This weekend I completed a novel about a conspiracy against the king. In this case, Edward VIII, but it gave me goose pimples when I have typed ‘the king’ numerous times with only Edward in mind. Modern readers, especially oversees, may wonder how the Abdication could cause such a major political crisis. The thirties were more conservative than today and far more deference and importance was attached to the Crown than to our more visible monarchy in a more cynical age. The events of 1936 were largely invisible to the British public, but the televising of this week’s Acclamation threw the spotlight on how the monarchy is a cornerstone of British democracy.
Anti-monarchists would say this is daft, but I’m an archaeologist and there is something special in being part of the flow of history. Westminster Hall, where the King addressed members of both houses of Parliament is a thousand years old. Kings of England have been acclaimed since the ninth century. Ancient rituals offer solidity. Some will say it stops progress, but then the question would be progress to what? A king with his staff, palaces, cars, deference, guards and costs to the public purse would be replaced by a president with staff, palaces, cars, deference, guards and costs to the public purse. Royals show human weakness in their love lives, their choices of friends and unguarded words, but so too do presidents, their children and associates. A president arrives with political and financial baggage, and a king of course does not have one eye on retirement, company directorships, book deals and lucrative speaking tours. Constitutionally he’s our wicket-keeper, not the opening batsman.
Particularly impressive has been how swiftly the official plans have swung into action. However, I should not have been surprised. For a decade my team was responsible for enacting a small part of ‘Tower Bridge’; this passed to my successor and it appears at a distance to have gone smoothly. Of course, it takes a great deal of effort to make something look effortless. The cross co-ordination required to create our eight-page plan was no doubt mirrored a thousandfold by institutions across the country. Indeed, across the Commonwealth and beyond. The transfer of power was not in itself democratic, but there would be no succession crisis, no allegations of vote-rigging and stolen outcomes. On Thursday afternoon the Queen died, by Friday her son is addressing the nation and at 10am on Saturday is acclaimed king and signs a whole heap of documents. One ripple, then the ship of state sails resolutely onwards.
Watching that first broadcast it was hard not to feel empathy with a man who had lost his mother barely twenty-four hours being thrust in front of the cameras and expected to hit the ground running. I was impressed by Penny Mourdant, just two days into her role as Chair of the Privy Council, and it can’t have been the easiest week for a new Prime Minister to take office either. Spare a thought too for the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police taking up his post one week before the Queen’s funeral when according to the Met London is expected to be ‘full’. Keep calm and carry on, indeed.
The question is often asked ‘where were you when…’ as major events become milestones in our lives. In part it explains the huge rush to share royal anecdotes, to line up show respect, and to write personal blogs. In my case I was on the slow train through the Pennines, checking my phone once it had a signal after passing through a tunnel into Edale. Misty rain was draped like a blanket down the slopes of Kinder Scout, yet sun was striking the summit of Mam Tor on the opposite side of the valley. The combination of rolling hills, stone-built villages and the ‘sunshine with showers’ weather was very English. For some reason the opening lines of a Genesis song came to me:
‘Dark and grey, an English film, the Wednesday play. We always watch the Queen on Christmas Day.’
No more, it seems. God save the king!