Opinion

The royal treatment: in the age of coronavirus, does the monarchy matter?

We cannot underestimate the Queen’s role as a spiritual figurehead in this moment of historic peril.

Oliver Shaw

It’s been a terrible year for Britain’s monarchy. And as someone who has always tried to their best to defend the monarchy and the Royal Family, I now believe that there is a serious debate to be had about the future of ‘the Firm’.

But, whether or not we agree with the existence of the monarchy, we must recognise the enormous emotional power that Queen Elizabeth II wields, persuasively demonstrated in her historic address to the nation last Sunday. Lots of people don’t have much time for the Queen – as is their right in a democracy. But 24 million people watched Sunday’s address. We cannot underestimate the Queen’s role as a spiritual figurehead in this moment of historic peril, even if we need to have serious conversations about the future of the Crown.

We must remember that trust in politicians remains at rock bottom. The Queen, by contrast, is a public figure who has barely put a foot wrong in eighty years of public service. It’s not something that can be said for some of her family, of course. But people trust the Queen, and her words simply matter more. Plus, most people in this country have never lived under another monarch. Think of everything that’s happened in the world since 1940. Elizabeth Windsor has been there for all of it: a stoic, reassuring, if predictable, constant in the face of disruption, crisis and despair – even if we don’t want to admit it.

And while some might roll their eyes at comparisons to the Second World War, upon which the Queen drew heavily, it’s a powerful comparison nonetheless – not least for those who lived through it and who now find themselves at particular risk in this coronavirus emergency.

Furthermore, a principal raison d’être of today’s monarchy and the wider Royal Family is to support a vast array of charities and important causes for whom royal backing has been a lifeline. With the charitable sector set to be badly hit by coronavirus, that lifeline could make a huge difference. For instance, it’s not that well known that the Duchess of Cornwall has been a leading and vocal patron of charities supporting victims of domestic abuse, cases of which have soared by 25% in recent weeks.

Other royals have also used social media to continue supporting their charities, and showing the kind of moral, emotional leadership that politicians will always struggle to master. As Harry and Meghan step back from royal duties, the lesser-known Sophie, Countess of Wessex – herself the patron of over 70 charitable organisations – has been gifted a more prominent role on the monarchy’s social media channels and used Instagram to reach out to parents and carers struggling in lockdown.

For their starring role in the inequalities of British society, the Royal Family have done much good in their time. It won’t fix much, though: coronavirus aside, the NHS has long been at breaking point, one in four children live in poverty and homelessness has reached unforgivable levels. There’s no doubting that it’s time to include the Crown’s fortunes in a broader debate about progressive taxation and a sweeping redistribution of wealth in the UK. It is totally and morally wrong that our key workers – our NHS nurses, social care workers, cleaners and delivery drivers – are barely able to feed their families, and a radical new economic settlement must emerge from this crisis.

But we shouldn’t be directing all of our anger at the monarchy. It’s the elected government that should be the focus of our scrutiny right now. And, irrespective of its future, what the Royal Family – and, most importantly, Elizabeth II – say and do in this crisis could offer a valuable glimmer of hope for many people.

After all, we need all the hope we can get.

Moral leadership that comes from people who do not live by those morals has no place in this crisis.

Emily Reed

Unfortunately, the ‘thanks and warmest good wishes’ of the Queen made little impact on the reality of a national and global health crisis.

The Queen – dressed up in her pearls and brooches, while our nurses wear binbags on the frontline – failed to confirm the sense of ‘we are all in this together’ that her words desperately sought to convey.

The speech was littered with tokenistic attempts at unity – ‘us all’, ‘our country’, ‘we remain united and resolute’ – which left a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who truly understands the hardship that communities face at this point in time, and the pain and grief that is still yet to come. We should look on the British Royal Family with the same disdain with which the world looked upon celebrities singing ‘Imagine’ in their multi-million-dollar homes. The Royal Family should be met with nothing short of disgust in the time of COVID-19, their make-believe ‘united front’ almost laughable.

Where to begin when trying to express the offensiveness of the royal family trying to act as the figureheads of our nation in this time of crisis? Doctors and scientists have been ignored and overlooked. Nurses are making Facebook videos in tears demanding adequate PPE. Supermarket workers, delivery drivers, teachers, cleaners and carers are risking their lives, and those of their family, for jobs that are criminally underpaid.

What does the ‘stiff upper lip’ of Britain’s royals have to offer to frontline workers or grieving families? To people trapped in poor housing, banned from green spaces, or spending their days queuing in supermarket car parks to shop for basic necessities?

How could someone who personifies the inequality of the British class system even begin to provide moral and relevant leadership at a time when those inequalities have been exposed like never before? It is the working class who keep this country working – not just in times of crisis, but always.

The Queen tells us to use our resolve, in a world so far from reality for many Britons. What does ‘resolve’ mean on the Windsor estate? Or at Buckingham Palace? Or whatever wealthy estate the royals occupy at the moment while the world we know falls apart? What does ‘resolve’ mean when you can be tested for COVID-19 without severe symptoms – like Prince Charles was – while British people are losing their lives before they even reach a hospital? Or when NHS workers are not being given the testing and PPE they desperately need? What is ‘resolve’ when you can move straight to your vast estate with a team of staff funded by the taxpayer, while the taxpayer loses their job and is forced to apply for Universal Credit?

Moral leadership that comes from people who do not live by those morals has no place in this crisis. The revelation of the fatal levels of inequality in British society must remain with us after this crisis subsides. The coronavirus has taught us that essential workers are the true heroes of our society.

Those who can offer us nothing more than kind words of solidarity from an ivory tower have been pushed into irrelevance. It seems that in this moment, we have found what really counts: it’s not the money that you hoard, but what you can offer your neighbour in times of need.

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is the Senior Current Affairs Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. Oliver lives in Warwickshire and is entering his final year studying History at Merton College.