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Elizabeth Ii

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'It's inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you - a successor to the kings and queens of history; someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and films but who never touches your personal lives. But now, at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace
of my own home.'
First televised Christmas address,
25 December 1957

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As a celebrity, famous for being famous but for little else, Queen Elizabeth II was once in a league of her own. No other ‘Firm’ – as the Royal Family likes to refer to itself – could boost the circulation of tabloid newspapers around the world quite so reliably. Even in communist China, two million people thronged the Bund of Shanghai during her state visit in 1986, hailing her as ‘The English country female King’.

The only world she has ever known is inhabited by people who, when not struck dumb or cheering, are walking backwards. Hence, perhaps, her preference for dogs. ‘She does feel more comfortable with them,’ reports Jenny Bond, the BBC’s full-time ‘Court’ correspondent, ‘because they don’t know who she is, so for once she can be normal.’ She may start each day with tea, toast and marmalade, but thereafter her aim is to get back to bed again without having said anything at all of any consequence. For doing this day after day, decade after decade, she has received extraordinary acclaim.

So she should surely have reached the ‘Golden Jubilee’ (50 years) of her reign this year with some sense of satisfaction. Instead, there are anxious rumblings, in Britain at least. Glum courtiers scour the country in vain for signs of the spontaneous celebrations that are decreed to erupt around 4 June, her ‘Golden Jubilee’. The deaths of her mother and her sister have further dampened any celebratory mood.

In truth, Her Majesty seems never to have recovered from 1992, pronounced annus horribilis in the royal idiom. When a large chunk of Windsor Castle burned down, public funds were not forthcoming to restore it. She even had to start paying tax. Worse even than this, the entire Firm had by then become spectacularly ‘dysfunctional’. The divorce of Charles and Diana was only the belated symptom of a deep-seated and chronic family disorder.

The royal upbringing may have accounted for some of it. Elizabeth (‘Lilibet’) herself received no formal education, other than in heraldry and how to smile while standing up for hours on end. Shortly after her coronation in 1953 she set off on a world tour for six months and left her small children behind. The adolescent Charles returned home in triumph from a trial outing as the Prince of Wales, only to be ignored and sent to bed in tears.

In days gone by, an element of oddity was routine, if not de rigueur, in royal households. Exercising as they did a ‘prerogative’ derived directly from God, florid insanity was only to be expected. Global celebrities, however, must pay their way by feeding an insatiable media appetite for both fairy-tale fantasy and sordid gossip. All the Firm can count on to sustain them through this thankless task is a bogus ‘House of Windsor’ designed to obscure the family’s Germanic ancestry, a vacuous imperial ‘magic’ concocted in the 19th century to boost the flagging popular appeal of Queen Victoria, and a seemingly limitless succession of fawning politicians.

Behind all the flummery there lie, nonetheless, some serious political issues. The Queen, with her staff of 300, is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Her accommodation includes two castles, three palaces and several giant country estates. Her personal income, from a minimum $450 million in gilt-edged assets, is not disclosed. On top of this she claims $11 million a year from the public purse and another $10 million from the ‘Duchy of Lancaster’ – public resources put at royal disposal. Norway’s royal family, by contrast, receives just $2.5 million.

Because of the Queen, the people of Britain are not citizens but subjects. They have an antiquated political system and no constitution. Elected representatives and employees of the state pledge allegiance not to democracy but to ‘the Crown’. Following the demise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Britain shares with Iran the distinction of being one of only two states in the world with an established religion, headed by the Queen. Through the Commonwealth she has an astonishing accumulation of powers in 54 countries, with ‘realms’ that include Australia, Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The only justification ever offered for all this is that anything else would be worse.

Little of it is likely to survive her. So perhaps there was a hint of resignation in the announcement that the royal ‘golden jubilee portrait’ would be taken by celebrity photographer Rankin Waddell, who says he likes pictures of ‘disabled models, big women, models gorging on chocolate, crying, on fire and licking bloody knives.’

sense of humour

Asked, as a child, what she would like to be when she grew up, she replied: 'A horse.'

In the BBC documentary, Elizabeth R, the Queen explained how 'her' Prime Ministers used her as a 'sponge' to absorb their political burdens. 'Occasionally one can put one's point of view when perhaps they had not seen it from that angle,' she said.

low cunning

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New Internationalist issue 345 magazine cover This article is from the May 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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