a year ago

Elizabeth II . . . and tales of royalty

Studio artists retouching a wax work model of Queen Elizabeth at Madame Tussauds in London as senior members of the British royal family go on display in a new grouping and outfits ahead of Platinum Jubilee celebrations –Reuters file photo
Studio artists retouching a wax work model of Queen Elizabeth at Madame Tussauds in London as senior members of the British royal family go on display in a new grouping and outfits ahead of Platinum Jubilee celebrations –Reuters file photo

Published :

Updated :

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is in the seventieth year of her reign as monarch. The sense of excitement in the platinum jubilee celebrations of her years as sovereign is therefore one that is perceptible all across the country. For the Queen, these seventy years have been remarkable, given that her first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill, with the latest being Boris Johnson.

Of course, there have been all those difficulties which in recent times have hounded the monarchy. Or go back in time, when the monarch's sister Margaret created quite a stir with her endless romantic escapades. There is the tale of Diana Princess of Wales. And of late media reports on her son's involvement in a sex scandal have not sat well with Buckingham Palace.  Add to that the move by Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle to step away from the royal family and be on their own. Meanwhile, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, has died. And speculation is rife on whether the Queen will abdicate in favour of Prince Charles. There are certainly those who tend to believe that Charles, who is an aged man today, will never be king and that his elder son William will succeed his grandmother.

The larger story in the historical narrative is that the British monarchy has endured. Save for the execution of Charles I in 1649, the monarchy has gone on. And judging by the determination with which Britain's people have held fast to tradition, the monarchy will be there for a long time yet. Which leads one to the prediction, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to the late Egyptian King Farouk. He reportedly said at one point that the only monarchs who will not go away are those at Buckingham Palace and those dealt with in card games.

That prediction remains to be translated into reality. Farouk himself was ousted in a revolution led by General Naguib and Colonel Nasser in 1952. In our times we have indeed observed the swift and often systematic manner in which monarchies have bitten the dust all around the globe.

Since the fall of Louis XVI in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and since the collapse of the Russian monarchy through the revolution of 1905, kingdoms and empires have been in free fall. The rise of republican government around the world has been a major contributory factor to the demise of monarchies in our times. Nothing better illustrates this truth than the fall of the Shah of Iran in the face of the Islamic Revolution in his country in 1979.

The fall of the Shah was but a follow-up to a few earlier incidents in the lives of monarchies, notably the violent overthrow of the Iraqi royal family through the coup of 1958. It was a macabre change, seeing that unbridled bloodletting brought men like Karim Kassem to power. In 1967, the coup d'etat in Greece, led by a cabal of colonels, spelled the end of the monarchy. King Constantine was never able to regain the throne, for the fall of the colonels in 1974 was swiftly followed by the inauguration of a republic in Athens.

Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Sardar Mohammad Daoud in a coup in 1973. In the times of Hamid Karzai, he returned to Kabul as a monarch restored, but shorn of the old majesty. It is a story similar to that of Norodom Sihanouk, whose future was pushed into grave uncertainty when Lon Nol led a successful coup in Phnom Penh in 1970. Sihanouk subsequently made a comeback, but with his wings badly clipped.

The rise and fall of monarchs have been deeply associated with the way they have governed or not governed at all. Libya's King Idris, not reputed for bringing about any creditable change in the lives of his subjects, was overthrown in September 1969 by a young colonel named Muammar Gaddafi. Under the Gaddafi regime, Libyans went on to enjoy the fruits of republicanism, with the young leader espousing his own brand of politics he enunciated in his Green Book.

The quirky nature of monarchs, of some of them, has been cause for amusement for millions around the world. Think of Reza Shah Pahlavi's celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy in October 1971, ostensibly to convince the world that he belonged to the long line of Persian emperors up to that time. He was Shahinshah Arya Mehr,but it was no more than a fairy tale, illusory at best and a fabrication at worst.

And then there is the comedy associated with the rise and fall of Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Having seized power in the Central African Republic, he suffered from the delusion that he could turn the country into a monarchy, with himself as reigning monarch. He styled himself as Emperor Bokassa I, mimicking the late Napoleon Bonaparte, and leading the country to ruin. Eventually ousted by the army, he went into exile but returned home after a few years. Tried and sentenced by the state, he went to prison.

Japan's Emperor Hirohito, revered as a god-emperor, was brought down to earth by the Americans, who rightly considered him a war criminal in light of his role in Japanese militarism in the Second World War. His life was spared and he stayed on as a monarch who was no more than a figurehead. Today his grandson Naruhito reigns on the Chrysanthemum Throne in Tokyo. But if monarchs in these times are no more than powerless, figurehead rulers, the monarchy in Thailand continues to wield a considerable degree of authority.

Lese majeste is yet punishable by jail terms in Bangkok, despite the fact that students and the young have in recent months been demanding reforms of the monarchy, today headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the son of the late Bhumibol Adulyadej. Monarchs --- Queen Margrethe II, King William Alexander, King Carl XVI Gustaf, King Harald V, Prince Albert II, Prince Hans-Adam II --- reign in Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Monaco and Liechtenstein, in that order. In Saudi Arabia, the monarchy rules with a stern, ruthless hand, with little sign that the country will transform itself into a republic anytime soon. Much the same is true of Morocco and Jordan, where King Mohammad and King Abdullah hold absolute sway.

Revolutions and coups have often swept monarchs out of power and out of history. And yet there is the feeling, comfortable for traditionalists and observers of history, that Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs will be there for a long time yet. People in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland love their Queen, even if they are put off by the embarrassment caused by some in the royal family.

The Queen's platinum jubilee promises to re-energise British royalty and political heritage. Oliver Cromwell is but remembered as a footnote in the historical narrative. Which is just as well.


[email protected]

Share this news