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Monday, 20 May 2024
“Bumpy” year for British royal family – and wider society
“Bumpy” year for British royal family – and wider society

Part of the ritual celebration of Christmas for British people is the Queen’s television broadcast in mid-afternoon on the day itself.

This time, following millions of lunches of roast Turkey and all the trimmings, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II told her subjects that 2019 had been a “quite bumpy” year and offered the following advice: “Small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome deep-seated divisions.” It was her 68th seasonal message.

As befits a hereditary monarch, she offered no guidance as to what she actually meant. Was she referring to the continuing saga of Brexit – Britain’s fateful and controversial decision to leave the European Union, and the certainty that that will now happen within a few weeks following the victory of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the December 12 general election?

That is indeed the most obvious interpretation. And when the Queen mentioned last June’s 75th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied landings in Normandy which marked the beginning of the end for the Nazi occupation of Europe – she added a heartening message of reconciliation between “sworn enemies,” continuing: “By being willing to put past differences behind us and move forward together, we honour the freedom and democracy once won for us at so great a cost."

Britain’s unwritten constitution requires the Queen to remain strictly neutral on political questions: thus the displeasure from the throne when the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, hinted that she had opposed Scottish independence when the country held a referendum on the issue in 2014. Speculation was rife about a similar reaction when Johnson persuaded her to suspend parliament to deal with the Brexit crisis. Opposition leaders warned that the royal prerogative was being used against the will of the elected House of Commons, before prorogation was annulled by the supreme court.

But there are other issues which are uncomfortably close to Buckingham Palace. In 2019 the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, had a car accident in which two women were injured: that forced him to finally stop driving – albeit at the age of 97; and her grandson Harry’s wife – the Duchess of Sussex – complained publicly about the painful exposure of a high-profile royal life. Above all there has been controversy surrounding the conduct of her second son, Prince Andrew.

Inevitably, comparisons were made in the media between 2019 and 1992, famously described by the Queen as an “annus horribilis.” The year that marked the 40th anniversary of her accession saw three of her children’s marriages collapse. The most painful was that of her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, to Diana, princess of Wales. There was also a row over who would pay for expensive restoration work after a fire swept through Windsor Castle.

This year ended with a catastrophic BBC TV interview with Prince Andrew. That was far worse than his ageing father’s car crash. Andrew insisted that he had not had sex with an under-age girl allegedly procured by his former American friend, the financier and convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. But he failed dismally to convince millions of incredulous viewers of his innocence and behaved in an arrogant and overbearing manner. In the wake of that he stepped back from public life - in clear recognition of how damaging the interview had been.

On Christmas Day, at the Sandringham royal retreat in Norfolk, Andrew used a side entrance to attend the traditional church service – to avoid the crowds of well-wishers waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen. On Boxing Day a famous comedian, Jimmy Carr, generated fresh headlines when he joked on TV that Andrew had announced he was “stepping down from royal duties to spend more time with his daughters, instead of other people’s daughters.”

Conspicuously absent were Prince Harry (second son of Prince Charles) and his American-born wife and former actress, Meghan Markle, who has complained recently of the intrusiveness of the media spotlight. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex spent the holiday with their newborn son, Archie, with the Duchess’s mother in Canada – at an undisclosed location. The focus back home was on the Queen’s great-grandchildren – especially the three offspring of her grandson William - suggesting that the monarchy’s preference is to fast-forward to the next generation.

Royal life it seems, is imitating art – especially to the millions of people who watch the popular Netflix series, The Crown, which dramatizes the story of the Queen and her family since she ascended the throne on the death of her father George VI in 1952. High points include the antics of the Queen’s younger sister, Margaret, who died in 2002, and her eyebrow-raising behaviour in the “Swinging Sixties.

” The Duke of Edinburgh played a starring role in several episodes, cataloguing his struggle to adjust to life in Buckingham Palace. This year he again made news when he was admitted to hospital just before Christmas. The Queen and the rest of her family must be hoping that the new decade will bring less public attention.

Ian is a former Middle East editor, diplomatic editor and European editor for the Guardian newspaper. In recent years he has reported and commented extensively on the Arab uprisings and their aftermath in Syria, Libya and Egypt, along with frequent visits to Iran, the Gulf and across the MENA region. His latest book, a new history of the Palestine–Israel conflict, was published in 2017 to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. He has an MA in history and social and political science from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in government from LSE. Ian has written for the Economist, the Washington Post and many other publications, and is a regular commentator on TV and radio on Middle Eastern and international affairs. He wrote the introduction to The Arab Spring: Revolution, Rebellion and a New World Order (Guardian Books, 2012); Israel's Secret Wars (Grove Press, 1991), Zionism and the Arabs, 1936–1939 (Taylor & Francis, 1986, 2015); and contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Macmillan Library Reference, 2004). His most recent book is Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 (Allen Lane, 2017).