Queen Elizabeth II, at 89, is a very old lady. By day, her subjects see less of her than they used to. But by night, it’s different. Then she and her family visit millions of households up and down the kingdom. Up to a third of Britons have dreams about Her Majesty and the royals.
According to “Dreams About H.M. the Queen and Other Members of the Royal Family,” the classic study by Brian Masters, author of several books about the British aristocracy, the dreams frequently involve cups of tea. A characteristic scenario is that she, or sometimes he, settles down at your kitchen table. She remarks on what a nice cup of tea you make. Then she says: “You don’t know what a relief it is to talk to somebody normal and ordinary like you. I’m at my wits’ end how to deal with my grandchildren, I can tell you.”
That, in summary, is roughly how most royal dreams go. Not only loyal monarchists have them. To their intense shame, fiercely red republicans get them, too. Sometimes, when princesses appear, there’s a shy glint of the erotic. But mostly, these are dreams of reassurance. The very fact that royalty can come down to our level and be “normal” actually reinforces their magical “specialness.”
In less than two weeks’ time, the queen will have reigned for 63 years and 217 days, overtaking the record set by her awe-inspiring great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria (1837-1901). By the time the Widow of Windsor finally passed, imperial Britain found a post-Victorian epoch a baffling prospect. For Britons today, who have themselves grown old with this stolid but much-loved lady, a post-Elizabethan age looks like a dismal abyss.
The recent fuss over a newly unearthed film clip, showing Elizabeth as a young girl and her mother giving a comic “Heil Hitler” salute, was revealing. Nobody quite dared to ask if the Windsors were, as a family, seriously pro-Nazi in the early 1930s. Much like the persistence of royal dreams, that reluctance to confront troubling and awkward issues shows how powerfully the monarchy still grips the English imagination. (Scottish attitudes are a different matter; Northern Irish, too.)
English loyalty to the Crown, though, is growing strikingly ambivalent. Mystic awe is combined with touchy social resentment — a sense of “when it comes down to it, they’re no better than the rest of us.” More potent still, Britain’s establishment might change its mind if there were another royal crisis like Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936, deciding that the monarchy had become more of a liability to its interests than a protection.
Nobody knows whether the queen intends to abdicate, or whether — like Pope John Paul II — she is determined to die in office. More accurately, she and a tiny palace circle almost certainly do know, and have no intention of sharing their knowledge. But however her reign ends, Prince Charles is due to succeed her as king.
Now in late middle age, Charles lacks dream magic. He appears all too human: a well-meaning person tormented by what he sees as the mounting callousness, greed and ugliness of the world. Being Prince of Wales has seemed, for him, a penance: something that he believes he must bear, but which he does not enjoy.
A few years ago, it was widely thought that he might reject the succession on his mother’s death and pass the crown directly to his son William. This no longer seems likely, in spite of William’s wildly popular marriage to Kate Middleton. Charles’s sense of duty will prevail. He may dread becoming king, but he will grit his teeth and think of Britain.
The media and some politicians fear that he will be an interfering monarch. Charles has a record of writing private letters to cabinet ministers about projects affecting his pet causes: architecture, the environment, organic food. These “black spider” letters, so called because of his handwriting, were regarded by some as evidence of direct royal interference in government affairs, violating Britain’s unwritten constitution under which the sovereign must maintain strict political neutrality.
The letters themselves, when freedom of information lawyers finally dragged them out of secrecy, proved harmless: They contained mild suggestions that this or that consideration should be remembered. In any case, the royals are not politically neutral. The queen failed to hide her alarm over Scotland’s independence referendum last year, and Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, revealed that when he called to tell her that the Scots had voted narrowly to stay in the Union, Elizabeth “purred” down the telephone.
But Scotland, its independence movement still accelerating, remains a challenge to the monarchy. The Scottish National Party insists that an independent Scotland would invite Elizabeth to stay on as “Queen of Scots,” harking back to 17th-century times when England and Scotland were separate states sharing a monarch.
This pledge, though, overlooks Scotland’s grumbling republicans, who are a much louder minority than they are in England. That thousands recently signed a petition against a new hospital in Glasgow being named “the Queen Elizabeth” indicated how thin traditional deference has worn in Scotland.
The Scots tend to judge the monarchy by the personality on the throne. The English, in contrast, have revered the institution: A bad king or queen did not affect the magical glamour of the Crown.
But this is changing, and the queen herself has helped to bring about the change. By giving the media wider access to the royal family, she has moved the focus from anachronistic court pageantry toward modern celebrity culture. As she remarked, with a certain dry wit: “I have to be seen to be believed!”
The uproar that followed Princess Diana’s death in 1997 showed that English people could reproach the queen personally, for slighting “the people’s princess.” That storm blew over, and Elizabeth is today as welcome in her subjects’ dreams as ever. But as her reign nears its end, the emphasis on person, rather than Crown, becomes ominous.
The British increasingly fear that Charles may be a weak, unpredictable king. If they are right, will the 1,000-year splendor of the Crown outweigh people’s impatience with an elderly, melancholy man who finds it a burden to reign?
Neal Ascherson, a journalist and writer, and the author of Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland.