IO – On the 2nd of June 1953 my late mother was in London covering Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. She was contributing cultural editor of the Rhein-Zeitung and I have in a way followed in her footsteps. Just 8 years after the Second World War there was still a lot of anti-German feeling in Britain. I wonder if she was nervous but an uncle of hers had been the correspondent in London for one of the German newspapers before the War and had loved the United Kingdom with nothing but good to say about the British. So, perhaps she was not nervous. All she told me was that there were such masses of crowds that she would have been unable to see anything except that she was on the upper deck of one of those famous red, London double-decker buses and so had a better view than nearly anyone else. Nearly 70 years later as I write about the death of Prince Philip from Jakarta, I wish that I had asked her more about that coronation and her experience and thoughts as a young German journalist not long after the War covering a coronation that Clement Attlee announced with the words, “Let us hope we are witnessing the beginning of a new Elizabethan Age no less renowned than the first.” In reality the Queen and Prince Philip’s main job proved to be that of presiding over the dissolution and dismantling of an empire with grace and dignity, keeping Britain united and trying to help their people weather the enormous changes confronting them.
William Daniels, a long time British resident of Jakarta whose Uncle Bill was in the royal navy with Prince Philip, recently found some of his uncle’s letters from that period describing how during shore leave in places like Biarritz they would go down in shore parties to party and Prince Philip remarking, “God, we shall have to dance with the old ladies first. Then hopefully the younger ones.”
“It was young men’s talk,” William says, “but for me it was very touching because by 1951 my uncle had died of polio.”
For Daniels the royal family represent an example of nominally privileged people who devote their lives and effort to serving their country and people responsibly, warmly and very well. Nevertheless, some question whether a constitutional monarchy is still an acceptable and valuable system of government in the 21st century? And if yes, why and what does it contribute to a society?
Kevin Evans another long-time Commonwealth resident of Jakarta from Australia this time, claims to be a rabid republican who finds it offensive that “we have these Pommies as head of state” but says that something weird happened to him that shows that the monarch perhaps means more to him than republicans like to admit. “About 15 years ago I was at the Australian Embassy at a light hearted sort of event. We all knew each other when suddenly I found myself go respectful, polite and quiet. I looked up to see what had caught my eye and it was the picture of an old lady, the Queen and I remember thinking that this old lady from that evil colonialist country can still do this to me. She is the only monarch I’ve ever known and there is a kind of permanence about her, something that has always been there…”
Uniting the nation is one of the primary functions of a head of state as opposed to a head of government. Germany’s Bundespraesident for example is a head of state but not the head of government. However, that position may only be held for 5 years and at most for two consecutive terms. Consequently, a Bundespraesident cannot give the sort of stability and seamless continuity that seventy-three years of monarchy can as is the case with Queen Elizabeth II. At most a Bundespraesident can provide ten years of stability and continuity. That sort of continuity and unifying force in society is something that could be very important at a time when countries such as the United States are experiencing great polarization within their societies.
For a monarchy to be successful however depends very much on the character and personality of the monarch and that of his or her consort. As the Oxford historian Peter Carey put it, “Monarchies are like Russian roulette”.
There is certainly an element of luck involved as the character and personality of a monarch as well as his or her ability to please the public is in large part in God’s hands. Perhaps a way of lessening the “Russian roulette” aspect of monarchy might be by infusing a further element of democracy into the traditions of constitutional monarchy by not automatically having the oldest heir as the next monarch but by having parliament or a royal commission decide which of the monarch’s children is best suited to succeed as the next in line. In Thailand where apparently the Princess Royal is far more popular and many believe would have been better suited to succeed King Bhumibol than the present Thai King, such a system might have helped to better ensure the stability and unity of the nation. Monarchies such as the Netherlands and Sweden have taken a step forward by decreeing that the next in line to the throne is no longer the oldest male heir but simply the oldest child. The current Sultan of Jogjakarta appears determined to proceed in that direction as well which in an age of gender equality is no bad thing.
A constitutional monarchy depends very much on the will of the people in order to survive. The people must like the sovereign and see him or her as a unifying and stabilizing figurehead. So, the personality of the monarch is very significant. It is a position that requires discipline, dedication, diplomacy, dignity and an ability to communicate that to the people. William Daniels makes clear that role of the Queen and Prince Philip when he says, “They were absolutely a unifying force especially now with many threats to the union. Brexit put a lot of pressure on the union and the royal family are responsible for unifying the United Kingdom.”
In describing Australians’ feelings about the monarchy Kevin Evans remarks, “About a third of the Australian public are monarchists. The rest are not. Nevertheless, many Australians like the royal family. What many do not realize is that we can become a republic but still keep our connection to the royal family because we would still be a member of the Commonwealth. There is a feeling amongst Australians that if it’s not broken what are you fixing? The monarchy is quite functional so would something new be better? If it does not get into the role of politics and remains a symbol of unity, I personally like and respect the monarchy.”
