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Welcome back to history

Welcome back to history

This week we held three special ThinkIns to reflect on the death of the Queen and the questions surrounding it. What we discussed made Tortoise editor James Harding reconsider his views on the monarchy

Transcript

We tried to do something different this week with ThinkIns. Rather than host invited guests, we just sat in the newsroom and listened to each other – our colleagues and our members – as we reflected on the death of the Queen, the questions now for Charles III and the experience of grief. It all felt less performative and, I found, at least, it did what a ThinkIn was always supposed to do: it helped me come to a better understanding of what I think. 

I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to play back to you three of the things I heard in those ThinkIns – three things that made me, a lazy republican, that little bit lazier; three things that I hope made me see the world we’ll wake up to on Tuesday morning, after the funeral, a little bit more clearly, even a little more constructively. 

On Tuesday, when Liz Moseley asked Matt d’Ancona what he thought, he explained a theory that I hadn’t heard before – a theory of thin-earth thinking:

“There are so many things one could say about the last few days but one of the things that’s been coursing through my mind a lot is how it’s shown our complete… we’ve forgotten the talent of thinking historically – we’ve lost it. I’m paraphrasing Edmund Burke, but it’s something like ‘society is a contract between past, present and future’. We don’t think that anymore, for reasons that aren’t necessarily culpable.

“Because I think living in the present day, with the bombardment we have with digital technology and so on, the present is like an impacted nerve – it’s constantly being charged up – and it’s hard to devote thought to the past or the future. Which is a big problem, because for a start all the big things facing us now are huge long-term problems: pandemics, climate change, longevity, social care, proper public service reform that isn’t just based on the political cycle etc. So it’s a real issue, and I think that a lot of what you’ve seen in the last few days is a kind of cognitive dissonance, which is people thinking ‘bloody hell, there’s this whole history thing now’

“In the last few years, the way we’ve tended to deal with history is to treat it as something to be ignored apart from two extremes which is either to – in the Ukip way – as a kind of made-up nostalgia-Ukip-retro-horror-monocultural land, which never existed. And the other is a place to be reviled and scorned and apologised for as intrinsically a bad thing: everything about the past was bad, everything started in 2012, or thereabouts. And elsewhere I’ve called this thin-earth thinking – not flat-earth thinking, but thin-earth thinking – which is that we walk now on a very thin crust. We assume that we don’t need to think about anything deep below you, because we’ve got all the answers, we walk on this thin crust and we’re right about everything. We don’t talk about service anymore. There’s been a lot of talk about service since the Queen died, but actually, if I’m honest, I don’t think most people know what it means. They know what they think virtue is – being right about everything – and they know what victimhood is – suffering as a consequence of things – but I don’t think people actually have a clear idea of service anymore, with notable exceptions, obviously: one thinks of the NHS staff during the pandemic. And so I think this is a massive Monty Python foot on top of us actually. 

“I used to think that Charles’ age was going to be a problem – but I now think that it’s his best asset. Because the image we had of him was of this slightly captious, spoilt, sulky, single-issue, plant-talking, young man, who was the only man in London who wasn’t in love with Diana… and in the middle of that we forgot that he’s bloody 73 now. And so on the telly on Friday night appeared not this kind of grumpy 40-year old driving cars off to see Mrs Parker Bowles in the countryside, but twinkly old Granddad, who’s had the longest job interview and Twitter-feed history on the surface of the planet. And I thought he was generous about Meghan and Harry, which is not to say that job is done; I thought he made it very clear he’s not going to be an activist monarch, which is not to say that he won’t fall off the wagon from time to time. But considering where we might have been, it’s not a bad start. 

“So my caption line is ‘welcome back to history’. Whether people welcome that, I don’t know. Because one of the things with the technological revolution has been the certainty that we are right about everything and that precedent and things like books and awful boring stuff like that have anything to offer anyone has kind of gone out the window for a bit. And that part of me, which is, you know, seriously traditionalist, hopes a little bit of it comes back. But we’ll see.”

After we heard from Matt, we heard from Paul Butler, the Bishop of Durham. He told a story that made us all grin – it was about squeezing onto a two-seater sofa next to the Queen to watch her cheer home one of her horses. If you want to you can watch Tuesday’s ThinkIn on YouTube or you can read about that moment in this week’s Sensemaker. And then after we heard from the Bishop we heard from my colleague, Naiomi Thalayasingam. She talked about the short-termism of our politics, business and markets and the countervailing pull of the monarchy.

“The only thing I was gonna say, just riffing off what you’ve just said then is when I did go to the palace and I did go to the, sort of garden of remembrance that is now growing up in green park, where they’re finding any Bush and any tree and stuffing a sort of bouquet of flowers in it and putting a Teddy bear next to it, but what I was really struck by is the whole diversity and spectrum of nations that were gathered there. And if anything, you know, overrepresented and it was really interesting.

