/ 9 September 2022

Should South Africans really care that the Queen of England is dead?

Gettyimages 1243045705
A person holds their phone with a screensaver of Queen Elizabeth II who died this afternoon on September 8, 2022 in London, England. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in Bruton Street, Mayfair, London on 21 April 1926. She married Prince Philip in 1947 and acceded the throne of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth on 6 February 1952 after the death of her Father, King George VI. Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8, 2022, and is survived by her four children, Charles, Prince of Wales, Anne, Princess Royal, Andrew, Duke Of York and Edward, Duke of Wessex. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Any death is a sad event, even if it occurs after a full life at 96. And one should sympathise with the surviving members of the deceased person’s family — in this case, four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

But beyond such formalities, why should I, or any South African for that matter, care about the long-expected demise of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II?

In particular, why should South Africans care more about her than other kings and queens? That some of us may feel a stronger emotional response is surely a forelock-tugging hangover from South Africa’s former subordination as a British colony.

Our only formal relationship with the British Crown in the third decade of the 21st century is as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, of which Elizabeth was titular head. But as this association barely exists as a vital force in the world, who gives a royal flush?

One could make a similar case against the monarchy in Britain itself. What purpose does it serve? Who benefits from it, other than the overpaid parasites of the royal family? How is Britain better for it? Why could a largely ceremonial monarch not be replaced by an elected but largely ceremonial head of state, as in a country like Austria?

The difference lies partly in the person of Queen Elizabeth, who undoubtedly commanded respect and fondness among Britons for her dignity, decorum and dedication to duty, and the careful, politically neutral treading of the constitutional tightrope throughout her 70-year reign.

In her personal life, she was a paragon of uprightness, in strong contrast for example, to Spain’s corruption-tainted former monarch, Juan Carlos.

The Queen is said to have supported the formation of the National Health Service by Clement Attlee’s Labour government after World War II and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement. 

She took her role as a national conciliator and supra-political symbol of unity very seriously. Her one intervention on Brexit, for example, was to call for more mutual respect and less internecine rhetoric in debates on the issue.

Probably centre-right by political instinct, she is also said to have disliked Margaret Thatcher, both personally and politically, and to have disapproved of the louche antics of fallen Conservative Party prime minister Boris Johnson.

She is known to have been strongly supportive of the commonwealth as an institution built on the principle of multiracial cooperation and to have defended it against Thatcher’s hostility.

Purely by example, she stood for certain standards in British public life that have been degraded by years of Tory cronyism and greed.

But none of this can obscure the fact that she was a multimillionaire and one of the largest landowners in the country, or the obvious contradiction that in a pioneering parliamentary democracy, she owed her position to the anachronism of hereditary power.

She and her family were, and remain, a very expensive national habit. A recently released report on royal finances showed that last year they cost the British taxpayer just over £100-million (R2.2-billion) — a 17% increase over 2020-21.

The harsh fact is that the royal family is a standing expression of deep and long-entrenched inequalities of social class in Britain.

The former Labour MP Clive Lewis has been quoted in The Guardian as commenting that the “pantomime” of pomp and ceremony conceals “a whole network of power structures and deference”.

So why do a majority of British people support the monarchy and want it to continue? 

The diehard conservatism of Britons of all classes provides a partial explanation — the Conservatives are the default ruling party, and there is a rooted resistance to change that makes the country one of the most backward democracies in Europe on many social issues.

Popular monarchism has certainly increased in the post-war period, probably because the Queen commands such personal support. A recent poll showed that six out of 10 Britons want to retain the monarchy for the foreseeable future.

As highlighted by the Silver Jubilee, when everywhere outside the major urban centres was buried under red, white and blue bunting, this is also a matter of patriotic pride and British identity.

This appears to be partly compensatory — the further one moves down the social order, the more intense and belligerent the emotional adherence to the institution.

But it would be a mistake to think the popular sentiment is unalterable. Surveys by the market research company Ipsos show that in 1983, 87% of people thought the monarchy was important and 65% very important. By 1993, support across both metrics had fallen to an overall 66%.

Bear in mind that this was a highly turbulent period for the royal family, particularly because of the chaotic disintegration of Charles and Diana’s marriage. The Queen described the year 1992, for example, as her “annus horribilis”.

The percentages rise and fall with events and how they are covered by the tabloid media, which are fixated on royalty. King Charles III will, no doubt, benefit from a surge of monarchy fever prompted by his mother’s death and his coronation, as happened during both Elizabeth’s diamond and the silver jubilees

But there seems to be a long-term downward trend. In November, an Ipsos poll indicated that 60% of respondents backed the monarchy — the lowest for close to three decades.

Equally significant is the age divide on the issue. A YouGov survey of adults aged 18-24 last year showed 41% wanted an elected head of state, against 26% two years earlier. Support, unsurprisingly, is strongest among those over 65.

England is the heartland of monarchical loyalties. In Scotland, for example, a scant 45% believe there is a good reason for the institution to continue.

This has not yet translated into growing support for a republican order. Only about 11% of people favour the abolition of the monarchy, a figure that has remained fairly constant over the years.

The suggestion is that Britons want a hereditary head of state and all the pomp and circumstance associated with it, as something distinctively theirs that grows out of their culture and traditions.

But the expense and the disgraceful shenanigans of the royals — the latest example being Prince Andrew’s alleged statutory rape of an underage girl — have perhaps spurred the view that the institution needs a radical overhaul

Charles has pledged reform, notably in slimming down the monarchy and the circle of royals entrusted with official duties.

It seems certain that he will try to use his position to promote more urgency on climate change, an issue on which he has passionate convictions. Asked by the BBC for his opinion of climate campaigners who blocked a motorway and parts of London last year, Charles replied that “he totally understood their frustration”.

But under the British constitutional order, he can do little but advise, encourage and warn the politicians. Half the respondents in a poll voiced scepticism about whether his accession would make much practical difference. His advocacy may prove useful, but will hardly be game-changing.

Support for Charles among his fellow citizens seems lukewarm — most told pollsters they wanted the Queen to continue on the throne for as long as possible, rather than making way for him.

There is also the question of his relationship with the right-wing “red top” papers, which have been central to promoting the super-patriotic cult of his mother. Hostile to his environmentalism, they tend to treat him as a bit of a crackbrain.

The likelihood, therefore, is that without the unchanging, rock-like presence Elizabeth built over seven decades, the monarchy is set to lose credibility, visibility and popular appeal.

The paradox is that the institution retains such robustness in Britain despite the steady whittling down of its executive powers in the almost four centuries since its civil war.

South Africans are fascinated by the ritual and pageantry of royalty, as they showed by their rapt focus on the recent enthronement of Zulu King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini. But in their hearts, they know that the tide of history runs strongly against it.

Drew Forrest is a former political editor and deputy editor of Mail & Guardian.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.