The Good, the Bad and the Queen: Why Brexit Threatens the Monarchy

By Maguire, Patrick | New Statesman (1996), September 6, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad and the Queen: Why Brexit Threatens the Monarchy


Maguire, Patrick, New Statesman (1996)


The last day of August marked the 22nd anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Reflecting on that time now can feel like looking at another country. It is difficult to imagine an event dominating the consciousness of the divided Britain of 2019 in the same way, or inspiring such a prolonged outbreak of state-sanctioned mawkishness. It is even harder to imagine popular opinion turning against Queen Elizabeth II, as it did for a few days in September 1997.

Headlines from the time are even more striking today. "Your People are Suffering. Speak to Us Ma'am," said the Mirror. "Show Us You Care," barked the Express. "Where is Our Queen? Where is Her Flag?" asked the Sun. And, though largely forgotten now, disquiet at the Queen's apparent froideur came at a time of renewed uncertainty about the monarchy.

In January that year, ITV hosted a rancorous live debate on its future. One third of the 2.5 million viewers polled backed abolition. Public intellectuals proclaimed it dead. "The first British election ever without the monarchy," Tom Nairn, the political theorist, wrote the week before Tony Blair's landslide victory. "Is this not how it's likely to be remembered?"

Could anything provoke similar dissent now? Until last week, it felt unlikely, if not unimaginable. The Queen, now into her 68th year on the throne, is 93. Her approval rating--72 per cent, according to YouGov--is without parallel in almost any Western democracy. Her remarkable success in maintaining the power and prestige that so few European monarchies have is largely because of her ability to appear above the fray of electoral politics.

But after approving Boris Johnson's request to prorogue parliament despite widespread Commons opposition to his Brexit policy--which came, like Diana's death, in the last week of August, during her annual stay at Balmoral--the Queen is now at the centre of a constitutional storm.

She usually succeeds in avoiding them, despite occasional efforts to politicise her. Margaret Thatcher once complained she was someone who would vote SDP. David Cameron claimed she had "purred" after the pro-Union victory in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. In 2016, Michael Gove was believed (by Nick Clegg) to have told the Sun that she had privately endorsed Brexit.

Yet the slights have never stuck, precisely because the constitution accords the Queen little agency of her own. She acts solely on the advice of her ministers and refrains from voicing personal opinions in public. A "golden triangle" of officials calibrates Whitehall's handling of constitutional matters so as not to imperil her reputation for impartiality: Edward Young, her private secretary, Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, and Peter Hill, Johnson's principal private secretary. …

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