Boris Johnson must be the worst of all Queen Elizabeth's Prime Ministers – Joyce McMillan

Until this Christmas, I had somehow managed to avoid watching any episodes at all of The Crown, the famous Netflix series that – in fictionalised form – seeks to tell the story of reign of the present Queen, now by far the longest-serving monarch in British, and English, history.

Boris Johnson's government has damaged Britain's reputation, the Union and the monarchy (Picture: Alastair Grant/WPA pool/ Getty Images)
Boris Johnson's government has damaged Britain's reputation, the Union and the monarchy (Picture: Alastair Grant/WPA pool/ Getty Images)

Yet there is something remarkable about the sheer durability of the reign, now approaching its 70th anniversary on 6 February; and this week I found myself watching a few early episodes of the series, set in 1952, which was also the year of my own birth.

It’s difficult to say, of course, how accurate The Crown’s portrayal of the Queen’s private life may be; but what struck me was the vividness of its visual and aural representation of the world into which I was born, with news reaching us via newspaper billboards and radio news bulletins, the smell of coal smoke everywhere, and little girls dressed up for Sundays and visits in what were universally known as “Princess Anne” coats.

Our household was not a royalist one, and my parents were Labour voters. Yet I was a child of my post-war time, and in those years, it was difficult to avoid the pervasive cultural assumption that Britain was a very special country at the heart of a global commonwealth, that we had recently played a leading role in a war against fascism that was both necessary and good, and that the young, dutiful Queen and her handsome family in some way helped to embody that specialness.

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In Scotland, many received a very different cultural message, when the Queen chose to ignore the non-English parts of the UK by designating herself Elizabeth II; but those concerns were still relatively marginal, and in the general election of 1951 – narrowly won by Winston Churchill’s Conservatives – a staggering 96 per cent of voters in Scotland supported either Labour or the Conservatives, the two main parties of the Union.

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It was, in other words, a vastly different political world from the one we inhabit today; and its history – likely to feature widely in our dominant media, during this 70th anniversary year – raises questions both for those now campaigning for Scottish independence, and for those defending the Union which in those days seemed so unassailable.

For independence supporters, it comes as a reminder that among the many powerful arguments for Scottish independence – some of them, under current conditions, almost unanswerable – the very weakest is the essentialist argument that Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, are somehow “real” nations, whereas the UK was never anything but an artificial construct.

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The four nations of the UK are certainly more ancient than the British state; but all nations are constructs imagined and invented by human beings, and it is simply not true that Britain never functioned effectively as a nation – one, in fact, that commanded a strong sense of allegiance and identity both from those who were Conservative in their views, and from those on the left who once saw the British state as a successful vehicle for progressive social change.

Today’s arguments for Scottish independence therefore have to explain what has gone wrong with the British state in terms that are persuasive, rather than categorically dismissive.

They have to show how an independent Scotland might avoid the same pitfalls; and they also have to outline a new vision for relations among the nations of these islands, rather than indulging in Brexit-style fantasies of complete separation.

Even more serious questions, though, are raised for the current defenders of the Union.

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All around us, here in northern Europe, there are nations, many of them constitutional monarchies, which have not abandoned the social-democratic project of the immediate post-war years, and have continued to deliver levels of prosperity, security, democracy and human development which put 21st-century Britain to shame; here, the politics of Union have declined towards a hollow, flag-waving nationalism that sanctions the idiocy of Brexit and all it entails, while seeking to distract attention from rafts of repressive legislation passed almost without debate, and from the mounting financial stress and anxiety facing both ordinary citizens, and our cash-strapped public services.

Small wonder that where 96 per cent of Scots once chose to vote for the main parties of the union, today just over 50 per cent do so, even in Westminster elections.

That this decline is partly the result of the extreme neoliberalism embraced by the Tories for the last 40 years, and also strongly influential on other parties, is hardly in doubt.

You cannot privatise, commercialise and steadily sell off all of the commonly or locally held assets that once made a nation worth belonging to, without eventually undermining the nation itself. The question of the monarchy’s role, by contrast – whether as useful cover for that process, or merely a constitutionally silent bystander – is rarely much debated, beyond the point of grandstanding assertion by both opponents and defenders of the system.

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At a personal level, though, the Queen may well have learned, over these long decades, to be wary of politicians who think that mere declarations of patriotism are enough; and to prefer those who, in however non-revolutionary a fashion, actually seek to win respect for existing institutions by improving the lot of the people, and leaving them more comfortable, confident, well-educated, happy and secure than they found them.

By that measure, the current UK Prime Minister and his government must surely rank as the most notorious failures of her long reign; and one of which the Queen may or may not be fortunate enough to see the back, before it can inflict any further damage on the reputation of Britain and its institutions, and thereby on the Union it says it wishes to maintain, and the monarchy it so fulsomely claims to love and serve.

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