With babies, engagements, and impending weddings, the media have a never-ending supply of stories about the British royal family. While most focus on the younger members, the Queen is never too far away. Various anniversaries are marked with pomp and circumstance, and commentators speculate about what will happen when the Queen passes away (or abdicates). Television dramas feature the royals, too. The life of the young Queen Victoria has been fictionalized in Victoria, and the Netflix hit The Crown focuses on the life of Elizabeth II from her marriage onwards.
Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, I encountered the royal family every day. We learnt all about the kings and queens at school, and each school assembly we sang the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’. Portraits of the Queen hung in every official space, and around each corner of London was a royal reference – streets named after monarchs, pubs called the ‘King’s Head’ or the ‘Royal Standard’. We went on school excursions to Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge on the edge of Epping Forest, where the guide explained that the magnificent wooden staircase in the lodge had been wide enough for the queen to ride her horse up the stairs. We were suitably impressed. As a very young child, I was taken to the Tower of London to marvel at the Crown Jewels and to watch the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Many people in my neighbourhood were big fans of the royals. They would comment favorably on the Queen’s latest hat or praise Princess Anne for being so ‘hard working’. My mother loved to tell us about meeting the Queen and Prince Phillip during her time in the Women’s Royal Airforce (she worked as a switchboard operator in the 1950s), and she was immensely proud of her inclusion in the Queen’s Coronation parade in 1953 (she appears for a few seconds in some of the newsreel footage). All of this impressed on me the importance of the royal family, and like many working-class children, I was uncritical and unquestioning.
In 1977, Britain celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (25 years on the throne) with street parties and bunting galore. My public housing estate organized a free concert and party for the residents, most of whom joined in, wearing red, white, and blue and waving tiny paper flags. It was at this party that I had a revelation. Before the concert started, a resident placed a stereo speaker in their apartment window and played the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ at full blast. This song had been banned from the airwaves, but everyone knew about it because it had been featured in newspapers and on TV news. Standing there in my red, white, and blue outfit, I suddenly saw through the charade. We were celebrating the Queen’s reign on a public housing estate – how far from her life style could we be? From that moment on, I was cynical about the royal family, questioned their purpose, and later (as a political teen) saw them as representing the massive inequality I witnessed all around me.
My developing hostility towards the royal family was outweighed by the continuing love they received from my working-class neighbours and family. If my mother commented on how well the Queen looked, I would suggest that it wasn’t a surprise because she had 24/7 healthcare with no waiting lists for treatment. If she mentioned the Queen’s great work ethic, I would point out that taxpayers fund her existence so the least she could do was cut a few ribbons. My mother didn’t appreciate my rude words.
Even today, the royal family remains popular among working-class people (mostly white working-class people). The press loves to photograph the loyal royal fans who line up from dawn to be in the right place to glimpse the Queen on a walkabout or to watch a new born royal baby leave hospital. They wear jackets and hats emblazoned with the Union Jack and tell the reporters how much they love the royals. Working-class royalists defend the royal family passionately. They claim that the royals attract tourists, whose spending offsets the money spent on pageantry. They also say that the Queen represents stability and brings the nation together.
This is the part I find most troubling. The Queen represents nationalism and imperialism. Nationalism is divisive and exclusionary, and imperialism in the form of colonialism represents violence and destruction. Neither the Queen nor the royal family benefit the British working class.
After spending most of her 84 years loving the royals and deferring to their status, my mother recently had a revelation of her own. On a visit to London, I took her to the Tower of London. She had last been there in the early 1970s. We went to the Jewel House to look at the Crown Jewels. Before the main display there is a video presentation of the Queen’s coronation, a beautiful digital restoration of the original footage, now in glorious colour. I parked my mother’s wheelchair so we could watch the film. ‘I was there!’ she exclaimed as she watched carefully. When it finished, she asked ‘Where are all the ordinary people in the film? Why do we only see the important people? What about the workers who spent hours setting everything up? The people who made the stands and laid the red carpet? Everyone who was up from the night before preparing, and then working in the rain all morning? Why aren’t we in the film?’. This moment of realization was bittersweet. She’s always enjoyed the glamour and ceremony of the royal family, but now she could see how everyone she knew was excluded. The royals were so distant from working-class people’s lives.
Harry and Meghan may have selected ‘commoners’ to invite to their wedding, but do they really understand life for working-class people? So maybe instead of a new season of The Crown, we could have a show about the people who make the royal family possible? Less of the sparkling jewels and fancy hats, lavish weddings and ceremonial robes and more of the sweat and elbow grease – the polishing, vacuuming, building, fixing, cooking of the ‘ordinary people’ my mother would like to see?