The loyal toast drunk at all formal dinners in the University of Lancaster is ‘The Queen, the Duke of Lancaster’. For one of the many titles of the sovereign, whether male or female, is Duke (never Duchess) of Lancaster. So as the nation celebrates the birth of a baby boy who will in the normal course of events occupy the throne after Charles III and William V, we also hail a future Duke of Lancaster.
This happy event caps a remarkable period of popularity for the monarchy following the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and their triumphant tours of Canada and the Pacific, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Queen’s astonishing and endearing appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony, apparently parachuting into the stadium with James Bond, and the anniversary of the 1953 coronation.
The Queen has now effectively moved into the position for so long occupied by her mother, the late Queen Mother, of beloved grandmother of the nation. The reverence and affection in which she is held parallels the iconic role of Queen Victoria in the 1890s. It is all a stark contrast to the unhappy period which culminated in the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the greatest period of crisis for the British monarchy since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.
The bitter and acrimonious break-up of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales had divided the nation, the press had had a field day with revelation after scandalous revelation and even the Queen had been subject to criticism in the tabloids. Large sections of the intelligentsia and the three anti-monarchy national newspapers, The Independent, The Guardian and The Observer convinced themselves that the monarchy was finished and that their longed-for republic was at hand. They were to be rapidly disillusioned. The tearful public reaction to Diana’s funeral turned out to be a temporary emotional spasm and no tumbrils appeared outside Buckingham Palace to convey the royal family to the waiting guillotine. But if the papers had paid any attention to the opinion polls they might have realised this. In the very week of the funeral, the polls registered 71% (Gallup), 73% (Mori) and 74% (ICM) support for the monarchy. On the day of the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002, support for the monarchy stood at 84% and has remained there ever since.
What explains the strength of the institution? Since the beginning of the 21st century, almost every other public institution has been mired in scandal inspiring widespread distrust and disillusionment: parliament, the police, the press, the law, the banks, the churches, the NHS, even the BBC. The royal family have continued to embody the old traditional values of service, duty and self-sacrifice with the Queen (at 87) and the Duke of Edinburgh (at 92) keeping up a punishing schedule of public appearances, with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall actively supporting a wide variety of charitable causes and with the young Princes William and Harry serving in the armed forces.
On the other hand, with the rise of the celebrity culture and the technological revolution (24 hour news, Facebook, Twitter etc.), public events have been transformed into soap opera. The royal family has become the supreme example of the participatory soap. Because through the media the public has shared the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows of this family, judged them as they would the characters in EastEnders or The Archers, they feel that they know them personally. Some years ago the sociologist Michael Billig investigated popular attitudes to the royal family and found that people familiarly referred to its members as Charles, Di, Philip, Andy, Fergie and the Queen Mum, as if they were characters in a soap, though significantly the Queen was always called The Queen.
Now even she has now become a mythic figure, thanks to Helen Mirren’s Oscar-Winning performance in 'The Queen' and her current stage success in 'The Audience'. When Walter Bagehot published his celebrated study 'The English Constitution' in 1867, he wrote of the monarchy: ‘A family on the throne is an interesting idea. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life. No feeling could seem more childish than the enthusiasm of the English at the marriage of the Prince of Wales. But no feeling could be more like common human nature, as it is, and as it is likely to be. A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind’. That remains true.
The birth of a child is another universal fact. It is currently riveting the nation as the latest episode in the longest running soap in British History.
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