“So all ages and ranges, from tiny tots all through to older generation, but a lot of people from former Commonwealth countries and my parents would be among them – they didn’t go themselves, but they have a huge amount of respect for the queen and the royal family – and I was really struck by what you said about, you know, refugees and migrants coming over and watching the footage over the weekend, some of the pieces, which obviously I’m sure the BBC have had in the can for a long time, but there were quite a few bits where I was blubbing frequently, but there was one piece where Britain had given safe harbour to a particular group of refugees. Not some of the more obvious ones – apologies, I can’t remember which country it was, but they were crying as they were recounting that when they finally got on the plane, there was a message that was played from the queen saying you are coming to a safe country and I’m gonna get choked, even talking about it, because I just thought it meant so much to them. And these are people who’d never set foot in Britain before, and the same with my family. I mean they were crying when Edward abdicated, apparently, they felt such affinity with the royal family. So I think we lose that at our peril and we sort of trivialise it at our peril. And the fact that 750,000 people are expected to come and file past the coffin, that means something – that’s not forced on them, no one’s standing there saying ‘you will go and show your public respect’. There clearly is a timelessness and a huge significance to, potentially some of the mythology and the mysticism, but also the continuity.

“And actually when we are feeling a little bit uncertain and probably have done at different parts over the decades, and actually we’re seeing currently, I would argue that what’s going on with the current government, and what has been going on over the last couple of years, shows the danger of the short-termist thinking, and often when you are going after purely votes, in a populist way, or potentially profitability in sometimes with big business, again, I would argue that sometimes having those counterbalances of something that you would think of as being quite archaic, and very entitled, the fact that they are able to take a long-term view for, again, arguably sometimes more altruistic reasons, is a helpful, well-rounded, contributing factor to our society, and I think a lot of people from around the world have felt very, seen and cherished.”

The next day we turned to consider the coming reign of Charles III. Peter Flynn was in the room. He’s a member of Tortoise and he’s a former equerry to the then Prince of Wales. And he framed it – the monarchy, the coming reign of Charles III quite clearly: there were big and little changes, near- and long-term ones. If you have a couple of minutes, you’ll hear how he sees it. 

“In terms of the big things that are coming up, there is the constitution and how he places himself within it in terms of his behaviours, because people are going to be watching him like a hawk to see if he’s going to be the activist king, or if he’s going to follow his mother’s example.

“There are the various dutchies and how they land in terms of the, the, the, the handover between the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwell, and there is a growing voice, I think, for people looking at, is it right in terms of how they’re structured and what they are, uh, and how they exist and how money is drawn from them, and is that right in comparison with the other models that we have in this country.

“The Commonwealth of course is another big one. And I suspect in the new year, that’s something that he, as King, is going to be having to wrestle with in conjunction with the government. And those are just some of the big things that I think are slightly more long-term, but on the horizon. 

“Then you have the near-term things. Now the first one will be things like the shape of the new royal family. He’s going to be having to deal with that. And, if I labour on that one, just a little bit, just to give you all an idea of how things work within the household and what the implications are.

“When you had the full spectrum of members of the royal family three or four years ago – yes reduced, but with the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen doing official engagements and public duties as well as everyone else. In terms of the total number of engagements, you were looking at a couple of hundred [a year] from the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, a couple of hundred from the younger royals – Princes William and Harry – 600 from the Princess Royal, 600 from the Prince of Wales, a various number of hundreds from York, Wessex etc… And those are overseas ones as well. So you’d be doing 70 to 90 – Prince of Wales would – overseas. When you add all of those up, it was probably two and a half to 3,000 engagements, activities, sponsorships, patronages, events, hardy annuals, which were, you know, the classic Ascots, Sandringhams, flower shows, the State Opening of Parliament, the investor shows etc.

“If you strip the monarchy right down to the new model that’s being effectively being forerun, then you are looking at probably dramatically reducing that down to less than four figures in terms of the ability of members of the royal family to service those things. So that all has to be factored into what the royal family does in the near-term and in terms of its roles.

The next one – and one of the things I did for the now King was run his diary and his engagements was… you have Hardy annuals, as well as the things that come up that people request you to do. His job right now will be to set what he’s going to do over the next year. Because if you don’t cut things away and drop them now, you’re pretty much committed to them for the rest of your life, which is one of the big challenges. And that’s why they became hardy annuals – things you just socially could not not do, otherwise you’d be regarded as snubbing it. So that’s another near-term issue for him.”

It was striking to me that those issues are not just ones for Charles and the royal family, but for the UK as a whole: finance, family, the union, Britain’s relationship with the world. 

Because we will emerge from the formalities of the Queen’s death to a reality that is historic and not so comforting. There is, it seems to me, a settled view these days that Britain is in trouble. You hear it from young and old, from Leavers and Remainers, from Left and Right. 

And there is a world out there that is more uncertain and antagonistic than we appreciate. Even as we figure out what Britain’s place is in a world of increasing rivalry between the US and China; in a world where Putin’s war creates a new energy map; a place where there are, if anything, widening gaps between democracies and authoritarian regimes, there is a growing rancour and resentment coming from the south to the north. The developing economies of the world increasingly look at the developed economies of the north and blame them for inflation and the rising cost of food and energy, for Covid and the failure to vaccinate the world and for climate and the displacement of people and businesses. 

Those three points made me think about monarchy – monarchy and Britain; Britain in the world that we face. Of course, if you don’t believe in the hereditary principle in the House of Lords or in schools or the army, it’s very hard to make a coherent and consistent argument for it for the head of state. And yet, listening to Matt, Naiomi and Peter this week and looking ahead to the world that Britain will rejoin on Tuesday, you do have to appreciate an institution that stands for history, time and ties that bind.