The Times (editorial) - 26 January 2019
The Times view on the Queen and Brexit: Silent Monarchy
The success of the royal family has been based on the fact that the Queen has remained above the political fray. She would do well to stay there
'The undoubted success of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II has been founded on silence. The democratic settlement, in which executive power passed from the monarchy to the elected bodies, found the perfect custodian in the monarch, who has never once given a formal interview.
This is why the Queen’s uncharacteristic remarks about Brexit, given during her annual visit to the Women’s Institute on the Sandringham estate, are unwise. On the face of it, and in a less feverish political atmosphere, the Queen’s request that politicians “seek out the common ground” might be regarded as good common sense and rather obvious. However, there is no doubt how the Queen’s advisers meant her words to be interpreted. This was the monarch choosing to send a signal to the political class.
The problem is not with the content of what she said. It is true that with the deadline of Britain’s departure from the European Union looming, politicians need to start seeking common ground and retain sight of the bigger picture. The parliamentary chaos of Brexit cannot be solved unless one faction or another is prepared to compromise. At the moment everyone — no-deal Brexiteers, Theresa May, the Labour leadership and advocates of a second referendum — are all refusing to budge from their optimal outcome.
It is not, though, the role of the Queen to say so. People will start to speculate whether she is keen that the prime minister’s deal should be approved by parliament. That invites the conclusion that the Queen is an enthusiast for Brexit itself, something that has been reported before when ministers have spoken about their private conversations with the monarch.
Her advisers should have known better because they have made this mistake before. During the Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014 the Queen asked the British people to “reflect carefully” on their vote. It was no surprise that she should have had an interest, the United Kingdom after all is central to the monarchy, but it was unwise to make it plain.
It is all the more so now. The issue of Europe is acutely divisive. There is mounting evidence that identification with Leave or Remain has begun to replace tribal party affiliation as the main political dividing line. The most persuasive justification for a hereditary monarchy at the apex of a democratic state is that it stays above political turmoil. The monarchy above all else exists to unify. It should be an institution to which all can cleave irrespective of political affiliation.
This has been the secret to the Queen’s popularity. George III liked to make his views known. Queen Victoria took a great interest in politicians she regarded as “her” ministers. That style of monarchy was thought to have disappeared with the exemplary role of Elizabeth II. Though her son, the Prince of Wales, has been fond of sending his views on various aspects of modern life to ministers he has acknowledged that he must desist when he takes the throne.
It is possible that the Queen’s comments are a response to the words of some Conservative MPs. They have suggested that the government could prevent an extension of Article 50 by a prorogation of parliament or by asking the Queen to withhold royal assent from backbenchers’ bills. The wise response to these ideas would have been to treat them with the disdain they deserve by saying nothing.
The reputation of historic institutions is similar to a glass menagerie, both precious and fragile at the same time. Intervention in public affairs, even gently and encoded, is not part of the bargain that has been struck. It is signalled that other members of the royal family may say similar things. They should think again. It is bad enough that Brexit has riven the country without it doing the same for the monarchy.'