“We must not let in daylight upon magic,” the historian and constitutionalist Walter Bagehot famously wrote of the monarchy.
A great deal of daylight is being let in on the royal family of late.
We might start with Prince Philip’s recent misadventures in motoring, in which he not only caused an accident on a public road but was caught on camera driving without a seatbelt. He has since given up driving, apparently to avoid possible prosecution, not to mention further public opprobrium for flaunting the laws of the land.
And now the newly entitled Duchess of Sussex, the former actress Meghan Markle, now the Queen’s daughter-in-law, has opened a few more chinks of light. Starting with the leak of a letter she wrote to her father complaining of his publicity-seeking antics – for which she is said to be suing the Daily Mail – and her high visibility, shamelessly expensive baby shower party in New York, costing $300,000 and apparently paid for by her high-profile celebrity friends.
My interest in the escapades of Miss Markle range from non-existent to casual – the latter generated only because they have consistently been played out in the more star-struck tabloids and thence to the prurient impulses of their readers. But she would do well do keep her head down in the present febrile climate. Tabloid celebrity may go with the job, but she must do her best to avoid it.
The government and the opposition party are rightly under attack right now because of the unresolved Brexit debacle, but whatever the outcome – which may please half the country or no one – all our national institutions are likely to come under intense public scrutiny. Not so much for what they have done but for simply being.
Britain may soon be leaving Europe with consequences that no one seems to have bothered to work out. If those consequences, on the economy and other aspects of national life, get anywhere near matching the most pessimistic expectations, then the monarchy will be no more immune from debate about its future than any other agency of the establishment. There will be a great many angry people across this divided country, some on Celtic geographical fringes pressing for the end of the union that make up the United Kingdom. Scotland’s National Party may press for a new referendum. Certain elements in Northern Ireland may do the same. The more so if the results fail to go the way Westminster would wish. In that case the government would almost certainly fall, and perhaps along with it, the Conservative and Labour parties, at least in their present form.
None of which has anything to do with the monarchy itself, of course. And yet it has everything to do it. In a rising tide of discontent, yearning for radical change, even a 1,000 year old monarchy may not be exempt.
The Queen has been dutifully silent on Philip, Markle and Brexit, but no doubt she is giving vent to her personal feelings in private. Her advisors may well be stoking it, as well they should.
A British republic! Unthinkable! It sounds almost oxymoronic, But Brexit has brought into the spotlight all kinds of divisions and simmering discontentment, not least the irresponsible behaviour and general incompetence of politicians of both major parties. These are feeding an undercurrent – swirling quietly if not yet loudly articulated – for radical change. Not just of government, but of everything perceived to have contributed to the sorry state the country is now perceived to be in.
If that discontent needed a catalyst it might well be the demise of Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, now 94. The ascension to the throne of her son Charles would not be universally popular. The perception is that he has neither the dignity nor the gravitas that have made his mother such a respected figure in public life. Already many Britons quietly regard his persona, and his controversial views on a range of subjects – which he has often refrained from keeping to himself – as inappropriate for the post. Monarchy without the present incumbent may be too startling to contemplate now. That could well change under Charles – unless somehow he ups his game.
“Be not afeard,” wrote Shakespeare, “The isle is full of noises”. It certainly is. Of course, he went on to write of “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”, but the sounds and airs I am hearing right now are not sweet and delightful but bitter and resentful.
Meghan Markle, whatever she does or does not bring to the royal party, may not bring the monarchy down. The decline and fall, should it happen, will have many contributing factors. She would be well advised not to become one of them, however inadvertently.