BY STEWART SLATER
In his youth, we are told, Boris Johnson formed a desire to be the “world king”, an ambition which, to be blunt, currently looks a bit of a stretch. Not only does his current popularity suggest that achieving such office is unlikely at the ballot box, but the position is already taken.
For if the events of the weekend show anything, they show that the world currently has a monarch. And it is the Queen. An estimated billion people worldwide watched at least some of the events while leaders from around most countries felt it necessary to release videos passing on their congratulations, be they the Bidens or the not notably anglophile Emmanuel Macron. Even the bad boy of international relations, Kim Jong Un took time off from his busy schedule of mass immiserating to pass on his good wishes. Like maharajas jostling for the best seats at the Delhi Durbar, the world’s elite sought to connect itself with the House of Windsor, searching for some reflected glory. Not bad for the head of state of a “Cake-filled, misery-laden grey old island”.
More popular in the Republic of Ireland, a country with a less than smooth history with her own, than any elected politician, for many it makes political sense to attach themselves to a globally popular figure of Her Majesty even if we might doubt whether Mr Kim loses much sleep over the restive royalist voters of Pyongyang South. She is the global celebrity and, as any winning sports team can attest, politicians are never shy about acquiring some reflected glory.
Unlike, say, Team GB, however, tributes to Her Majesty focused less on her substantive achievements, and more on the length of her reign. It was not that she had done any individual thing of particular note, but that she had spent so many years doing them.
By contrast, history has generally focussed on monarchs’ substantive achievements rather than their duration in office. Cyrus is surnamed “the Great” for founding the Persian Empire, Alexander for conquering it. Octavian is called “Augustus” for ending a bloody civil war and instituting a system of government which lasted for four centuries. Constantine took a pagan empire and made it Christian (we might assume it was not the pagans who decided to call him “Great”). Akbar the Great expanded Mughal rule over the whole of India, Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Rhodes, Hungary and much of the Middle East for the Ottomans. Closer to home, Alfred unified much of England and defeated the Vikings.
The Queen has, almost certainly opened more schools than any or all of them, and we may reasonably doubt whether any have appeared on television in the company of a cartoon bear (Peruvian immigrant at risk of deportation to Rwanda for the government’s more obsessive critics) but in terms of changing the world, their record is somewhat more substantial.
To be fair to Her Majesty, the monarchy, as currently constituted, does not allow for the achievement of great deeds. The last British monarch to lead his forces in battle was Geroge II at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. As Mr Putin is learning, attempting to acquire an empire is now frowned upon in the better circles. The Queen’s only fingerprints on British politics were in the fraught succession to Harold Macmillan, a process which resulted in new leadership rules for the Conservative Party, to prevent her being involved in the future.
But if Her Majesty’s achievements are slight and, to be blunt, Britain no longer has the power to compel global fawning, why were her Jubilee celebrations such an event? Part is surely circumstance – the only sovereign of an English speaking country has easy access to the American audiences and there is little competition anyway in the monarchy market. Part is more personal. Her longevity means there are few who can remember life Before Elizabeth. Most people have grown up with her as she has transformed from glamorous princess to global granny.
But the Jubilee Pageant suggests a further reason for, with the exception of the strange puppet dragon and girl segment which, according to its creators, represented her “wisdom”, the striking thing about the parade to honour the monarch was how little of it was about her. Save for her brief appearance on the balcony at the end, attention was focussed on those who watched (Prince Louis) and those who participated (such as the renowned pugilist Chris Eubank). The pageant celebrated not Her Majesty, but those who had achieved during her reign, reflecting glory on her by proxy, and conferring official approval on them.
This reflects not so much “monarchy as service” as some commentators termed the Queen’s philosophy, but “monarchy as platform”. Similar to Apple’s App Store which allows independent developers to sell their product to the company’s user-base, the monarchy extends its audience to those who it deems meet its criteria while in return it benefits from association with their achievements. All of those featured will benefit from the exposure even if the gain will be smaller for, say, Heston Blumenthal than for one of the community marching bands just as the BBC app gains from being on the official store even if less so than, for example, a local newspaper would. In the same way that Apple gives app developers access to its customer base through the App Store, the Royal Family uses its user-base of attention to provide the ecosystem in which others can enhance their popularity, while taking a cut of the associated exposure.
While proximity to royalty has long been a route to status, whether for Alexander’s “Companions”, or mediaeval earls, the innovation of the Queen’s reign has been to use the extension of her reach provided by technology, and to share her status more widely. Kim Kardashian appeared in London to try to be part of the festivities because she knew connection with them would give her access to billions of eyeballs. While she failed in that endeavour, perhaps suggesting that some standards do remain, it is hard to imagine any of the Queen’s predecessors overseeing a celebration of, say, cooks or actresses.
Where the royal business model is weaker than Apple’s, however, is that the cost of switching is low. Whereas those wishing to leave the loving embrace of the Cupertino behemoth need to buy more kit, an alternative to the Windsors could easily arise. As the world develops, maybe appearing with President Xi will come to be the imprimatur craved by the celebrity community. Perhaps the failure of Ursula von der Leyen to congratulate the Queen is a sign of the ambitions of her own start-up.
The platform model only works if the platform has enough users to make it worth developing content for. If it loses eyeballs, developers will follow the audience elsewhere, and the problem will then compound as new, better content will draw away the remaining users. In this context, however sincere their beliefs, the efforts of Princes Charles and William to attach themselves (between private jet flights) to the environmental movement, represent an attempt to open a new, hitherto less receptive, audience for the Windsor platform. By allying with a fashionable cause, they promote their ecosystem as a high status one, encouraging ambitious developers to associate themselves with it.
Whether the platform can survive the re-launch it will undergo in the future remains to be seen. While inheriting a large installed base from the Queen, her heirs lack some of her advantages. Being elderly or middle aged men, not young princesses in a time of austerity, they cannot be monopoly suppliers of global glamour. Neither will they start as the sovereign of a large chunk of the global population. At least one of them is known to be a bit odd. They run a higher risk than the Queen of appearing a bit, well, cringe. It is not impossible that they inherit Facebook and turn it into Myspace.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.