LONDON—The performance of the British Parliament in the Brexit crisis has become so imbecilic that some people are desperately hoping that the Queen might intervene.
Not a chance. The last time a monarch stopped a piece of legislation was in 1707 when Queen Anne struck down an act that would have given Scotland its own militia. As fans of the movie The Favourite will know, Queen Anne could be a handful.
Queen Elizabeth is no Queen Anne and she has spent a lifetime avoiding offering any hint of her political views with consummate skill. During that time the British Empire was dismantled and, along with it went the pretense of any longer being a world power.
All this she seemed to accept as the natural forces of history at work. Her monarchy might easily have gone the way of other European royal houses, either by being reduced to using their titles as grifters among high society or becoming bicycle-riding social democrats.
But the Windsors hung on, politically neutered but tolerated as part of the national scenery in which palaces and castles were still expected to be inhabited.
The Queen had bad moments when it seemed she had lost touch with the mood of her people. The worst example was her tardiness in realizing and acknowledging the depth of public grief over the death of Princess Diana.
But in the last decades of her reign–the longest ever of a British monarch– Elizabeth has not only appeared to embrace the new spirit of her people but to enjoy it in a way that suggests that she must really loathe Brexit and its self-destructive xenophobia.
The evidence for this is in one event that cannot now be overlooked: the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
As with many other Olympics this one might have brought another over-reaching exercise in national propaganda.
But instead of a humorless rear-gazing pageant of lost glories we got a howlingly bonkers street party masterminded by the movie director Danny Boyle that left the rest of the world thinking what a fun country we had become.
There was no menace to others in the script. No sense that festering somewhere offstage in the shires beyond London’s vivid entrepot was a nasty insurgency of aggrieved nativists waiting for the right moment to strike.
Boyle’s script was a masterful balance of messages: secure enough to be self-mocking; shrewd enough to parade world famous cultural icons like Harry Potter, James Bond and David Beckham; nutty enough to be a mix of rock opera and a history of the industrial revolution; clever enough to include the inevitable patriotic trope involving Churchill as a suddenly animate statue; and political enough to make a pointed tableau supporting the National Health Service and universal free health care when the Tories were trying to roll it back. (Boyle faced down a Tory effort to cut it from the program.)
And the Queen topped it all by participating in a stunt in which all her assumed dignity, remoteness and solemnity were thrown to the winds.
Boyle directed a sequence in which a taxi draws up at Buckingham Palace and deposits someone so famous that schoolchildren on a tour of the palace impudently break away from the guide to gawk at him—Daniel Craig, a.k.a. James Bond.
At this point it is necessary to caution that any nation that builds a reputation for superlative national intelligence on the record of a misogynistic sociopath like Bond is delusional but no matter: The whole world enjoys the joke, hopefully.
Bond is shown into the Queen’s presence and—a move that apparently the Queen herself suggested—she at first ignores him, finally turning from writing notes at her desk, and utters the magic name, “Mr. Bond.”
What followed was, literally, breathtaking: the Queen follows Bond to a waiting chopper, they zoom low over a series of landmarks and arrive over the Olympic Stadium as the opening ceremony begins, caught in searchlights. Bond and the Queen (daring body doubles) parachute into the arena and then, cutting to the actual event, the Queen makes her entrance to officially declare the games open.
For the massive global television audience watching it was a stunning coup de théâtre. And it was a clear hint of the message to follow. The monarch was at one with a message about her country as a youthful, liberally progressive multi-racial society no longer bound by the old jingoism of what was once aggressively asserted as a distinct “island race.”
And it is that Queen and that message that has been made to look defeated by the Brexit rabble. Why wouldn’t Her Majesty be really pissed?
At this very moment the Queen is about to become the great-grandmother of a child born to a mixed-race divorcee and a grandson whom she has embraced with unstinted enthusiasm.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were married in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle in a ceremony that rang with the spirit of a rainbow coalition—a gospel choir from Chicago rocking the place with “Stand by Me,” Meghan and Harry’s generation sitting in the pews alongside doddery old dukes and Oprah! A television audience of 1.9 billion!
And yet beneath the consecration of such enlightened and modern family values there lurked a paradox. This was Windsor Castle and the chapel was hung with heraldic banners noting the many honors bestowed on those who went forth to conquer the world as white Christian crusaders from the island race.
So the royal pageant could be seen in two starkly different and subjective ways in which each response ignored the other. Through one set of eyes the monarchy was passing from one generation to another with the Queen assenting happily to the ecumenical new Windsors. Through another set of equally fervent eyes this was Britannia in Excelsis, the thundering medieval setting overcoming a charade of change and summoning all the atavistic emotions of Brexit.
Like the rest of the country this leaves the Queen dangerously poised between relevance and irrelevance.
Should Brexit prevail the new young royals could find themselves imprisoned for life as the indentured cast of the world’s most loved soap opera. Will and Kate, Harry and Meghan and their children will be one of the few surefire sources of revenue for a beleaguered island economy as they attract waves of tourists.
In dramatic terms this has all the glamor and tensions of the Netflix blockbuster The Crown. The Queen finally succeeded by the petulant and broody Charles in thrall to his matriarchal ex-paramour, now an overweening duchess; questions about whether the institution can survive until King Will ascends; endless tabloid fictions about family feuds while as this narrative constantly reinvents itself Scotland declares independence and rejoins the European Union, Northern Ireland is absorbed into a united Ireland that, helped by the largesse of E.U. funding, becomes the economic miracle of Europe.
Alas poor England, left as the exhausted rump of the kingdom, now no more than a giant theme park composed of tourist sites drawing on a combination of The Crown and Downton Abbey, with some of the royal castles sold off to become part of the enduring Harry Potter franchise.
The Queen must by now surely realize along with millions of her subjects that Brexit is not a natural force of history at work. It is a rejection of the future and a rush backward to isolation and impotence. As such it must be intolerable to the woman who has learned from her own history that fall need not necessarily follow decline.