Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.' Thomas Carlyle
Some reflections on the evolution of the British Monarchy on the 366th anniversary of the execution of Charles I
“What Britain needs,” a Jewish friend once said, “is a benevolent dictator.”
I confess I was amused by the idealism of this oxymoron, thinking of the less bloodthirsty Old Testament kings who stood in God's stead and often did it their way. But he was articulating the cry of a child for a parent.
Whatever one feels about the principle of Monarchy, and whether individual monarchs are saints or villains – mostly they're just ordinary mortals coping with an invidious task in high relief - I believe we know instinctively that we are made to honour it. A Constitutional Monarchy, based on long tradition, is probably as good as it gets. This has to some extent been eroded in Britain, but what is largely below the waterline is the stabilising influence it still has on society. Some political theories might well appear just and logical, but they don't take into account human nature and human needs.
It provides no solution that those at the top must have their incomes protected because they are the movers and shakers and the benefits will somehow percolate downwards. The cherished moneymakers who provide the highest revenue, it is argued, are those who will be keeping the country afloat. Not, apparently, if the wife lives in Monaco.
Grants to local government are equally likely to be administered in favour of vested interests, so that money is funnelled into private pockets. The trouble with outright democracy is that, while it may spare us the tyrants, election sifts down to the least abhorred, rather than the most revered and respected.
As a counterweight, we need an impartial hierarchy which is there to promote, throughout the globe, the good of every law-abiding citizen of the nation - and even to mediate the fate of those who aren't! Rather than the reverse, it gives us status and colours our aspirations. It is the last link with our heritage in a post-Christian society. And if this framework revives our long-lost humility, then we are ennobled by that process. In this finely-balanced symbiosis, we are its servants and it is ours.
It is sometimes said in jest that America and Britain are one people divided by a common language. But penetrate a little deeper into the psyche of nationhood and it becomes clear that while tremendous friendship, goodwill, co-operation and esteem prevail, what separates is more than tweaks of the lexicon. It's a matter of history and geography, our respective positions on the atlas and how the interaction of both has forged diverse ways of thinking and being in striving towards fair and civilised cultures. The Atlantic is easier to bridge than at any time in the past, but it is still a thousand leagues of water.
Two years ago, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty's Coronation on June 2nd, 1953. What the 2012 Diamond Jubilee (marking the Accession) showed beyond a shadow of doubt was how loved and revered she is, how thankful we are for the blessings of our heritage, how, when all the carping about privilege and the flirting with extreme fringes of democracy are done, we recognise what has given us a frame of reference through troubled decades. We know who we are. Thankfulness is better than pride. Pride has to do with Empire and all its conceits. We are struggling with many of the sins of Empire at present. It has all come home to roost.
Our Monarch is a mirror. She reflects back the better part of our human nature. Queen Elizabeth II is no Gloriana. She has understood what humility means and nicely judged her stance through some harsh challenges, very aware of dark forces behind the scenes. As a Constitutional Monarch, she has toed a strong and delicate line. When the Divine Right of Kings was questioned in the seventeenth century, it led to the execution of Charles I. It was an idealistic notion, open to abuse on the part of monarchs and subjects alike, and widely misinterpreted. To make the concept viable in moral as well as legal terms, humility is called for on both sides. The buck stops with the Sovereign. The exalted are here to serve in God's stead, a tall order with myriad random forces at large, one that demands respect for the position itself and constant prayer for the wisest outcome when human frailty takes over.
The Commonwealth and Cromwell's Protectorate, after Charles I's death in 1649, proved neither popular nor practicable. Folk didn't take to having a commoner decide their fate and the experiment failed. The Restoration of 1660 heralded times that have never looked back, whatever modifications have been made. It's the easiest thing in the world to tear down icons, demolish old structures, whitewash church walls of their painted saints and martyrs, not so easy to lay foundations among the rubble and build a whole new regime.
Perhaps contrarily, we don't go in for role models and heroes in Britain. The notion is alien to us. Fandom doesn't have quite the same charge as it does in the States. We buy the products of celebrity to enhance our lives; we embed those we admire in the culture, but while fashions and attitudes may filter through, we take our idols with a pinch of salt. It seems there is something else already in situ within our makeup.
Across the ocean, we see space and the freedom to move and be, an enviable pioneering spirit, a people determined to pool resources and 'fork lightning' from the ruins of religious purges and ideological persecution. A generous people keen to delight in the success of others rather than cut them down to size and look for feet of clay. They have belief in opportunity, a Dream that anything is possible by dint of hard work... And, occasionally, we glimpse a people cloven from their deepest roots, living on the outer crust of history, hankering for the old countries, the inherited beliefs.
I look back to the fifties, the decade in which the Coronation took place, and smile at how younger generations view it. No, my earliest memories are not especially gilded, or bathed in nostalgia, but it was an era of citizenship, relative safety and unlocked doors. The corner shop, the linchpin of community, had not yet lost out to supermarkets. (Ironically, it is largely being restored by immigrant cultures.) Education was the watchword and degrees matched the needs of the workplace in a way they seldom do nowadays. People travelled a lot. They travelled widely in the course of their week. Infrastructure was well-oiled. Of course, the population was only half the size, maybe less if some estimates are right. Since then, technology and transport have created more haste and congestion, less speed. A letter dropped in the post to someone in the next town may now go a hundred miles out of its way before delivery.
So what is prosperity? Isn't it anything that intimates heaven, the goal behind every goal and the subliminal purpose of all striving? It is our Queen doing her best to hold the self-serving, power-hungry wolves at bay, tending her flock as faithfully as a shepherdess.
It is our Monarch imaging God's love for humanity and in that every Continent has an equal share.
My poem in honour of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee