On 30 April, Akihito, emperor of Japan, will abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. Akihito is 85, his health is fading and he has put in his 31 years: let no one resent his decision. While he is the first Japanese emperor to abdicate in two centuries, in previous eras it was a common method of transferring power. In Japanese royal circles, “abdicate” is not a dirty word.
For the British royal family, however, the word is the equivalent of Basil Fawlty’s “the war”. If you want to see a Windsor start twitching violently, fake-sneeze the word “abdicate” – though not too often, please, it is unkind.
I have been watching The Crown on Netflix and now I know all about modern British history. In fairness, my history teacher had such hairy ears and nostrils that I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying and retained nothing from school except the Henry VIII wives rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, unleaded, freeze-dried” – that will certainly never leave me.
To my surprise, I love The Crown and I usually hate biopics of still-living people. These often lavish productions are so tense with the challenge of verisimilitude that they cannot be enjoyed at all, preoccupying the viewer with evaluating the actors’ impressions, as if watching an episode of Dead Ringers.
At the end of the day the chief pleasures in such viewing are always prurient, peeping behind the curtain to see the royals “being human” in such a way that fawningly underlines their specialness. The real Queen must be laughing her head off at the soapy portrayal of her private life.
Why do some people feel that the royals are special? Position is vested in an individual only by the agreement of everyone else. If we all stop believing that the Queen is the Queen then she stops being the Queen. The passing on of power to a successor is an especially delicate moment, requiring extra belief. That’s why crowns are shiny – to dazzle us briefly during the sleight of hand of transition. Wait a minute, there was a lady under there a minute ago, I’m sure there was!
Succession through the death of a monarch is acceptable to us: Charles is preordained to become king this way. He did not choose it. He cannot duck it. We are prepared too: we carry in the back of our minds a basic flowchart of heirs apparent and presumptive and this gives us comfort. Edward’s abdication disrupted this premise of inevitability, traumatising the institution of the monarchy and the national equilibrium.
The idea of royalty is deep in the British psyche, part of the tribal sense of self, a line of benign hierarchy and group identification through father, mayor and king – the Russian dolls of our superego.
Attachment to this picture might partly explain the visceral suspicion towards Europe that animated those who voted Leave viscerally – its republicanism might be contagious! If the British lost their monarch, they would lose a part of themselves. Worse, it might blow away the smoke of nostalgia that obfuscates a clear-eyed review of imperial exploitation and the reality of British food and teeth.
Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were fabled to have agreed a timetable of succession over lunch in Islington’s Granita restaurant. When Blair missed his scheduled abdication after two terms of office, I heard a number of perfectly reasonable people complaining bitterly that he had reneged on this deal – as if “over lunch” is how we transfer power in this country, as if prime ministers in a democracy nominate their own successors. Those people would never have said so aloud but they were monarchists at heart, in love with the idea of preordained succession.
We want our prime ministers to symbolise and represent us as monarchs do. Boris might get in, awfully, because he looks the part. Nineties man Blair offered this sense of identification and representation, although these qualities were only appreciated retrospectively by their absence in Brown, who did not last. David Cameron, refreshingly, seemed genuinely not to be an egotist. In fact, so weak was his appetite for power that after the referendum went the other way he casually abdicated, asking his aides: “Why should I do all the hard shit?” As if with great power came no responsibility. Wow, sir. Wow.
Unusually for a politician, Cameron had not been a lawyer before entering politics and apparently could not represent a position he did not personally believe in. Theresa May has no such scruples, standing as Cameron’s successor to deliver a Brexit she did not want. This has continued to undermine her – she necessarily chose power for its own sake and her every move since has been sheepish. One wouldn’t buy a used car from such a person, let alone a Brexit deal. And yet, despite her sales record, she has refused to abdicate, failing harder and harder.
The current players in our democracy – deserters who abdicate too soon and pirates who abdicate too late – are almost enough to make one a royalist. Let power never be actively sought, but only thrust involuntarily on its successors. Because those who want it shouldn’t have it.