference to Presidents Blair, Johnson, Thatcher, Cameron, Major etc All of those ex PMs or MPs, once out of office, would have been eyeing up the next big job, a stint as a president.
    The Queen is not necessarily that wise, look at the mistakes in the 'family firm' over which she has presided... But she is very old now so is certainly experienced in the job she has been doing for 64 years. The Queen just is. That's the thing about Monarchy. She is also now one of the dwindling generation who lived through the unique experience of World War Two.
    She has given good public service as a head of state in a constitutional monarchy. It is just a pity that those who give good public service everyday of their working lives as doctors, teachers, nurses, public servants, social workers, police, paramedics, firefighters etc are not similarly lauded but instead are rather sneered at as being "low achievers" by the brasher politicians of today.

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