Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Good Queen Tess

There's something very regal about Theresa May these days. Regal in the specific sense of resembling the only UK monarch in my living memory, Elizabeth II. Years ago, I linked to an acute pen portrait of Our Dear Queen from a sadly now-inactive blog. Some of the parallels with our famously sphinx-like Prime Minister are striking:
Of course the monarchy can survive, or even flourish, when the monarch does a reasonable job, which in Elizabeth II's case has meant keeping her head down and never saying anything remotely interesting...she understands (unlike her eldest son) that a constitutional monarch is better seen than heard, and that the role consists in being rather than doing.

The present Queen may well be the most boring monarch in British history... She has been for sixty years a vacuum at the heart of the state. Anti-monarchists, like atheists, need something to get their teeth into. Just as it's easier to oppose Michele Bachmann's God than Giles Fraser's, it's easier to oppose a despot or a crowned fruitcake than Queen Elizabeth II... Where public affairs are concerned, the weight of inertia is typically huge. It certainly is in the case of the monarchy (or the NHS, or the BBC). Boring is good, or at least safe from too much scrutiny.
Heresy Corner

Just compare the branding of Elizabeth II* and Theresa May. Both: 
  • Are cited by admirers as living symbols of national stability and unity.
  • Are archetypes of a certain brisk, "no-nonsense" anti-intellectual sensibility.
  • Occupy a central role in the UK establishment.
  • Are devoutly Anglican.
  • Are adept at cutting any meaningful information out of their public pronouncements and replacing it with anodyne feel-good generalities.
  • Have survived and prospered by mastering a bland inscrutability onto which their followers can project whatever values they hold dear and which doesn't generate any hostages to fortune that enemies might exploit.
  • Have their public speeches and appearances meticulously vetted and pre-planned, in order to project an image of effortless control and to eliminate the danger of embarrassing spontaneity.
Of course, Elizabeth II fell into her role thanks to a genetic lottery. The ambitious grammar school girl had to try harder, aided by the office politician's talent for giving nothing away and ruthlessly positioning herself to fill any vacancy that might come along. Once she'd bagged the Prime Minister's job, most people assumed that she'd risen as far as it was possible to rise in the UK, but I'm not so sure.

With the old Queen retreating into the shadows, as the advancing years erode her stamina, I think the vicar's daughter from Eastbourne has spotted another vacancy - for what the Heresiarch called "the vacuum at the heart of the state." Theresa May is fast usurping the ageing monarch as the hole at the centre of our national doughnut, becoming a very British iteration of the current authoritarian fad for personality cult-based centralised leadership.

Unfortunately for the rest of the UK, the skill set for a symbolic head of state doesn't transfer readily to the leader of a government facing some of the most complex, taxing and intractable executive decisions the nation has faced since Elizabeth II was a young slip of a thing. As Good Queen Tess recently discovered, the level of content-free small talk that politely lubricates a state banquet just won't cut it when your dinner date is the president of the European Commission, here to talk about the substantial issues that could make or break the nation's economic future for a generation.


*Update  - just as I was writing this, Theresa May decided to spring another surprise on us and start channelling Violet Elizabeth Bott, instead of Elizabeth II. How threatening to scream and scream and scream until she's sick will work out as a negotiating ploy remains to be seen, but in view of these occasional tantrums, I'm going to have to qualify my assessment of Good Queen Tess as merely boring. It looks as if the May administation, like war, will consist of "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror."