Perhaps the nicest thing you can say about the Windsor family is that they are a benign tumour on the fetid carcass of the British state.
That, I repeat, is the nicest thing. If you wish to be more middling in your remarks, you might well say that the monarchy is a stubborn cancer that has resisted removal because, for the time being, the residents of Downing Street have found its existence useful – at least to the office of the prime minister.
But if you thought that a play predicated on the weekly chats between prime minister and monarch would shed light on just why this is so, you will likely be disappointed with The Audience, which is now in a second run at the Apollo Theatre in London, this time with Kristin Scott Thomas (a dame, no less) starring as Lizzie Windsor.
The thrust of the play is that the assorted premiers are a bunch of hapless halfwits whose administrations are in a state of permanent crisis – a believable if cynical thesis. Opposite the ministers is the variously greying embodiment of the British state, increasingly shrewd as the years wear on.
If you believe the various puffs that Buckingham Palace puts out in collusion with the mawkish elements of Fleet Street the latter view is not so strange. Queenie is sometimes shown in the media as akin to a Silicon Valley exec in her work habits, never more than half an hour from cutting another ribbon or entertaining some ghastly foreign despot.
This view has clearly been bought by Peter Morgan, The Audience’s playwright, whose attempt to step behind what the Marxist historian Tom Nairn termed The Enchanted Glass leads him to depict the queen’s life as one of great sacrifice, and the queenship a mantle she was unwilling to take up in her younger years.
No doubt the whole “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” trope was too tasty for Morgan to resist. But the view that the Windsors genuflect towards their subjects and not the other way round is a hard one to credit.
When the Dutch queen Beatrix resigned in 2013 it prompted much speculation in Fleet Street that Lizzie Windsor might follow. Given her son Charlie’s reputation for being a loon this caused severe alarm, with many royalists suggesting a generation might be skipped in the rather embarrassing circumstances (and thus rather failing to appreciate how “hereditary” works).
Lizzie was unmoved; Indeed The Audience even makes a crack at Pope Benedict XVI’s expense for not leaving his job in a coffin.
No doubt after so many years the chief Windsor would struggle in losing her life’s work. But a less cretinous explanation for her refusal to abdicate is that she rather enjoys her influence over public life. While the monarchy is clearly at Parliament’s pleasure these days (it was, after all, what the Civil War was fought over), the suggestion that the queen might nudge her ministers in certain directions is at the centre of the royalist paradox.
The gambit works like this: When a radical lefty complains the monarchy is a rather undemocratic affair (as Python has it, you don’t vote for kings) they will reply that she has no power anyway. And yet when you suggest replacing the Windsors with an elected president that can be fired, they complain that the job would be politicised – hardly a danger for an empty role.
It is this strand that The Audience picks at, with the final conclusion being that the queen does have some influence over whether the prime minister might do something silly like invade Iraq (which is compared to the Suez crisis despite innumerable problems with the analogy).
That this is discussed so openly and approvingly leads one to conclude that Morgan must believe it to be A Good Thing, showing the old divide between Whig and Tory over the rights of the monarchy is not dead yet. One can only hope the hereditary lottery will disabuse him of this view when Lizzie finally snuffs it.