Richard Reeves

Better a Mere Pol Than a Popular Monarch

LONDON -- It appears that God has indeed saved their queen. Millions of Queen Elizabeth's subjects poured into the streets on Monday and Tuesday to cheer her Golden Jubilee -- 50 years as queen of a declining Great Britain.

The pageantry was great, but the surprise at the passion of it all was even greater. The Guardian, a paper of the country's left and sometimes a platform for overturning the monarch and the monarchy, too, did not seem to know which way to turn as the crowds and overflying jet planes roared on and on. "Street Cred That Won Over 1m People" -- that's "credibility" -- was the paper's lead headline. Below it, and rather more typical of coverage over the past decade or two, was a classic headline of the politically correct: "New Queen's Gallery Used Timber From Endangered Rainforests."

On the editorial page, the Guardian concluded, or argued with itself: "We need to face up to the facts. The Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations of 2002 have been in every respect more successful than either the organisers had hoped or the critics had feared. ... If we are going to have a monarchy in this day and age, then a long period of rule by a decent, prosaic, uncontroversial, rule-bound one like Elizabeth II is probably as good as it is likely to get. And even then, that is the best you can say about it. A good person, yes, but still a lousy system ..."

We, former colonials, decided that for ourselves a long time ago -- 1776 and all that. So, it often seemed in recent years of royal scandal, had the British themselves. But they surprised themselves with their own patriotism, with intellectuals of note cheering Elizabeth on and, interestingly, kicking around the United States in the process.

Simon Schama, the English historian who has taught the last 20 years at Harvard and Columbia, and writing well all the time, put his thoughts together for Jasper Gerard of The Sunday Times in a full-page interview under the headline: "The History Man Is Back in Bed With Britannia." So he was. He has a book and BBC television series on the history of the island nation that roared, and is now working with Prince Andrew on a book of shame on slavery in the United States.

"The more that certain newspapers -- not yours -- announced nobody was going to turn up for the Queen Mother's funeral, the louder I laughed," Schama said. "Renewal of monarchy is absolutely where we are as a country."

Then he got to the real stuff, which is important in both the United Kingdom and the United States: not so much separation of powers, but separation of politics and patriotism. Comparing Queen Elizabeth and President Bush, he came down on her side, saying: "People who come up through the bull-pit of politics cannot be the patriarchal figure. Where was George Bush on 9/11? Having his press agent lie about Air Force One being under attack, and never taking back the lie."

He went on to say that during the Nazi bombings of London in World War II, the queen, Elizabeth's mother, stayed at her post, sipping tea as destruction rained down. (There is some dispute about this bit of history, stories that the royal family actually left Buckingham Palace at night for the safer precincts of Windsor Castle.)

The same argument was made by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing from Bath for The New York Times: "For all their genius, the American founding fathers made a grave error in combining the offices of head of government (Prime Minister Tony Blair in England) and head of state (the monarch). Visiting Washington, I have always been taken aback by the reverence shown to the president -- the head of state of a great country, but still a mere politician."

Aye, there's the rub. And it's rubbing hard right now as American patriotism sometimes overwhelms American common sense. Still, I think we did get it right. Better to have a president directly accountable to the people, even one as "mere" as George Bush, than a King George of any number.

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