Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day. But things are not all they seem. In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about here and here. Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind! An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:
Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.
This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past. This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry. There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.
A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive
But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading. At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high. I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot. So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!
Fist bumps aside the standard way in the west of greeting another person on equal terms is a handshake. In fact it turns out that a handshake is far more than just a short ritual. Shaking the hand of someone can tell us much about the character of the person we have just met and with which we may have to create a working relationship, even to the extent of ‘can I work with this person?’! This would seems a fairly basic requirement when the national Head of State meets the Head of the Executive. A curtsey (or bow for a man) tells us nothing about the other and already the relationship is off to a difficult start.
But surprisingly it appears that curtseying for the Queen is totally unnesessary in any case! Her former Press Secretary Dickie Arbiter has said curtseying when in the presence of a Royal is not a requirement. This is backed up by Buckingham Palace which said
There is no protocol handbook at Buckingham Palace but people do tend to bow or curtsey to the Queen and that’s just good manners. But it’s true that no-one is obliged to do it. [my emphasis]
A Tool of Social Control and Archaic Tradition
So a picture could have been circulated of Theresa May simply shaking hands with the Queen. But that would not have carried the implied message of submission which a curtsey does. Here, as in many other aspects, the establishment is taking advantage of a social psychological dynamic known as the mere exposure effect. The more frequently a message is communicated the more normalised it becomes. This means people themselves expect to curtsey and bow before the Queen in an act of submission, as can be seen time and time again on walkabouts. Once more the Royals are taking a leaf from traditional Corporate Branding theory which says that repeated exposure to an object, service or action leads to a positive feeling for it. In place of a burst of repetitious, attention-grabbing commercials there is the long term selection of images and symbols which lead the public along carefully presescribed lines of thinking.
In conclusion, the curtseying symbolism is for public consumption and is all the more disgusting for it. Apparently within the royal family Queen insists on an order of precedence regarding who curtseys to whom! It appears that the emotionally frigid world which permeated the world of her predecessor Queen Victoria has still not completely thawed. So curtseying is both a subtle means of social control exercised by the establishment as well as being endemic in an institution frozen into a set of traditions which have far outlived their social purpose. In fact, just like the institution itself!