There’s been no escaping the big story from Britain this weekend (well, apart from the cricket), which combines three irresistible elements: Nazis, tabloid ethics and the royal family.
Britain’s Sun newspaper on Friday published video footage from the early 1930s showing Queen Elizabeth, then a seven-year-old princess, performing a Nazi salute under the guidance of her mother and her uncle, the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII).
The royal family, predictably enough, is unimpressed. But painful as it is to say it, I think the Sun is right: without passing judgement on any particular way it might have come into possession of the video, once it had it, it was right to publish it. The political views of the royals are a matter of legitimate public interest.
The Sun disclaims any suggestion that the queen would have understood the implications of the gesture at the time, and in any case small children should not be held responsible for politically-loaded actions. There is nothing in her later and very long record to suggest any sympathy with Nazism or far-right politics.
But the rest of her family, and particularly her uncle, are another matter. After his abdication in December 1936, Edward, then Duke of Windsor, was a perennial thorn in the side of British governments. During the Second World War his fascist leanings made him dangerous in any military position, and the Nazis hatched at least one plot to kidnap him. Eventually he was sent to the Bahamas as British governor, where he served until 1945, but after the war he never held another official position.
And while he may have been an extreme example, there’s no doubt at all about the general tendency of royal figures to tilt politically to the right – some further than others. Once that used to manifest itself as a preference for a conservative, well-ordered society, governed by hereditary kings and nobles. Given the right circumstances, it still does. But in the tumult of the twentieth century, many royal families were compromised by a willingness to work with fascism.
Experience suggests that hereditary succession is not a reliable means of producing talented or conscientious rulers. And those who are born to high office or status have a natural tendency to distrust democracy and the rise of the masses.
Yes, there are good monarchs from time to time, who accept a constitutional role and perform it well. The queen herself is a fine example. But there are far too many cases for comfort on the other side of the ledger.
The Nazis never made it to Britain, so the queen’s family were never put to the same test as their counterparts in many other countries, and we never discovered how many of the traditional ruling class would have made their peace with dictatorship. In the light of the Sun‘s revelations, that’s probably just as well.