In summing up the big news last week as “an attempt on the life of one woman at the start of this month and the end of the long life of another woman last Tuesday (taking a more global perspective, we could also throw in a third woman, Britain’s new prime minister Liz Truss),” last Saturday’s column ran badly afoul of the tyrannies of newspaper schedules – an even longer life than Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú of yet another woman ended that Thursday with a much huger worldwide splash.
The Queen (with no name or nationality required) was a matriarchal touchstone offering the world unique constancy throughout seven decades of bewildering change and her rapid demise was a shock to the system of this columnist at least, despite belonging to the tenth or so of Brits predating her long reign (without consciously knowing any other). Macbeth’s “She should have died hereafter” sprang to mind even with such a marathon reign and reaching the great age of 96 – outlived by both her mother and her husband, her seven decades also fell short of Louis XIV’s record of 72 years to my frustration.
During those seven decades from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss, Britain has declined from a worldwide empire ruling most of the 54 Commonwealth countries to barely a middleweight but the Queen was a one-woman engine of soft power flouting that trend – as Britain declined, her mastery of a continually reinvented institution only grew with an unfailing sense of duty. For all the tabloid gossip and kitsch (this columnist remembers the Silver Jubilee of 1977 being rubbished as “an adjunct to the plastic industry”) triggered by the Royal Family, she deserves to be remembered as a seemingly eternal flagship of traditional values preserving a mystique seemingly impossible in this age of Internet penetration.
“The Queen is dead, long live the King” – not much to add to the first half of this traditional proclamation since, to paraphrase Mark Antony, the good is interred in her bones (or will be after Monday’s lavish funeral) but the second half sparks a host of doubts and questions about both monarch and monarchy.
There has been a rush to judgement about Charles III by various observers but the jury should stay out – while the Queen has undoubtedly raised the bar for her son, that bar is pushed down again by the low expectations surrounding him which should be easier to hurdle. One handicap bequeathed this keen former polo player by his mother’s never-ending reign is undoubtedly his age, turning 74 in November – not only is he the oldest monarch to accede to the throne, as frequently pointed out, but of all the previous kings, none even reached the age of 74 except for the second and third Georges (the latter during the Regency when he was mentally unfit to rule).
Anyway before looking into the questions about monarch and monarchy, time for the personal memories which are the focus of this column because unlike his mother, our paths have crossed, both in Britain and Argentina. My history studies at Cambridge University overlapped with his (the second part of his Tripos after doing archaeology and anthropology in the first) by about a year – even if he was in Trinity College while I was at Trinity Hall (different colleges even if they sound the same), we shared a few lectures. I almost invariably saw him from the rear but he was immediately recognisable with one fist always clenched firmly behind his tweed jacket and flanked by a couple of security men.
More important is his visit to Argentina in the summer of 1999, some of which I covered in my role as a Buenos Aires Herald editor. The British Embassy was kind enough to invite me to both the gala dinner and the garden reception but the closest I came to him was during his visit to the AACI (Asociación Argentina de Cultura Inglesa) centre in Suipacha street when I was near enough to hear the royal repartee with the schoolchildren – “You wouldn’t want to hear my Spanish” and “Shouldn’t you be in school?” This memory gives me a certain optimism as to his ability to face the challenges ahead of him, despite the controversial and tragic marital baggage which should need no further detail. The dry Windsor wit (inherited from his mother who at the age of 93 told incoming premier Boris Johnson: “I don’t know why anyone would want the job”) is often underestimated but gives me hope that King Charles will be able to josh his way through some tough situations in the style of Ronald Reagan. With seven decades of preparation, he knows his way around the world and its leaders and stands to be as professional as mother – green only in his environmental passions.
Endless questions loom (post-Brexit problems, Scottish separatism, etc. etc.) but the most important must be the future of the monarchy as such. To those who might ask how this anachronistic, costly yet politically impotent institution can resist cost-benefit analysis, perhaps the best answer comes not from Britain but the opposite end of the world. In 1999 Australia was given the chance to replace a Pom monarchy with an Aussie republic but instead of sending Liz and Phil packing, as widely expected, over 60 percent of voters said no to change. The key to this result was not sentimental loyalty but a preference for parliamentary over presidential democracy. While republican models of parliamentary democracy exist (Germany or India), the neutered executive branch offered by constitutional monarchy (the option favoured by the founding fathers José de San Martín and Manuel Belgrano for Argentina which has instead veered to ultra-presidential democracy) remains the best anchor for parliamentary democracy.