The survival of the monarchy in Great Britain is predicated upon the preservation of its own cultivated mystique. The contradiction embedded in a queen being the head of state of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy means that the monarchy cannot be exposed to the common public glare. Its mystique has to be protected by a ring fence of ritual. The magic of monarchy lies in the distance it establishes between itself and its subjects. This magic, in the golden jubilee of Regina Elizabeth II, is wearing somewhat thin. If the death of the former princess of Wales, Lady Diana, demonstrated that “the firm’’, which is the Duke of Edinburgh’s preferred way of describing the British royal house, was hopelessly out of touch with the feelings of the British people, the cause célèbre concerning Mr Paul Burrell, the royal butler attached to Lady Diana, has made the royalty appear common and what is worse, has made Her Majesty’s police force and legal advisors look horribly hamhanded and incompetent.
Mr Burrell, who was often fondly referred to by Lady Diana as “the rock’’, was accused of stealing more than £ 6 million of properties belonging to his former employer. The case against him was dropped when the queen suddenly disclosed that Mr Burrell had told her five years ago that he was “safeguarding’’ some of the princess’s papers. In British legal history, the queen’s announcement was something unprecedented. It exposed the reigning monarch to the charge that she had manipulated a criminal case that threatened to reveal the more unseemly aspects of life inside royal palaces. The denial of such a charge by Buckingham Palace is a confirmation that royalty has been tarnished by the tar of the common.
This, in recent memory, is not the only time that common light has lit up the magical and fairy-tale world of royalty. In the jubilee concert, the likes of Ozzy Osbourne performed and Brian May, the queen guitarist played, “God Saved the Queen.’’ Royalty, one could say, went pop and the cookie crumbled. Royalty cannot expect to pander to pop culture and celebrity status, and to retain its dignity. An older generation of monarchs, perhaps even the present queen’s father, would have responded with an alliteration of tuttuts at such goings on in close propinquity to royalty. It is thus not surprising that “the firm” should find itself in a mess about how to deal with a butler of a former estranged daughter-in-law. There are better ways of dealing with a dogsbody factotum who may or may not have seen too much.
The monarchy, a major British institution, has taken a severe beating. It has suffered because it is an utter anachronism. The more common it makes itself, the less dignified will it look; the more distant it makes itself, the more irrelevant will it become. The monarchy can reform itself by acknowledging that it is no more than a part of Britain’s tourism industry. The theory of the firm no longer functions.