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A Royal Car Crash

The heightened contradiction of royal figureheads in the Brexit era

There have been no fewer than three royal car crashes this year.

The first came in January, when Prince Philip pulled out of a T-junction near his Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Claiming to be “dazzled by the sun,” the ninety-seven-year-old didn’t see the Kia Carens coming his way. His Land Rover likely being armored, the Prince emerged unscathed. Far more miraculous is the fact that the passengers of the wrecked Kia, two women and a nine-month-old baby, weren’t seriously injured, either—though had the Duke pulled out a “split second” later, a crash investigator warned, things could have been different. Then in June, a Brighton student had her Mini written off after she swerved to avoid the Duke of Kent’s Jag and crashed into a median. Weeks later, a careening motorcycle in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s convoy left an elderly woman from Richmond in critical condition.

Since 1997, all royal car crashes have been haunted by one. The death of Diana was arguably the most traumatic event in British public life since World War II, or at least the most televised: it’s been estimated that up to 2.5 billion people tuned in to her funeral. Unlike with the war, however, its viscera went unseen. Scenes of Diana’s Mercedes slamming into the thirteenth pillar of the Pont de l’Alma, her heart shunting to the right side of her chest, flickered dimly before the eyes of the people—yet never took concrete form. Despite having, over the years, sent a significant proportion of the paparazzi that had hounded Diana to death, The Sun refused to make public the images that photographer Romuald Rat reportedly wired them of Diana slumped in the backseat, her face bloodied. Instead, the images we commonly associate with Diana’s death are bloodless: seas of plastic-wrapped flowers; rows of black-suited, ashen-faced royals marching in step behind a single, flag-draped coffin.

The People’s Princess was bodily in a way royals aren’t supposed to be: she hugged people; showed off her tits; self-harmed. “Diana walked bare-handed among the multitude, and unarmed,” writes Hilary Mantel. This physical unguardedness made the public adore her. It was also her undoing. From the September morning when the young Lady Spencer wore a see-through skirt to a Pimlico nursery, the tabloids did to Diana what they do to all mere mortals—debase her until there was nothing left. She attempted to draw attention to her charity work; they speculated endlessly about her sex life. In his eulogy, Diana’s brother Earl Spencer spoke of the irony of how “a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.”

To accept the crown is “to agree to become a metaphor”—to evacuate oneself of flesh and blood and become a vessel for the hopes and dreams of a nation.

If Diana died at the hands of the press, she lived in freeing herself from its slippery grasp. The spectacular ceremony of her funeral—the epic cavalcade, the Elton John anthem, the extra service organized by popular demand—all but beatified the People’s Princess. When the Spencers buried Diana at their ancestral seat in Althorp, they put her not in the family vault at the local church but rather, in an act of Arthurian myth-making, on an island in the middle of an ornamental lake. There she remained, out of the public’s reach but ever more firmly in their hearts. “She went into the underpass to be reborn,” says Mantel, “but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.” She went in Diana the mortal; the emerged “Diana the martyr.”

What she had fatally failed to understand was that to be royal is to be untouchable. This is quite literally true: giving members of the Royal Family anything more than a handshake is considered a serious breach of etiquette; Michelle Obama and LeBron James found this out the hard way (it is ironic, but not coincidental, that the people most vituperated for such misconduct are African American, and so not royal subjects nor bound by royal protocol). This tradition, while not formally inscribed, is time-honored, dating back to the middle ages when kings and queens ruled not by consensus or even bloodline, but divine right. Monarchs, says historian Kate Williams, were perceived as directly appointed to rule by God, “so they demanded to be treated as gods”: with “distance and grandeur.”

Yet it isn’t just out of pseudo-religious reverence that we avoid touching royals. It’s also because, as Martin Amis puts it, to accept the crown is “to agree to become a metaphor”—to evacuate oneself of flesh and blood and become a vessel for the hopes and dreams of a nation. When throngs line the streets for royal meet-and-greets, their desire isn’t to feel royalty’s materiality, but to absorb its magic at closer range. In fact, when the opportunity for direct contact arises, we often avoid it. Mantel recalls an event she attended at Buckingham Palace, at which the queen was present:

I had expected to see people pushing themselves into the queen’s path, but the opposite was true. The queen walked through the reception areas at an even pace, hoping to meet someone, and you would see a set of guests, as if swept by the tide, parting before her or welling ahead of her into the next room.

The prospect of coming into direct contact with someone so symbolically charged—of touching god, in a way—is overwhelming. Or perhaps, underwhelming. As the Queen becomes corporeal—the lint on her pastel twinset, the varicose veins on her calves, the dandruff in her shampoo and set—she begins to deflate. The same thing often happens when fans meet celebrities and are shocked at how someone so imaginatively oversized could be so incredibly short.

