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Leader comment: ‘Thy Servant, our Queen and Governour’

27 May 2022

IT IS convenient to talk of the monarchy as an institution. It is, after all, worked into the fabric of British political and social life, in much the same way as the Church, the Civil Service, the NHS, and the Armed Forces. The Queen, envied by many for her wealth and possessions, considers herself merely a custodian. And she enjoys far less freedom of movement than many of her poorer subjects: what is not dictated by historical precedent or constitutional convention is hedged in by public expectations, often contradictory. But if the institution is, like the crown itself, something of a restriction on movement, that is not the whole story; for it guides the Queen in responding to events and challenges, enabling both her and the public to work within a narrow band of expectation. The Benedictine discipline of stabilitas is important not only for a religious establishment, but for the Establishment.

At the heart of the monarchy, however, is a monarch: not an institution, but a single individual, who experiences not only personal joys and sorrows, but also the joys and sorrows of her nation. It is a burden that cannot easily be borne without the companionship of Christ. Twenty years ago, to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the Prince of Wales, speaking in St Bride’s, Fleet Street, the journalists’ church, defended institutions. Facebook would not be founded for another two years, Twitter for another four, and Instagram for another eight; and the Prince’s focus was still on newspapers. “The boundary between constructive comment about structures and destructive scepticism about the integrity of any public servant seems sometimes to be blurred,” he said. “By highlighting the faults rather than the great strengths, are we not perhaps damaging the very roots of these institutions — unaware of their enormous value to us, until it is too late? For, while the public services may seem to be leviathans on the landscape of our state, impregnable to attack, their roots are human ones.” He was perhaps speaking personally when he talked of “carping all the time” and “the corrosive drip of constant criticism”.

Since then, of course, social-media outlets have facilitated a torrent of unedited sentiment, a portion of it kind and supportive, but much of it displaying unimagined hostility. And social-media commenters have little interested in institutions, instead focusing on the individuals within them, eager to expose any perceived failings in merciless and often violent language.

Public figures have honed new techniques for dealing with this. Many have become fiercely protective of their privacy. Others have developed a bravado, realising that genuine criticism can be lost in the constant sniping and dismissed with the same blanket denial. The Queen’s path has been different. Despite continued troubles in her family, and despite the effect that age has had on her health and mobility, the Queen’s discretion has served her well. It could not have done so, however, had not the public perceived the honesty and integrity that lie beneath it. Institutions can have principles and standards; only individuals have souls.

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