The Sun is in an unenviable position. The tabloid’s recent report claiming the Queen made eurosceptic remarks to Nick Clegg has prompted a formal complaint from palace authorities. For a paper that trades on its knee-jerk patriotism and publishes frequent gushing pieces on the monarchy, a false story about the Queen is about as bad as it can get. Still worse, if The Sun has used the Queen to push a political agenda the public outcry will be fierce.
Is the Queen in favour of a Brexit? Many Britons will salivate over that question, wondering what the cherished and historic monarch really thinks. But they will never find out, despite what newspapers might claim in shocking special reports. Studying Queen Elizabeth’s long reign clearly shows she keeps herself above politics, never interfering in democratic decision making but managing not to seem out of touch or snobbish about ordinary people’s concerns. Through decades of retreat from empire, enthusiastic nationalisation, rabid deregulation, wars against terrorists, conciliation with former terrorists, economic mismanagement and international crises, the Queen has provided an unshakeable centre. The Sun should respect that important role. But those, like the paper’s editors, who think the Queen could sway the vote should ask themselves: Does her opinion really matter?
There was a time when to be British was to slavishly admire the monarch. The country and the King were united in mystical union of God’s appointed ruler and the national interest, infused as it was with imperialism and militarism. Few today consider the Queen and the UK one in the same. She is not above criticism nor are the major issues of 21st Britain tangibly connected with her. British people are deeply fond of her, but loyal subjects? Hardly. Only once in her reign has Queen Elizabeth allowed her private opinion to affect public outcomes. In 1997 the Queen’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana was widely seen as a misstep. The Queen tried to treat her former daughter-in-law’s death as a private, family matter with no room for public mourning. Her popularity plummeted and she was forced into an embarrassing reversal. Millions of British people felt passionately about Diana and thought the Queen was on the wrong side of the issue. The monarchy was chastened. Loyalty to the Queen was not unconditional.
The number of voters who could be swayed by a royal Brexit endorsement are negligible. The millions who would be outraged, including senior politicians, are a far more realistic outcome of the Queen weighing in to a highly important, complex and emotive debate. Any move to influence the democratic process would only endanger the monarchy and would do nothing to shift the polls. But the Queen already knows this, whatever her opinions are. For 63 years she has chosen to stand aloof, representing the British values she thinks the monarchy should embody. There is no Dutch retirement option open to her. She is no media savvy figure, like Denmark’s Queen Margarethe. She must be Queen whether Britain is in or out, whether the nation’s riches are publicly owned or raided by robber barons, come rain, shine or British summer.
There are petty patriots on the Brexit side who would like to hijack the old dame for their own purposes with no regard to the damage they can do to her. In the final analysis, as Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, the Queen is the luckiest public figure in the country. She can keep her high profile job and never answer tough questions.