For any monarchy that wants to be central to national life, presence is important. In the media, in popular culture, at public events and in the minds of its subjects, the monarchy’s usefulness and mystique need to be reinforced and appreciated on a regular basis. According to the BBC royal correspondent Sarah Campbell, “the family mantra” of the House of Windsor is: “We have to be seen to be believed.”
Often, this means a physical presence: the never-ending cycle of public appearances that, in normal times, makes up their self-consciously dutiful schedule. These play a big part in sustaining the popularity of our relatively lavish monarchy. In 2018 the pollsters YouGov found that almost a third of Britons said they had “seen or met” the Queen in person. No elected British politician has been enduring or famous enough to match that.
Yet the last eight months have been very different. Since the pandemic took hold – the greatest crisis in Britain’s modern peacetime history – the royal family has retreated from view for long stretches. And in these absences the limits of our monarchy as a source of national unity and reassurance can be discerned.
On 19 March, just before the first lockdown, the Queen left London, then the part of Britain worst hit by Covid-19, for Windsor Castle, in Berkshire. She has spent most of her time there since, with shorter stays at the secluded royal estates of Sandringham in Norfolk and Balmoral in Aberdeenshire. She has sometimes disappeared from public view for months at a time. On 1 June, the BBC reported that she had “been photographed riding in the grounds of Windsor Castle – the first time she has been seen outside since the coronavirus lockdown began”.
Since March, most public royal activities have been cancelled. On 5 April, with the UK’s Covid-19 death toll already nearly 5,000, the Queen made a brief TV broadcast, describing the pandemic as “an increasingly challenging time” but promising that “better days will return”. At Easter, and on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, in May, her messages to the nation included short passages about the public response to coronavirus. In July she knighted the NHS fundraiser Captain Tom Moore in a scaled-down ceremony at Windsor Castle.
In October she performed her first public engagement of the pandemic, meeting scientists working against the virus as part of a visit to the chemical weapons research facility at Porton Down in Wiltshire. Last weekend, in London, at a ceremony preceding the Remembrance Day commemorations, she wore a mask in public for the first time.
The Queen is 94, and needs to conserve her energies. Prince Charles and Prince William caught coronavirus early in the pandemic. So in some ways, her seclusion since March is easy to justify. Younger members of the royal family have opened Nightingale hospitals and become more active online for Covid-related causes. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Covid-19 has changed the Royal family for ever.” Campbell says the monarchy has become “more informal”, “more personal and intimate”.
Perhaps. But what it hasn’t done is guide its subjects through the crisis in any sustained way. The Queen’s April broadcast, arguably the one memorable royal response to the pandemic, was watched by 24m Britons – a big audience, but no bigger than those for her Christmas broadcasts in calmer times. Given the glaring inability of Boris Johnson to act as the father of the nation, this crisis has been an opportunity for the monarchy. So far, it has not been taken.
This failure is all the more striking because for the last decade our popular culture has been full of stories about the monarchy playing a key role in national crises. The 2010 film The King’s Speech, about George VI and the second world war; the 2013 play The Audience, about the Queen’s relationships with pivotal 20th-century prime ministers; and the Netflix series The Crown, which starts again on Sunday and places her at the centre of Britain’s turbulent postwar history. All these highly successful dramas have presented the monarch as a vital source of continuity and stability.
It is likely that this message has met with royal approval. Last year the Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, told the Guardian that he met members of the royal household four times a year – “people who are very high-ranking and very active within the organisation” – to tell them “what I have in mind” for each series. Buckingham Palace issued only a partial denial.
Yet while our 20th-century monarchy has been portrayed as outward-looking, sometimes heroic, the 21st-century version has become more inward-looking. The Queen’s longevity has meant that marking her reign’s milestones – such as her golden jubilee in 2002 and her diamond jubilee in 2012 – has become an increasingly important royal priority. In the meantime, her supposedly united kingdom has fragmented, her parliament has been suspended, and Brexit divisions have threatened her country in fundamental ways.
About all these threats the Queen has said little. In her last Christmas message, she described 2019 as “quite bumpy”. In 2014, shortly before Scotland’s independence referendum, she told a woman in a crowd of royal-watchers near Balmoral: “I hope people will think very carefully about the future.”
Royalists often argue that a need for our monarchs to remain apolitical limits them to these very occasional, coded interventions. But like other official explanations of how the royal family functions, that argument omits some awkward facts. The Queen’s Scottish referendum remark followed a request from the then prime minister, David Cameron, for her to say something against independence. So, even in a highly charged political atmosphere, the Queen can speak up about public matters when the will is there.
The fact that she usually hasn’t done so over the last decade might explain a cooling of support for the monarchy: from between 70% and 80% in the early 2010s to nearer 60% now. Britons living through dangerous times may have sensed that the royal family, like other members of the global elite, are largely insulated from the mounting troubles faced by the rest of us.
In 2022 the Queen could celebrate her platinum jubilee, the first for a British monarch. Yesterday it was announced that the jubilee would include an extra bank holiday. If she reaches this landmark, there will be an outpouring of affection for her that will probably wash away any questions about whether she could have done more during the pandemic. So many other British institutions have struggled with it, after all.
Yet if you’re a monarchist, the past eight months ought to have unsettled you. Britain isn’t likely to become a republic any time soon. But at times during the pandemic, it has begun to feel like one.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 16 November 2020 to locate Balmoral in Aberdeenshire.