Another republican is the Oxford historian and Diponegoro expert Peter Carey who says, “I am registered as British but here in Indonesia I admire the radicalism of the Indonesian nationalist movement as expressed in three initiatives namely, despite Indonesia’s constitutional precedents being constitutional the nationalists chose to found a republic. Secondly, their decision not to use Javanese – which was shot-through with feudal mentality – as the national language despite being the language of the majority and finally, the decision not to choose Islam as the religion of the state but rather to have the Pancasila.
So, I look at Britain through the eyes of an Indonesian and see a state which as Adlai Stevenson said has lost an empire but not found a role. It’s plain that Britain is part of Europe and by leaving Europe it has signed its death warrant as 67% of Scotland and 57% of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union.
Britain is a country that was unable to decolonize its mind as Brexit has shown. The monarchy could have been part of Britain’s solution but it missed two important opportunities to embrace change namely in dealing firstly, with Princess Diana who brought popularity and modernity and a certain down-to-earth quality to the monarchy. Secondly, in how the palace dealt with Meghan Markle for bringing someone non-white into the royal family was an opportunity to show the monarchy as being multi-ethnic and inclusive for a large number of people in Britain and the Commonwealth are non-white. The monarchy will continue but unless Britain and the monarchy can better embrace change I see it becoming a fossil in which case from my point of view what Indonesia did during the 20th century would be a better modal to emulate.”
As a historian Dr Carey is interested in what the role of Prince Philip has been in the survival of the monarchy from a historical perspective. Did he play a weak hand as powerfully as he could or less so later? Was he a wild card in the sense of being too patronizing or outspoken and non-politically correct?”
At the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign the Queen Mother saw Prince Philip as a possible threat to the stability of the monarchy identifying him with Edward VIII. He has been described as “a prince from nowhere with all those loose European connections”.
The problem with many present-day non-royal spouses is that they do not really understand the importance of preserving the monarchy from a dynastical perspective. Prince Philip however, came from a very monarchical tradition himself and through his own history understood all too well how important it is to please the people and how devastating the loss of a throne is.
Despite his colourful past and all his strangeness to a very British Queen Mother and the traditionalist in the establishment, Prince Philip proved to be absolutely the right partner for the Princess Elizabeth.
One who was able to support her in creating that stable family image so helpful in providing a unifying continuity as the country went through the painful process of decolonization and slowly shifting away from its role of once ruling the waves as one of the most powerful nations in the world. Prince Philip also helped the monarchy to adjust to 20th and 21st century modernity with his deep interest in science, engineering and design and he insisted on the royal family welcoming in an age of media and television.
Like many William Daniels sees the roles of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II as having many good parallels with those of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; the main difference being that Albert died somewhat early. Despite many similarities Peter Carey points out a significant difference namely, “Unlike Prince Philip, Prince Albert had certain political and constitutional powers. He could through persuasion or even forcefully, interfere with foreign policy. For example, Prince Albert tried to prevent Britain from arming the Confederacy during the American Civil War at a time when given British interests in cotton there were economic arguments for Britain to support the Confederacy. Nevertheless, Prince Albert saw that British interests in the long term would not be served by taking sides in the Civil War.”
In sharp contrast with the Hanoverian kings who ruled before her, part of the legacy of Queen Victoria is the idea of the monarchy providing stability, unity and continuity through a modal family life and it was with her that monarchy came to be seen as the nation’s family.
Prince Philip has described himself as Pan-European and at the start of his marriage to Queen Elizabeth others described him as somewhat leftist, two qualities that probably stood him and the Queen in good stead when she ascended the throne in an era of the strengthening of the welfare state and the advent of globalism. Prince Philip also had far more experience with the world outside the royal family then his very sheltered wife who aside from a brief stint in the women’s Territorial Auxiliary Service during the Second World War had never been to university or even school with other people her age and had very little experience of life not as a royal when she became queen.
For Philip it was also the right marriage. His marriage to Queen Elizabeth finally provided that lonely little boy who was moved from one place to another all his young life, with a loving family life and a stable and meaningful place in the world.
Willaim Daniels expresses a sadness tinged with apprehension felt by many when he says, “The inevitable demise of Prince Philip was poignant because of the fear of what may happen to the United Kingdom in due course. It is painful to contemplate and adds fuel to people’s reaction to the Prince’s death.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
If you enjoyed this article you may want to read Part I of the series: https://observerid.com/prince-philip-monarchies-today-and-what-his-life-has-meant-for-the-british-monarchy-part-i-2/