Elizabeth Windsor has died, ending a life in which feudal privilege was of the essence and in which democratic decencies counted for nothing.
Ms Windsor had the official title of “Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. Monarchists also showed deference by referring to her as “Your royal highness”.
She headed an institution that the Economist magazine described as one that “transfers power through a mechanism which promotes congenital defects rather than intelligence. It is sexist, classist, racist and designed specifically to prevent diversity, equality and personal merit from creeping into its inbred ranks”.
Windsor was born in 1926. She was a descendant of the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family which had adopted the surname of Windsor, one redolent of Southern England. She inherited the position of head of state in 1952 and held it until her death, well outdoing Fidel Castro who kept his grip on undemocratic power for only 49 years.
Ms Windsor served the monarchy well. She protected feudal privilege and took for her family annually many millions of pounds rightly belonging to the people of Britain. That family lived off the fat of the land.
Despite the grandiose titles Windsor was a woman of seemingly modest abilities. If she had not been the eldest child of George Windsor, who preceded her as monarch, it is likely that her life would have gone unnoticed beyond her family and friends.
The Economist has noted that “One of her greatest achievements is that she has never said anything of any interest in public”.
Yet monarchists insisted that she had greater merits. Some may have done so because their monarchist creed blinded them. For others the dubious praise for Ms Windsor had its source in a sense that whatever threatened monarchy might also be a threat to much else in a status quo from which they benefitted. As the historian S R Gardiner wrote of the seventeenth century MPs who did not want to bring king Charles to trial, this was because to do so would be “tending to overthrow that respect for law upon which their own claim to reverence was based”.
Despite her meagre talents great wealth and extraordinary privilege were handed to Ms Windsor. By accepting these unearned privileges she denied herself the satisfactions of self-achievement.
Windsor was the “defender of the faith” and head of the state Anglican church of England. Her main contribution to that church was to attend its services during a period in which the people of England did so less and less. Even fewer followed her Anglican creed. She had nothing to say publicly about the scandals that touched her church in matters sexual and financial, that is in the abuse of children and in the extortion of money.
But because she did not try to outreach herself she mitigated the erosion of the British propensity to defer to feudal privilege that other family members encouraged.
What distinguished Elizabeth from those other Windsors was an ability to say little or nothing that might cause alarm or embarrass the institution she represented. She did not provoke public opinion. Thus she protected not only her family’s unwarranted privileges but also a system of privilege that embraces the legislature, the state church and the executive.
This was most evident when bankers and other business executives were denounced for excessive financial rewards. Windsor was not similarly criticised although she took much more, took it from the pockets of the people, took it for far longer, and did less in return for what she took.
Windsor may have may have been moved to tears when taxpayers were freed from the burden of providing her with an ocean-going yacht. But one of the major achievements of her reign was to secure for her family an annual 15% of the profits of the Crown Estate (and another 10% for ten years from 2016). That is to say from a public property holding the income from which should benefit the people of Britain. By gaining a percentage of its rising income she achieved above-inflation annual pay rises for her family whiling reducing democratic scrutiny of spending on the feudal institution.
The greed went beyond that. Ms. Windsor’s major source of spending money was the Duchy of Lancaster, a portfolio of public property and other assets, that gave her £20m in just one year. The best that could be said about this was that this duchy gave her less than the son was allowed to skim off of his duchy, that of Cornwall.
Queen Windsor had to accept the loss of the yacht despite making it known in secret that she would like £60m to be spent on the purchase of a new one. But she still expected her “subjects” to provide a nine-carriage train for her family’s exclusive use at a cost of as much as £900,000 a year. One short train journey could cost the people £19,000. When a private train would not do, aircraft were provided at even greater cost to the people.
And it was not only the British people who were expected to pay tribute. When she made a state visit to Germany in 1978 she asked that the German government make her a gift of two horses. It was the most expensive gift that Germany had given to a visiting head of state since the end of World War 2. The German president authorised it anyway to maintain good relations with Britain.
While many of Ms. Windsor’s subjects found the purchase of a small home beyond their reach, her family had seven homes at their disposal, 160,000 square meters of land and 1000 staff to look after the properties. Fifteen craftspeople were employed just to care for the furniture.
The harm done by the monarchy she embodied went beyond the legalised looting of public assets.
Although the country the family supposedly represented was becoming increasingly diverse in its ethnicities Ms Windsor’s reign ensured that no citizen who was not white, no citizen whose family origins were outside of Britain, and no citizen who could not declare an allegiance to the state church, could even aspire to hold the nation’s highest office.
