Politics

No One Performed Britishness Better Than Her Majesty


There’s an episode of—please bear with me here—the children’s animated television series Peppa Pig in which Peppa, the fearless porcine queen of toddler hearts everywhere, meets another queen, one who lives in a palace and wears a crown, and might be, one of Peppa’s friends suggests, “the boss of all the world.” At first encounter, this queen sits on a throne, knitting; she speaks in clipped, commanding tones. In a later episode, she commandeers a bus to take Peppa and friends on a tour of London. (The trip features rain, historical facts, and a Mission Impossible–style stunt sequence vaulting the bus over Tower Bridge.) “If the Queen asks you to do something, you must do it,” the narrator says.

Is this soft power at work, harmless entertainment, or establishment propaganda, inoculating toddlers against republicanism before they can correctly count their own fingers? As with so much regarding the Royal Family, it’s complicated. Here is what I can say: Britain, at this particular juncture in history, seen through infinite cultural lenses, feels more like a performance of a great nation rather than a great nation itself, a tribute show featuring James Bond, Paddington Bear, David Attenborough, and, until yesterday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. We have very little heft in the world anymore. (Almost certainly a positive when you consider our truly egregious legacy as colonizers.) Our health service is in shreds. Our energy supply is in crisis. Our child-care industry is breaking down. Our workers are striking; our food banks are empty; our unelected prime minister, facing all these existential issues and more, seems doggedly bent on cutting taxes rather than investing in the kind of basic infrastructure that might allow people in Britain to have their heart attacks tended to, their homes heated, their children fed.

Culturally, though? We’re undiminished, even ascendant. And we have the Queen, in large part, to thank for it. No one, I’d wager, understood better than Queen Elizabeth II what an extraordinary force cultural power could be—more subtle and insidious than military might, more manipulative than money. Even before her seven decades as monarch began, she performed Britishness more intuitively than anyone ever had, or likely ever will again. So many of the qualities that we think of now as being innately “British”—stoicism, duty, a certain awkward emotional reticence—are hallmarks of her reign. She embodied her role less as a monarch, arbitrarily flexing power and leading troops into battle, than as a figurehead, setting a standard for how Britain, post-empire, could rewrite its national narrative around less ugly objectives. If American identity can be summarized by the single, slightly hysterically espoused concept of freedom, British identity is about fealty to the things—myths, pageantry, tradition—that make us feel special. For many Britons, they’re pivotal. (“How will anyone know how to be British anymore?” the journalist Tina Brown recently wrote, imagining the absence of the Queen from everyday life.) For so many others, they’re irresistible. How else can you explain the rapturous response of Americans to depictions of the monarchy they once revolted against? Or the vampiric ongoing existence of Downton Abbey?

Royal family eating a meal at their family table.
Queen Elizabeth II lunches with Prince Philip and their children Princess Anne and Prince Charles at Windsor Castle in Berkshire. A camera is set up to film for Richard Cawston’s BBC documentary Royal Family, which was broadcast on June 21, 1969. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Soft power is a strikingly underappreciated thing in British politics, where ministers and talking heads fixate on tariffs and imports of bleach-treated chicken and ignore that 99 percent of the world understands contemporary Britain through its culture: via the Phoebe Waller-Bridges, Marcus Rashfords, and Nadiya Hussains who go out into the world as informal ambassadors. When the Queen filmed a scene with Paddington to commemorate her last jubilee, she was acknowledging that reality, and making savvy reputational alliances. The last prime minister who seemed to comprehend what a force British creativity could be was Tony Blair, who was elected in the middle of Cool Britannia and harnessed the energy and marketing potential of Brit-pop, Richard Curtis movies, Geri Halliwell in a Union Jack minidress. But for the Queen, who came of age during a century when royals were scrutinized and exposed like never before, this kind of performative, fetishized Britishness had long been part of the package. She gave her first public radio address at the age of 14; her coronation, in 1953, was the first to be televised in full, at the Queen’s insistence.

Her strategy of intentional exposure wasn’t without its missteps. In 1969, she opened up her family to BBC cameras for what we might now call a documentary special, which showed the royals eating breakfast, practicing musical instruments, watching TV. The film’s ordinariness was what made it so dangerous: The British populace wanted nebulous mystique and charged ritual from the Queen, not humdrum banality. Throughout her reign, people demanded that she be somehow exceptional but accessible, divinely anointed but recognizably human.

Queen in a gilded coach surrounded by revelers
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (R) and Prince Philip ride in the Golden State Carriage at the head of a parade from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral celebrating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee June 4, 2002 along The Mall in London. (Sion Touhig/Getty)

She—mostly—pulled it off. Outsiders seem perplexed by the idea that in the 21st century, 90 percent of a nation could approve of an unelected monarch, someone who by virtue only of their birth got to occupy multiple castles and be curtseyed to and receive prime ministers weekly for personal chats. One of the crucial factors that made it tolerable was how minimally the Queen seemed to enjoy it. We’re naturally skeptical of those members of her family who jostle among one another for scraps of royal privilege, but Elizabeth R, endowed with absolutely all of it, didn’t appear to revel in what she had. She made being the Queen look like work. Earlier this year, to commemorate her Platinum Jubilee (or the “platty joobs,” as some lamentable souls insisted on calling it), the palace offered up a list of the Queen’s vital career statistics: more than 21,000 royal engagements, 4,000 acts of Parliament, 900,000 congratulatory messages to people celebrating their diamond wedding anniversaries, patronage of more than 500 charities, 1.5 million people hosted at Buckingham Palace garden parties. That is an inordinate amount of accepting curling cucumber sandwiches; of calming petrified nerves and smiling at screaming children; of delivering the lines, the manner, the gracious reserve, so perfectly on cue.

In private, we know, the Queen would rather have been raising horses. At home, she dressed for drab comfort: khaki raincoats, neutral cashmere sweaters, scarves knotted efficiently under the chin. In public, she was brashly, unnervingly technicolor: glaring lime green, fuchsia pink, canary yellow. In Our Rainbow Queen, the writer Sali Hughes explains that color was part of the Queen’s production. She knew that people assembled each day in enormous anticipation of seeing her, and she wanted to be as conspicuous as possible. It was out of a similar sense of professional obligation, and shrewd personal marketing, that the Queen set the incestuous terms of the relationship between the Royal Family and the British media. When a family’s entire position and privilege rests perilously on the goodwill of the people, it becomes necessary to court that benevolence in ways that might otherwise seem illogical. In a recent interview with New York magazine, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, expressed her surprise that she was expected to release pictures of her children first to a pool of reporters from the same publications that were hounding her, sometimes employing viciously racist dog whistles. But this is the bargain of the British monarchy: No other wealthy family—and there are roughly 4,500 individuals around the world who are richer than the Windsors—is required to perform for their privilege in quite the same way. For someone accustomed to living entirely on their own terms, it’s a bafflingly bad deal.

the Queen dressed in a raincoat and scarf
The Queen taking a walk. (Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty)

Some understanding of this paradoxical state of existence is, I think, what made the Queen so unusually appreciated in Britain, across lines of politics, race, class, and background. Self-confessed republicans such as The Crown’s Peter Morgan and the late writer Sue Townsend have examined her with elemental precision and only come away more sympathetic to her practicality, her work ethic, her sense of service. If the Royal Family manages to continue in the public’s good grace over the next few decades, it will surely be because her descendants managed to keep doing what she did best: work, say very little, and most of all, convince us of their integral force in the British narrative.



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