As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, I am reminded of those debates as some in the United Kingdom continue to say the royal family is a national treasure, an institution that pays for itself through the generation of national pride and tourist dollars. In a place where flag waving is often viewed as garishly nationalistic, the Brits have a reason this week to unite joyfully under the Union Jack and celebrate their long and storied heritage.
Others — especially my more cynical British friends on Facebook — say the modern royal family is a haven for leeches sucking from the public purse, creating fodder for the paparazzi feeding off the superficiality of celebrity. While they will enjoy the extra bank holiday that comes with the Jubilee, they calculate the costs of closing business for what they see as a foolish reason during a global recession.
Indeed, it seems as if all Brits have strong opinions on this topic.
In Atlanta, I recently ran across a chap originally from London who was clearly in the camp of anti-royalists. He dropped his voice during a casual conversation about the monarchy to comment the current queen isn’t even English.
For those of you who never studied the history of the House of Windsor, there is a German connection that was whitewashed during the dark days of World War I when Europe descended into darkness, and no one wanted to be the Kaiser’s cousin.
Those who support Queen Elizabeth II see such criticisms as scurrilous slander. Who could be more English than a woman whose family stayed in the London of her birth during the blitzkrieg to show solidarity with the common people? Elizabeth II to them is, in fact, the very embodiment of British character: reserved and resilient. She drinks tea, wears hats and raises corgis!
To say Elizabeth II is German is like saying an American with an Irish maiden name is more connected to the Emerald Isle of her family’s yesteryear than the red, white and blue nation for which her family has fought and died for generations.
Yet the attempt to undercut the royal pedigree is interesting. Do most of the British hold the monarchy in such disdain? Why have a monarchy at all when the honorary head of state has no appreciable political power?
The truth is I don’t know the answer to the first question, but the outpouring of interest during Prince William’s recent nuptials proclaims an abiding faith in the romance of royalty. Those weren’t all tourists lining the streets leading to Buckingham Palace or buying the tea towels stamped with the royal faces.
Per the second inquiry, I know enough about the power of symbolism to understand people want leaders around whom they can rally. They want figures to stand for something more than the personal interest that is inevitable in even those who win democratic elections. There is the thought that greatness is thrust upon those modern royals who inherit it, rather than seized by political action committees.
Think of Shakespeare’s King Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day. Would such a speech mean as much in the mouth of a bureaucrat? Think of Elizabeth I facing down the Spanish Armada, a virgin queen married to her throne. Think of Queen Elizabeth II’s own father calming his people in a time of crisis. Who could argue that King George V was doing anything other than serving out of a sense of duty?
Of course, one can point to prime ministers like Winston Churchill who inspired the masses with heroic oratory, but there is a mythology around monarchy that permeates the very ethos of a people bred on the stories of King Arthur’s Camelot that should not be underestimated. After all, in America, we do not ask God to save the president.
Gazing across the ocean to the Mother Country, a place chockfull of castles and the class conscious, I suppose my opinion on this issue matters naught. However, I’m happy to admit this week that I wish the Queen well.
In fact, if I ever meet her, I’ll curtsy.
Barbara Donnelly Lane lives in east Cobb and blogs on the MDJonline.com web site.