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An Answer to a Question that Nobody thinks of, Viz. But what if the QUEEN should die? (Daniel Defoe, 1713)

April 21, 2016

Queen Anne

In 1713, Daniel Defoe wrote a fascinating tract with this somewhat provocative title.  Defoe had been employed by a variety of administrations in Anne’s reign and was most closely associated with Robert Harley, the moderate “Tory” lynch-pin who was the most significant minister associated with the latter part of Anne’s life.  The title question of the tract – For what if the Queen should Die? is repeated in italics over and over again, perorating most paragraphs.  As John Richetti amusingly comments: “The effect is rather like Ravel’s “Bolero”, intense, relentless, and at length annoying.”

Strictly speaking, Defoe might be considered guilty of the ancient Norman-French definition of treason, since he was in a sense “imagining the King’s [or Queen’] death”.  The essay describes the extent to which the Revolution settlement of 1688 hangs not only on a thread, but on a thread that must snap at some point.  Defoe is confident that Jacobitism (and with it Catholic Stuart Absolutism) has no chance of success in the Queen’s lifetime, but that with her death, all manner of opportunists will be liable to strike.

Defoe was right.  On the Queen’s death a year after this paper was published, the political order was transformed.  This transformation was relatively bloodless in London but was scary for those involved.  His old boss Harley was imprisoned in the Tower as a result of the retributive temper of the Whig partisans of the incoming Elector of Hanover – George I.  My favourite poet, Matthew Prior, was also placed under arrest for his role in negotiating the now discredited Peace of Utrecht.  Harley’s most important colleague, Henry St John (Lord Bolinbroke) fled to France and declared for James III (Anne’s half brother).   James Stuart attempted a serious uprising.   People died.

Defoe’s concern in 1713 was both very contemporary and yet very timely.  Can loyalties be transferred from an individual to a sustainable set of institutions?   We are all (in 1713) Anneites – but are we all (in 1713) Constitutional Settlementites?

In 2016, the Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday cannot help but provoke the same title, the same question, in very very different circumstances.   The threats to Britain’s very fragile existence do not include Catholic theocracy, Louis XIV or the Jacobite pretender.  Indeed, I’d lay a substantial bet on Duke Franz of Bavaria NOT becoming Britain’s next Head of State following the death of the current monarch.  Duke Franz might be the “rightful” Stuart claimant, but he seems quite cheerful where he is right now.

Longevity is now commonplace among very very rich people, but thanks to Elizabeth succeeding early to the throne as a consequence of her father belonging to a World War One chain-smoking generation, she has been monarch for a very long time.  Only a small percentage of Britons have any recollection of any monarch preceding Elizabeth II.  Elizabeth is no longer subject to any comparisons.   This situation will change.  From now on, reigns will be shorter.  The gerontocratic aspects of the hereditary principle will kick in.  Monarchs in their nineties will be succeeded by monarchs in their seventies.  These truncated reigns will enable invidious comparisons to be made.   The only way of avoiding this phenomenon is if the notion of “retirement” is entertained.  But “retirement” is a demystifying concept that robs monarchy of its essential allure.  If monarchs can retire, then being a monarch is a “job” that you can retire from.  If being a monarch is job then that job can be quantified, assessed, and compared with comparable jobs.  Time and motion studies beckon – and few family business can survive those.

The kind of thinking that considers the idea of “retirement” is (rightly) anathema to the real monarchist, the sort of person who talks of the Queen having “served” all her life.   For such people, “serving” and “breathing” are equivalent terms.  The monarch is a monarch by dint of breathing – to be a monarch is not to perform a job of work, it is to exist, to simply be oneself.  And if generations are to be skipped just because heirs are “not popular” then the essence of the hereditary principle is lost.  If public opinion is the basis for whoever is Head of State, you’re half way towards being a republican.

The fact that so many people want the line of succession to skip Charles and go straight to William, shows how weak the essence of Monarchist sentiment has become, how weak a hold the hereditary principle has over the public imagination.  A true monarchist transfers their loyalty seamlessly from one monarch to another.  The monarch never dies.

However, the modern answer to the question what if the Queen should die may reveal that most people are, after all, not monarchists at all but Elizabethans.  When the Queen dies, the crown will pass to Charles, a political meddler who people know far too much about to revere.  His heir is William, a prematurely middle aged tongue tied bald man who is so disinclined to speak in public that comedians don’t know how to do impressions of him.  It would be an act of mercy to exclude him from having to be Head of State.  William would much rather live the life of a reclusive squire in Norfolk.

Defoe’s question, in 2016, as the Queen turns 90, remains key.  To what extent can personal loyalty transfer to institutions?  The Queen is so identified as “the monarch” that it is unclear that people will be able to easily shout “Long live the King” instead of looking for alternative constitutional arrangements.

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One Comment
  1. J.E.Burgess permalink

    Could I just point out, as a born and bred resident of Norfolk (albeit in social housing) I could do without any more would be “reclusive country squires” about the place. We have too many of those as it is.

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