The Queen’s disembodiment isn’t just what imbues her with symbolic significance—it’s what enables her to rule. After the English Civil War, the monarchy was restored in England, but precariously so. The memory of Charles I and his Eleven Years’ Tyranny was seared in the public imagination and though Charles II seemed pliable enough, people were wary of a royal relapse. It wasn’t long before, in 1688, they’d revolted again, deposed the current king and installed a constitutional one.

Really since the Magna Carta, but apace since the seventeenth century, the monarchy has become increasingly abstracted from power—to the extent that the current Queen’s role is not to exercise it, but rather platonically personify it, to hover divinely over the body politic. Walter Bagehot—whose name has become synonymous with The English Constitution he wrote in 1867, and which remains the closest Britons have come to codifying their governing principles—describes it thus:

When a monarch can bless, it is best that he should not be touched. It should be evident that he does no wrong. He should not be brought too closely to real measurement. He should be aloof and solitary. As the functions of English royalty are for the most part latent, it fulfils this condition. It seems to order, but it never seems to struggle. It is commonly hidden like a mystery, and sometimes paraded like a pageant, but in neither case is it contentious. The nation is divided into parties, but the Crown is of no party. Its apparent separation from business is that which removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to combine the affection of conflicting parties,—to be a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol.

By Bagehot’s count, there have been not three but five royal car crashes this year. The fourth happened in late August, when the Queen assented to Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament—nominally to formulate a new policy agenda undelayed by parliamentary business, in fact to hurry through his Brexit plans unchallenged by parliamentary scrutiny. Johnson presented Her Majesty with an impossible and, it transpires, illegal choice: defer to her prime minister or defend her parliament. Defying Bagehot’s prescriptions, Johnson enlisted the Queen in a grubby political battle, forcing her to become “contentious.” Remainers clamored (mistakenly, I believe) for the Queen to side with them, reinscribing an authority she isn’t meant to possess; Brexiteers gloated over the impossibility of their demand. Yet regardless of whether or not the Queen could or did exercise any agency in the proroguing, one thing was for certain: a pearl-wearing nonagenarian signed off on our country’s fate.

The fifth crash came two weeks ago, when David Cameron told the BBC that, as prime minister, he had asked the Queen to “raise an eyebrow” at prospect of Scottish independence—a request she apparently fulfilled by advising the Scots in the run-up to the referendum to “think very carefully about the future.” A “Buckingham Palace source” shared that “an amount of displeasure” felt after Cameron’s revelation, but one wonders whether it truly was displeasure, or fear. After the (non-)proroguing, the Queen was inevitably aware that her claim to political neutrality had become increasingly strained, and that to avert a constitutional crisis, she had to appear as powerless as possible. The irony was that, by sharing her “displeasure” with the former prime minister, Elizabeth exercised the very soft power she wished to disavow.

Regardless of whether or not the Queen could or did exercise any agency in the proroguing, one thing was for certain: a pearl-wearing nonagenarian signed off on our country’s fate.

This year’s royal car crashes are in many ways the opposite of Diana’s. Whereas the princess emerged immortal and immaculate, the rest of the royals have come out looking more grotesquely human than ever. Their crashes are more akin to Daisy Buchanan’s. Returning to Long Island from New York City, Daisy drives Gatsby’s car into Myrtle Wilson, the other woman in her marriage. The pair leave Myrtle to die in the road. As she lies there, “her left breast . . . swinging loose like a flap.” Gatsby and Daisy’s ethereal romance comes crashing to earth as a kind of murderous immunity. Seeing the wreckage of the car Prince Philip hit, the remains of the democracy the Queen undermined, has made the monarchy impossible to romanticize, exposed its benevolent fantasy once again as brute force. These chance, charged encounters also allow us to witness the ugly process whereby the monarchy, momentarily naked, re-robes itself in power. Prince Philip has faced no legal consequences for the crashes—though he did voluntarily surrender his license a few weeks later following a public outcry at his continuing to drive (at least once without a seatbelt). The passenger of the car he hit recently received a six-month driving ban for two counts of speeding—by eight and nine miles per hour, respectively.

In the four centuries since the Civil War, the Royal Family has fashioned itself as a set of constitutionally-consecrated celebrities whose job it is to entertain the nation with a variety show of weddings and christenings, family feuds and festive broadcasts—but never actually to rule over it. More recently, however, the iron fist has begun to poke through the velvet glove—and the people can feel it. For though “Kill the Queen! Guillotine!” may no longer be echoing down the streets of Westminster, nor #AbolishTheMonarchy trending on Twitter, something has hit home. Brexit has rendered the ambiguities of the British constitution—not least the Bagehotian “mystery” of royal prerogative—entirely literal. As a family of figureheads continues to collide with the fact of its own sovereignty, Britain’s long-dormant republican spirit may not lie sleeping much longer.