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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2002 / 25 Shevat 5762

Philip Terzian

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The Queen's half century -- ON the few occasions when I have laid eyes on Elizabeth II, I have been part of a huge throng straining to catch a glimpse of the British monarch. This is not surprising in itself; kings and queens attract crowds wherever they go. What is surprising is that, more often than not, these spectacles have taken place not in Britain but America, home not only to republican government, but a nation conceived in rebellion against the crown Elizabeth wears.

What explains it? The easy answer, of course, is celebrity and longevity. Fifty years ago this week (Feb. 6) the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth was awakened by her husband in the Tree Tops hunting lodge in Kenya and told that her father, King George VI, was dead. The great majority of Britons have known no other monarch -- including the present prime minister, who was not yet born. In 1952 Harry Truman was president of the United States, and Elvis Presley was still in high school. When the Queen was crowned in Westminster Abbey the following spring, it was the first time an overseas event had ever been televised. The radiant young queen of the early 1950s -- her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, once compared her to a fairy princess -- is now a matronly grandmother, famous for her sensible clothes and clunky handbags, and is very nearly as old as Churchill was at the time.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the Queen's drawing power derives from endurance alone. It would also be wrong to misconstrue those curious crowds for reverent masses. The "popularity" of the British monarchy has risen and fallen over the centuries. In 1649 an English king (Charles I) was executed by parliament and replaced with what amounted to a military dictatorship. The middle-aged Queen Victoria's mourning for her late husband, Prince Albert, was so intense and protracted that there was considerable doubt, in the 1860s, whether the monarchy would survive her death, 40 years later. When Edward VIII was told he could not marry his divorced American sweetie and stay on the throne, he handed back the throne and skipped off to Paris.

Nearly everyone agrees that the present Queen, in 50 years, has been a model of discretion, decorum, and subtle good sense. She has been a prudent and perceptive influence on politics, and enjoyed excellent relations with politicians in both parties, who have come to value her efficient intelligence. The only rough patch, of course, was the year when her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, was killed in a car crash with an Egyptian playboy, and the British public nearly swooned with theatrical pain. The Queen was much reviled for failing to ventilate, and Diana's funeral, "both a royal and an anti-royal occasion," in the words of Ferdinand Mount, " ... provoked an outpouring of grief that made many observers uncomfortable because it so clearly signaled the desolation in which millions of their fellow citizens lived."

Which may, in the long run, explain the curious thread that binds Elizabeth to her subjects in Britain, and exerts a worldwide fascination. The point of a modern constitutional monarchy is not to disperse power, as it was originally conceived, but to serve as a connection between the national present and past, and personify a Nation that stands above politics and the news of the day. In America we are always in search of spiritual roots and connections in national life, and sometimes find it in religion, in the law, in service to the state, or in dubious cults like the Kennedy clan. In Britain there is no such uncertainty: The monarch personifies the state, and furnishes the living link to an ancient faith, the folklore of history and national consciousness.

This does not mean that every democracy ought to have a king, but it does suggest there is considerably more to monarchy than pomp and circumstance, Diana or Fergie. After all, when you think about modern nation-states that have collapsed in calamitous violence -- Afghanistan, Rwanda, Yugoslavia -- you will find that it is not so much a failure of political will but an absence of established authority that leads to chaos, and "authority" is not something that accumulates overnight. Review the elements that have kept Britain together for the past few centuries (in stable contrast to its neighbors in Europe) and you find that shared deference to a crown that exerts an implicit authority heads the list. Britain's monarch is not all-powerful, but politics in Britain begins with an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

Americans, of course, respond to Queen Elizabeth II on different levels: She endures, she is certainly famous, she joins a line that stretches back a thousand years. But she also represents a truth we ignore at our peril: That the life of a society is more than its commerce or power, and that nations subsist on their history as much as politics.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal