A Bad Week for Old Blighty

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jun 12, 2009 12:01 AM
A Bad Week for Old Blighty

LONDON -- This is not Britain's finest hour. The expense-account scandal has exposed rot at the core of the Parliament, where greedy members abused their perks to use taxpayer largess to, among other things, clean out a moat, remodel a second home, build a swimming pool and furnish private homes with luxury furniture that constituents would never see. The distinguished members merely followed the example of Willie Sutton, the famous American bank robber. They robbed the public till because that's where the money was.

Queen Elizabeth II, who repaired and drove Army trucks when she was a young princess during World War II, was not invited to the 65th anniversary commemoration of D-Day on the Normandy beaches. Neither was Prince Phillip, who served in sea battles in the Mediterranean.

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The queen was snubbed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who didn't want the commemoration to become "an Anglo-American occasion" and wanted to walk side-by-side with President Obama. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, who in his remarks referred to Omaha Beach as "Obama Beach," had his dreams of being seen strolling with the popular American president. The heads of state -- none of whom has ever been near actual combat -- finally sent Prince Charles a last-minute invitation.

The queen was gracious, as usual, and her spokesman said she "never expressed any anger or frustration" over the snub. But everybody knew better. When the London newspapers reported she was "enraged," Buckingham Palace took pains not to deny it.

If our cousins are angry over the shabby treatment of the queen, they're absolutely ashamed of the pop-culture mavens who humiliated Susan Boyle, before and after her stunningly talented takes on the television show "Britain's Got Talent."

Like the queen, the diminished diva showed grace under pressure. "The best people won," she said of the dance troupe that edged her unexpectedly. "They're very entertaining. Lads, I wish you all the best." Then she went to a hospital for treatment of what sounded like a nervous breakdown.

That spinning noise in the graveyard is coming from Winston Churchill's crypt. "My tastes are simple," he once said. "I am easily satisfied with the best." The British are suffering wounded pride over their status as a second-rate power, embracing "unwisdom," a word coined by Churchill in another context. And if the greatest Englishman of them all were to populate a play with the characters now parading across the political stage, he would have to make it low comedy, or farce. A biopic of the prime minister would have to be called "Brownfall."

Alas, the politicians are not alone in their shoddiness. The public fixation on "reality shows" -- all show and not much reality -- colors a popular sensibility of narcissism that merely spills into the political arena. But the politicians are determined to say or do anything not to get thrown off the island.

After voters trounced the Labor Party last week in elections to local councils and the European Parliament, Gordon Brown's colleagues began demanding his head. Some of the most flattering descriptions called him "a dead man walking" or (my favorite) a "corpse that twitches." But even his critics concede there's nobody in his Cabinet prepared to take over for him.

"The would-be assassins have proved more indecisive and chaotic than the king that would be killed," declared Andrew Rawnsley in the Sunday Observer. Brown, even in such a mauled condition, remains heads, shoulders and strategies above anyone else in his Cabinet. Brown is still regarded by many as the best man to lead during the economic crisis. His bank-rescue program set the pattern for Berlin, Paris and Washington. If it all works -- by no means certain, over here or back there -- he might be a hero again.

The Conservatives can hardly gloat. Not yet. David Cameron, the Tory leader, is no Margaret Thatcher, and in the next parliamentary elections, which must be held within a year, he'll be regarded as less Tory tough than Tory lite.

Besides, Brown insists he's not "walking away" from No. 10 Downing St. Too bad for him "walking" is the operative word this week in London. A strike shut down the Underground, multiplying the pain of high unemployment and other recession worries for subway riders.

There was one bright spot for Londoners, and even that was imported. A few Londoners got a kick from seeing Michelle Obama walk into a pub in upscale Mayfair with daughters Malia and Sasha, who ordered fish and chips. They took tea with the prime minister's wife. The English have a long history of finding things to brighten their spirits where and when they can.