Her mother was a supporter of apartheid and her husband was notorious for his racial and personal insults.
Ms. Windsor lived a uniquely strange life. Until she was seventeen she and her sister, four years her junior, dressed identically. She never carried cash.
In 2002 in a review of Ben Pimlott’s The Queen: Golden Jubilee Edition Piers Brandon wrote of Windsor that she was:
“The stern embodiment of tradition, she is reluctant to change anything but her clothes. She has a sense of humour but seldom unbends, certainly not with children. But she strangles pheasants expertly and does show emotion towards horses and dogs; she even shed a tear over the loss of the royal yacht Britannia. The Queen is correct, dutiful, passive, Philistine, dignified, punctual and constant”.
It was the other members of her family who presented real risks for the British delusion that hereditary right is better than democratic choice and deference superior to a pride in human equality and democratic relationships. It was during her tenure that “dysfunctional” became the defining term for her family.
This difference between between Windsor and other family members was summed up by Jeffrey Simpson in the Toronto Globe and Mail. He wrote that
“The royal family, the Queen herself excepted, has entertained but hardly inspired its loyal subjects with antics fit for soap operas and C-grade movies. Most of the family members are intellectually vacuous and profoundly snobbish. The ditzy Prince Charles, the future king if you can believe it, looks bemusedly lost in whatever circumstances he finds himself. His estranged wife, Diana, died in the car of her umpteenth lover during a tryst in Paris, her death the occasion for secular canonisation by populations weaned on television sitcoms and People magazine”.
Windsor and her husband Philip were cold towards their children. They showed no physical affection for their son Charles. Their usual means of communication was by letter. When they were at home he saw them only after breakfast and at tea time. After an absence of six months on business they greeted him with a handshake.
Charles, an individual guaranteed the top job from birth, grew into a man of strange habits and beliefs.
Ms. Windsor seemed to take her feudal status seriously rather than as the hocus pocus it was. If she had understood that monarchy is a trick it is unlikely that she would have expected even her friends to call her “Your Majesty”
She showed no unhappiness when citizens were humiliated in order to sustain her privileges.
The use of the obnoxious term “subject” of the queen to refer to citizens was dropped from official usage. But she still expected females to “curtsey” when meeting her, a strange piece of theatre that requires a bowed head, a bending of the knees and the holding of the skirt outwards. Males needed only to bow their heads in acknowledgement of her supposed inherent superiority.
But in her expectation of such a bow or curtsey she offered an insult to democratic values and humiliation to those who did not wish to defer to feudal privilege. Until 2009 even Prime Ministers were required to leave her presence without turning their back . She ended that requirement for “health and safety” reasons, not out of respect human equality. Still three officials continue to be required to follow this feudal protocol because Windsor wanted to keep it alive.
Citizens, even the elderly and infirm, were required to stand in her presence.
It is no surprise that Windsor showed no respect for democratic rights. This head of state was content for citizens who would not swear allegiance to her and her family to be excluded from the legislature and many public offices. She never protested when the civil liberties of republicans were violated by arrest and detention in order to prevent protest against the monarchical system on which she depended for her privileges.
It was only in Northern Ireland, as gains from the Troubles, that some progress was made during her time in office. The police force named for feudal privilege, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, became the Police Service of Northern Ireland. And senior lawyers who rejected monarchy were freed from the humiliation of swearing allegiance to queen Windsor. Instead they may swear to serve all they are lawfully called upon to serve. In the rest of the UK the royal boot stayed on the neck of republicans.
During her reign it became widely known for the first time that in this “constitutional monarchy” her family is allowed to veto some legislation it does not like.
Elizabeth Windsor died. The denial of democratic rights and the looting of the people’s wealth that she personified will be continued by her son Charles.
For when one Windsor leaves the world of unwarranted privilege another Windsor steps into their golden shoes. When there is monarchy the rights of the people have nowhere to stand.
What seems likely, however, is that in her mothering of an eccentric and arrogant son she will have made the feudal institution less secure. The promotion of such a man to monarch seems certain to strengthen opposition to monarchy in those former British colonies, such as Canada and Australia, which have not freed themselves fully and still recognise the British monarch as their head of state. And perhaps also in that country most sorely lacking in a true republican regard for democratic values, the so-called United Kingdom.
The strange son may, in the end, show the world just how well his mother served the cause of monarchical privilege.