New Europe is old Europe

Posted: Jul 06, 2003 12:00 AM

LONDON -- New Europe is old Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's state visit to the United Kingdom last week celebrated strong trade ties between Russia and a happening U.K. Indeed, British Prime Minister Tony Blair noted, a spate of new ventures will make Great Britain the No. 1 investor in Russia.

The visit also signaled the end of an old Euro rift. Putin's was the first official state visit for a Russian president since the Bolsheviks slew Czar Nicholas, Czarina Alexandra (granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria) and their children in 1918.

To celebrate "450 years of diplomatic relations" culminating in a joint-venture energy pipeline, the Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the lord mayor of London -- who is not the elected mayor, Ken Livingstone -- and the lady mayoress held a reception and banquet for the Putins at Guildhall.

At the reception, I counted five horsehair wigs. There was a contingent of aldermen in fur-lined red coats and a representation of deputies in fur-lined blue coats, many accompanied by their stern-faced wives.

The gathering was a sea of epaulets, feathers and so much fur, Putin quipped, that some of it had to have come from Russia.

Pikemen and musketeers of the Honourable Artillery Company wore metal body armor and helmets with red plumes. Tapestries hung from the trumpets of the state trumpeters.

It took nearly 25 minutes to announce the many dignitaries. The right honorable Lord Woolf of Barnes, the lord chief justice of England and Wales and the Lady Woolf. The master of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers and the honorable Mrs. Damon de Laszlo. Major Duckworth-Chad -- I didn't make this up -- equerry in waiting.

For luminaries such as the stylish Lady Forte, it had to be great fun -- a chance to show off a frock and bask in warm applause. For the less glamorous, more rotund and less applauded dames, it must have felt like a perp walk.

Last came President Putin and Mrs. Putina.

When they left the room, dignitaries' names were announced again.

For years, I've been packing a black dress on trips like this -- just in case I got an invitation to such an event. This one turned out to be a ceremony so British that it echoed Gilbert and Sullivan. What Americans see as farce, however, these Brits revere as tradition.

While we media lowlifes were allowed to stand clinging to the wall behind the chairs to observe the reception, dinner was a different matter. We ate in the cellar, which is just as well, considering the reaction to the British wine. Probably the toast to Cromwell wouldn't have gone over well, either.

Last week, Buckingham Palace released figures on the cost of the monarchy on British taxpayers -- 36.2 million pounds, or a cost to every man, woman and child equivalent to that of one loaf of bread. At 60 pence (about U.S. $1), it would seem a bargain -- this is the type of ceremony, after all, that draws visitors from around the world -- except that nothing is a bargain here.

Taxes are as institutionalized as titles. While Russia enjoys a flat income-tax rate of 13 percent, Brits pay 22 percent of their income, graduated up to 40 percent for the top-income bracket (those earning more than 35,000 pounds or about U.S. $58,000). After they've paid their income taxes, they pay a 17.5 percent national sales tax called the Value Added Tax.

The VAT drives up the cost of everything. A yoga mat that goes for $25 plus tax in the United States cost 32 pounds (about U.S. $53) in Covent Garden. The VAT applies to services, such as a plumber's bill, as well.

At the "Prime Minister's Question Time" last week, Tony Blair described the tax increases implemented under him as "extra investment."

It's really extra burdens. The taxes are so consuming that you wonder how the working families outside Guildhall can afford simple things, like a yoga mat -- never mind a fur-lined cape.