Love, Respect or Fear?


“There was never an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

It is fair to say that the Times was not a fan of George IV, and it is reasonable to assume that, when the day comes, coverage of Her Majesty’s death will have a rather different tone. For, in contrast to her ancestor who was “entirely without one redeeming quality”, she is hailed as a model monarch, her years of dutiful service transmuted into popular acclaim and even love.

Each of her, rarer than she might like, appearances in the run-up to the Jubilee is greeted with an out-burst of affection as the nation and the media rejoice in her increasingly common smiles. Every action she performs rebounds to her credit. Approaching the end of her reign, she is treated with the uncritical adoration we apply to lovers at the beginning of a relationship.

Public affection has been a staple, if not a constant, of the Queen’s reign. Part of a Royal Family which had a “good war”, she became the fairytale princess who added glamour to the austerity years before becoming the nation’s grandmother, a constant feature in the lives of the population – on ONS data from 2018, only about 5% of the population could remember her predecessor. But it was not a seamless progression. Like any relationship, there have been hiccups. In the aftermath of Diana’s death, 72% of the country thought she was “out of touch”, and just 38% thought the monarchy would survive.

But the fact that the Queen is loved does not imply that the monarchy should seek to be so, for the relationship between royals and love is a tricky one. Machiavelli wrote, “It is much safer to be feared than loved…fear preserves you by dread of punishment which never fails.”, possibly echoing Tiberius, Rome’s second emperor, who is reported as saying “Oderint dum metuant” – let them hate me so long as they fear me. Love is changeable, as anyone who has fallen out of it will attest, fear tends to be more permanent. It is not, however, an option for the Windsors. You might be arrested by Her Majesty’s Police, tried in one of her courts, and incarcerated in one of her prisons, but none of that has anything to do with her. She has all the powers she needs, except the power to use them.

Love, however, presents two particular problems for royals. First, it generally requires one to be known and secondly, one must be worthy of it.

Her Majesty came of age in a far more discrete, carefully managed time, with lower expectations of what could be known about public figures. The affection built up during this period has allowed her to remain a relatively sphinx-like figure, her likes and dislikes known to those who are interested, her views not even to them.

Her heirs, however, have not been so fortunate.

Growing up in a time of greater competition for public affection, they have been far more open about themselves than the Queen. Not merely in the sense that we know more about their personal habits – such as how Prince Charles likes to take his bath – but also in their beliefs and emotional lives. We know the views of the heir to the throne on a whole array of subjects, from the environment to architecture, to more abstruse areas such as homoeopathy and the Chinese Politburo. Both of his sons talk about their mental health with a regularity which previous generations might have considered narcissistic.

This raises a number of risks for the family.

Firstly, it runs foul of Bagehot’s dictum about letting light in on the magic. Monarchy is an odd institution. There is no other sphere of life where we apply the principle of heredity. The notion that members of one family should be born to rule is odd to modern eyes, as is the idea that this privilege should only be extended to the first-born – other monarchies such as the Ottoman Empire, Imperial China and Japan and modern Saudi Arabia have taken different approaches to the problem of succession. To justify it, there needs to be something special about those involved. They need to be different from us. The more we know about the royals, and the more accessible they become, the more difficult it is to sustain this illusion of separateness. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are different to you and me, William and Kate are the nice couple you shared a warm glass of wine with after the school concert, making it less obvious perhaps why they should be partly funded by the state to lead a life of privilege.

Further, the more that is known about the royals, the more reasons can be found for disliking them. A wronged wife may not have taken kindly to Prince Charles discussing his relationship with Camilla on television, a modernist architect may well take against him for his views on buildings. If being loved requires being known, it also runs the risk that such knowledge destroys any chance of love. The Queen, by never taking a public position, allows people to project their own views on to her – both sides in the referendum, for example, claimed her as one of their own. It is much easier to act as a national figurehead, if nobody thinks you disagree with them.

But even if the junior royals have successfully surfed the zeitgeist so far, they run the risk, having created a lengthy paper-trail, of being capsized if the tide changes. Those who spent the early part of the 2010’s proclaiming that the arc of history bends towards justice were forced to admit in the latter part that it had taken a bit of a detour. As a former Dean of Windsor wrote, “He who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widower in the next.” The Queen has been able to move with the times because, by never saying anything publicly, she has never identified herself with any particular time. Her heirs may think that, by expressing their conformity with the pieties of the day, they are showing themselves to be good people worthy of love, but in a period when taking offence at historic utterances vies with football as the national sport, they are potentially storing up trouble for themselves.

But, if fear is off the table, and seeking to be loved is risky, there is a third way. The Japanese royal family has settled for respect. Having had a rather different experience of the war, and surviving a brush with dynastic death in its aftermath, they have a far lower profile than the British equivalent. Royal news is not a staple of the media, and the nation does not hang on their every appearance. They turn up when required and are welcomed, but they are not really missed when they disappear again and pursue their own interests, such as ichthyology about which the last two emperors both published scientific papers. The family is kept small by stripping princesses of their royal status on marriage.

Power in the palace is vested in the Imperial Household Agency, not the royals themselves. Dedicated to preserving the institution rather than the participants, they have prevented the family from engaging in the fatal dance with the media wherein members vie for attention from the press. A Japanese Prince Andrew would not have been allowed to talk to a Japanese Emily Maitlis but, not seeking popularity, he would not have seen the need to.

While the ministrations of the bureaucrats have been less than entirely benign for the last two Empresses, they have successfully transitioned the monarchy from a divine ruler with theoretically total executive power to an accepted part of the furniture, uncontroversial, unobtrusive, but, at some level, reassuring.

By not opening themselves up to be loved, the Japanese royals do not raise any expectation amongst the populace that they should be so. The risk for the Windsors is that because the Queen is loved, and the younger royals seek to be so, that popularity comes to form part of their claim to rule. George IV shows that the institution did survive an unpopular monarch. Could it still? Sixth in line, would King Henry and Queen Meghan command popular support? The younger royals, increasingly seen with members of the entertainment industry, should be aware that the moment of greatest danger for any franchise is when it changes lead character. Nobody wants to be George Lazenby.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.