The British Sovereign
2/4/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Fifty years ago Wednesday, a 25-year-old woman was awakened in a hunting lodge--a posh treehouse, actually--in Kenya and told that her father had died. Therefore she was immediately Elizabeth II, sovereign.
Tony Blair, the 10th prime minister of Elizabeth II's reign, was not yet born when she ascended to the throne. Winston Churchill was then the first among her ministers. How much has changed since her June 1953 coronation? The decision to televise it was deeply controversial. Most television sets were in pubs, where, it was feared, decorum among the lower orders might lapse during the ceremony.
Since then, the House of Windsor, including some of its much-too-merry wives, has often resembled a soap opera. But, then, sovereignty has never been a shield from life's vicissitudes: The longest-surviving child of Queen Anne's (1702-14) 18 pregnancies died at age 11.
Elizabeth II's coronation coincided with Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest (and, almost as inspiriting, with the end of tea rationing, a relic of the war), which stirred hopes of a ``New Elizabethan Age.'' Instead, there was the continuing loss of empire, a diminishing world role, watery socialism and worsening economic anemia. By the mid-1970s Britain was reduced to the status of the sick man of Europe. Then came revival, but the woman who authored it was named not Elizabeth but Margaret--Thatcher.
Once upon a time, in mankind's political immaturity, monarchy was the best available answer to the problems of sovereignty and succession as nation-states evolved. And being a monarch was risky. Richard III (1483-85) was the last English king to die in battle and George II (1727-60) was the last to fight alongside British troops.
Sovereignty has been leaking away from British sovereigns since regular meetings of Parliament became normal during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). The power of the Cabinet grew because George I (1714-27), a German from Hanover, knew so little English he rarely met with his ministers. (When he asked how much it would cost to close St. James's Park to the public and plant it with turnips, an aide replied, with studied ambiguity, ``Only three crowns, sire.'') Under Britain's unwritten constitution, what is constitutional is whatever you can get away with. For the monarch, that is not much.
In 1936 Edward VIII committed a constitutional impropriety when, shocked by Welsh unemployment, he exclaimed, ``Something must be done.'' In 1938 it was similarly improper when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich and George VI (1936-52) appeared with him on a Buckingham Palace balcony, thereby signaling a royal opinion (approval) about a subject of debate in Parliament. Elizabeth II knows what Shakespeare's Henry V meant: ``And what have kings, that privates have not too, save ceremony, save general ceremony?''
The British monarchy is Europe's oldest political institution, but some of its trappings are surprisingly young--presidents had been living in the White House for 37 years before the first sovereign (Victoria, in 1837) lived in Buckingham Palace. And the monarchy has an almost adolescent awkwardness in coping with one facet of the modern age, the publicity industry. The queen has not made a memorable mistake in 50 extremely public years, but her extended and very dysfunctional family is a new phenomenon: (BEG ITAL)lumpenroyalty. Well, not so new. William IV (1830-37), who died in 1837, perhaps of exhaustion, had 10 illegitimate children by one of his mistresses.
In the 19th century Walter Bagehot, the most profound of all journalists, noted that the modern monarch is part of the ``dignified'' as distinct from the ``efficient'' aspect of the state, and warned: ``Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. ... We must not let in daylight upon magic.''
The question now is: Even if magic can coexist with television and tabloids, does a mature nation need magic, particularly magic emanating from monarchy in a nation too susceptible to snobbery? Actually, any nation does need (BEG ITAL)something in the way of regularly recurring national communions that reaffirm the nation's unity and identity.
At her coronation, Elizabeth was divested of the robes she wore to Westminster Abbey. Then, standing in a white shift, she was invested with symbols of her authority (sword, orb, etc.) and of authority over her (a Bible). Properly understood, it was an anti-magical moment; it was the very public manufacturing of a monarch.
Britain's monarchy adds to the public stock of pretty-much-harmless pleasure. (BEG ITAL)Of course it is irrational, but so are many things we love, including love.