A surreal encounter with the Queen

In the hilarious royal sendup “The Windsors,” Camilla decides that to compete with younger consorts she must have an heir, and so compels Charles to submit to an adoption eligibility procedure. The future king struggles with a Rorschach test and is urged by the examiner to just say whatever he thinks he sees in the squiggles. His face suddenly lights up as replies: “Loyalty to the Crown.”

Loyalty to the Crown, indeed! The real Charles is counting on it as he assumes the fantastical duties and privileges of his late mother. But with the departure of the strangely beloved Elizabeth II, it is worth asking how long the monarchy can possibly go on.

On the plus side of the ledger, we are living in a crisis moment for democracy, when free and fair elections are producing some rather strange results, including in Britain itself, where a momentary nativist tantrum and a campaign based on nonsense yielded the devastating self-expulsion from the European Union.

Charles’ brother, Prince Andrew, is embroiled in Jeffrey Epstein-related scandals and stopped performing royal duties amid allegations in the US of sexual assault (which he settled for an undisclosed sum). Charles’ younger son Harry is living abroad and married to a biracial American ex-actress who, in an encounter with Oprah Winfrey, essentially accused members of the Royal Family of racism (in fussing about the potential for dark skin of her unborn child) and psychological abuse (in driving her to suicidal thoughts). And Charles himself still struggles to escape from the shadow of his much-lamented first wife Diana.

So what would happen if the Royal Family became dreadfully unpopular? Would Britain forever continue its unconventional arrangement with the House of Windsor (and Mountbatten)?

Other countries have monarchies, but these tend to be either hereditary dictatorships, as in parts of the Arab world, or irrelevancies, as in corners of Europe. Rare is the monarchy with the opacity and artifice that one finds in Britain.

It is easy to dismiss as a harmless relic of the past left in place to soothe sentimentalists and attract foreign tourists to the Changing of the Guards. But there is more than this going on.

To begin with, the family is very rich indeed, with the monarch’s net worth estimated at close to half a billion dollars and the taxpayer forking over many millions annually through various arrangements that seem like either a budget or a stipend, depending on where one stands.

And while the monarch is supposed to “reign, not rule,” forays into politics are built into the system in systematic and beguiling ways. The King or Queen appoints prime ministers, and would appear to have some leeway in cases of unclear election results. What results has been known as “Her Majesty’s Government.”

The annual Queen’s Speech before parliament was delivered in language suggesting a presentation of one’s own plan. It was written by ministers, rendering the Queen something of a puppet, but was she really? Was she forbidden from going rogue? Yes, but no, but sort of. She held weekly audiences with the prime minister (though some have been held by phone). Why? Not clear. The Palace has said that the Queen was “politically neutral on all matters” yet was “able to ‘advise and warn’ her ministers — including her prime minister — when necessary.” To what avail? To what effect?

It’s not entirely clear what would happen in case of an outrageous enough scenario. In theory, the monarch can actually do a great many things, including appointing ministers, declaring war, and dissolving parliament. Of course that would never happen. Or at least not until British Nazis rose to power and tried to burn down the Houses of Parliament. Or something.

It was Elizabeth’s strict obeyance of tradition that made this oddness be OK. But we are not longer living in times of obeyance. Charles III seems a traditional sort of fellow, but he also has a bit of an activist bent; he may take some of it seriously.

Some welcome a nebulous buffer between the grasping politicians produced by fickle public opinion and the fate of the nation. But does such lack of clarity — and any hereditary authority — befit a modern state?

The Queen stumbled on occasion in the past. As watchers of the “The Crown” know, she was accused of aloofness in the 1950s and caused angst by failing to quickly visit the site of a Wales mining disaster that killed scores of children in the 1960s. Anyone alive in the 1990s will recall her subpar performance upon the death of Princess Diana.

Yet by and large, the Queen was popular. She was lucky to ascend just after the British Empire fell apart in the mid-20th century, with Britain losing its assets from South Asia to the Middle East to the West Indies in dizzying succession. Nostalgists hold on to the Commonwealth, an association of former colonies that was championed and led by the Queen and is largely fictitious except for a shared love of cricket.

She also benefitted from Britain’s desire to be special. Not for Britain the dreary bureaucratic egalitarianism of the European Union, where Luxemburg and Latvia enjoyed the same veto power as the former ruler of the seas. I don’t begrudge them this elitism. They gave us Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Monty Python and Alfred Hitchcock; grant them in return the quaint self-regard of empire foresaken, but not forgotten.

I was invited to Buckingham Palace about 15 years ago, along with other Americans living in London at the time. It was a quite whimsical affair, like something out of a dream or a twisted fable. At one point I discovered that one of the guests (who ran a “toxic cleanup operation out of Knoxville, Tennessee”) was invited in error due to an acronym mishap; it turns out not every SEC is the Securities Exchange Commission.

As famous actors and practical business types giddily awaited Her Majesty, I sought counsel. The “Master of the House” advised me there was no need to curtsy or perform other unnatural maneuvers because “she’s not your sovereign.” I sensed some pity there.

“I understand it’s OK to embroil you in actual conversation,” I told Elizabeth II when my moment in the receiving line had finally arrived. “Of course, why not,” she replied. But I had not actually prepared. “Nice house you got,” I offered. “Thank you very much,” she said.

The Queen was the picture of royal grace, and I began to suspect she had met philistines before.

Sufficiently pleased with the performance I took my leave only to find myself confronted, after several glasses of champagne, by a gentleman who was not amused with me at all. “Duke!” I said to the Duke of Edinburgh, which I now realize was the wrong form of address. He winced, appearing moreover to have misheard me saying “dude.”

“I’m glad you’ve come to me, because I totally forgot to shake your hand back there in line,” I continued, perhaps inartfully. “That’s because you walked right past me, isn’t it?” Prince Philip shot back, with a trace of bitterness I felt was unbecoming in a duke. I offered my hand, but he turned around in a demonstrative way, crossed his arms, stood his ground and left me hanging for long seconds. A TV actor watched with interest, and he was not the only one. Something of a diplomatic incident, as I recall.

Elizabeth seemed forgiving and allowed herself to be photographed by the Press Association in my company and that of several other unwashed. And Philip himself joined me and the US ambassador toward the end of the event, in a visibly consoled state. The diplomat asked him what lesser-known bits of Britain Americans should explore. “Oh, the less they see of it, the better, I should think!” said the Dude of Edinburgh. He seemed much consoled indeed.

My colleague proposed a commemorative picture of the two of us, but this proved a bridge too far. “No, no no no, no no!” Philip replied in a mortified fashion, and swiftly he was gone. I was left alone with my thoughts, and with my colleague and the ambassador and the fine young man from the other SEC.

What charm there doubtless was, in the silliness of it all. And in a world as berserk as ours is, that’s good enough for me. So while democracy remains the least-bad system, and Britain these days is as impious as can be, it seems churlish not to say it: God Save The King!

(An earlier version of this story appeared here)

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.