Why do Brits make so much of the Queen? (It’s Existential)
What QE2′s Silver Jubilee in 1977 taught a young journalist
Nature’s Edge Notebook #29
Observation, Analysuis, Reflection, New Questions
[Editors' Note: This report also launches a series called "Now Then!" that compares current news stories with similar stories in the past.]
I was looking for a key in London, and it turned out to be the American flag.
As a young reporter for ABC News in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year of 1977, her 25th on the throne, I was standing amid the jubilant crowds — back at the edge of the throng under the tall trees in Green Park — looking out past the lofty roundabout statue of Queen Victoria toward the famous Buckingham balcony and pondering that most American question:
Why for Heaven’s sake, in this modern day and age of space flight and the revolutionary new globe-girdling satellite TV feeds (laptops and global smart phones were far in the future) do the British make such a big deal of the queen? Why have they held on to the monarch in a system of inherited status, firstborns preferred in a system or bloodline rules stretching back well before the Middle Ages, something we Americans had elected to do without more than two centuries before?
There were street parties up and down the land, soaring hymns in vaulted cathedrals with words by William Blake about a young Jesus of Nazareth having possibly walked on British soil, armies of servants in black coats and perfect collars and prim dresses of formal cut placing ranks and files of gleaming Champagne glasses in precise rows on Edwardian sideboards, just so many millimeters from the front edge of it (as measured with notched wooden sticks fashioned in the time, no doubt, of one of the more recent Kings George for precisely that purpose and no other) and getting all in readiness for the next receptions and toasts and smiling conversations to play out through the happy afternoon and on into the evening…
And now, 35 years on, Silver, after turning to gold, has become Diamond for celebration of the same queen’s 60th, and again we see the same scenes and hymns and Champaign glasses marshaled into order and all with even more joy and jubilation…
Still! And in this day and age!
…all regardless of the gob-smacking (am I using that term correctly, old British friends?) changes to our world — intercontinental texting and cyber attacks, daunting news of a whole new species of trouble from the world’s climate scientists about massive droughts and food crises soon to come, space ships built and owned by private companies now supplying an international space station, fMRIs that now display the secret inner workings of our very brains and their microscopic neural pathways that may light up with dopamine or serotonin floods triggered by different emotional events — even by such celebrations as those now to be seen worldwide on millions of screens, stadium huge and pocket tiny, for Queen Elizabeth II.
Why, for Heaven’s sake? What’s it all about?
I noted, standing there in 1977 on the edge of Green Park, that some celebrants amid all the cheering and waving had happily draped the Union Jack — the British flag — around their shoulders. Newspaper photos and TV reports on the BBC and ITN showed how other folks in hamlet lane and Midland city street had fashioned their flag, or bits of it, into hats or shirts or onto siding on decked-out vehicles — all in jolly, good natured national pride.
Then it hit me.
In America, the Stars and Stripes are treated with a bit more deference — or certainly were in the 1970s when word went round that proper protocol said “The national flag is not to be used as an article of clothing.”
And burning the U.S. flag would still be an act of fierce defiance.
Burning the Union Jack — and I wasn’t aware that anyone ever had — might not seem quite as likely to cut into collective sensibilities… and anyway, the Union Jack, which invokes also the curious (to Americans) notion of the globe-girdling Commonwealth, was a bit more complicated with is three overlapping crosses harking back through a far longer history.
The answer — for that young journalist looking for a conceptual key to help add new sense to that Jubilee story?
The British monarch is to the Brits what the American flag is to the Yanks.
– At least in this one sense: each is sign and proof of national identity and continuity down through the fickle and ever changing ages.
Each not only symbolizes but is is a highly visible example of endurance through the long run of national group experience, passed on from generation to generation, of continuing cohesion, despite all internal quarrels, even civil wars, and through the worst horrors, even world wars.
Each is a sort of general assurance of basic protection, safety, home, identity, place to sleep at night, hang out, watch the rest of the world and the whole passing parade of humanity’s adventures and misadventures elsewhere on the globe - a place to keep putting it all together … and, when possible, to have some fun. To belong.
Where the Americans have a flag, the British have a captive line of DNA.
Each stretches back through the vanishing past to the beginning of national experience.
And then I also realized that there are, of course, other signs of this parallel between our Stars and Stripes and the British queen.
We Sing to Our Flag, They to Their Monarch
In America, we sing to our flag.
Our musically outrageous and grammatically mysterious National Anthem is all about the story of our flag’s survival through bloody battle and confusing sights during a perilous night — and it comes out still there, shining, despite the buffets of outrageous fortune.
(“Oh-oh, Say, can you see…” I can still sometimes get a few chills of wondrous group feeling, or something, as I did when we’d sing it in grade school music class.)
And our anthem ends, in a flourish of psychological genius that is still being analyzed, with a question — looking, not certainly but hopefully, into a future home of those both free and brave.
The British don’t sing to the Union Jack.
It might strike them kind of odd, even silly — perhaps an occasion to cue Monty Python.
They sing to their queen — or rather, they sing to God about their queen.
The solemn chords of “God Save the Queen” (or, in other times, the King) bring all to their feet when it’s time for a moment to open their singing hearts for Britain, in ceremony or soccer — uh, make that “football” — match.
The British national anthem is literally a prayer for God to save their “gracious queen.”
Down through the ages, she and her antecedents have born the identity of the crazy wonderful troubling fruitful brutally bloody confused and lovely history of Britain: we may have been monsters and angels — we want to be good — but in any case, this is us.
And it wasn’t all that long ago, old friends tell me – at least as recently as the 1960s – that British movie-goers would all suddenly stand at the end of the film, the spring-hinged seats all going thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk as they snapped back up, to listen in reverence, if not sing to, the strains that would come over the cinema’s speakers of “God Save The Queen.”
But for us Americans, it’s always been the flag.
We even pledge allegiance to it.
Doing so is a sign you are an American, of any stripe.
The British may have a few ceremonies for certain segments of military or other organizations that include some symbolic use of the Union Jack, but they don’t use their flag with such centralizing fervor as we do with ours in America.
…and The Existential Thing – A Golden Prison
Then there’s the existential thing.
Those poor royal babies, we Americans sometimes think, or think we should think, proud of our American ideal that would promise anyone, whatever the circumstances of their birth, the freedom to choose to try to be whatever they want in American society — even, if born American, to be head of both state and government, two roles we’ve incorporated in one person.
But those born directly in line to the British throne?
They have no choice, short of an embarrassing and highly visible abdication of their birthright.
“It’s a golden prison you live in for the rest of your years,” as one British expert put it in a recent TV interview, meditating on what she said the future King William had gently made sure that Kate Middleton really understood, and wanted to take on, before she married him.
On this point of existential freedom, Americans and Brits (those who aren’t opposed to the monarchy) may differ. Maybe.
But at the very least, there is this: that nobody asks to be born, much less into whatever condition and inheritance, rich or poor, you are born into.
And so, perhaps in a symbolic way for an entire world (in which Britain’s inherited monarchy now stands as the most prominent) this inherited presumption stands at least symbolically for that universal and ineluctable fact — that for any human, your life, if you’re lucky, may offer you ways to make something good and helpful of whatever it is that you’re given to start with.
At this point, the subject can get horrendously contentious; Britain’s anti-monarchists, though they don’t seem to have a prominent voice or threatening political movement these days, have heartfelt complaints and proposals for better and more justified systems.
For the present, the current incumbents in the golden prison seem, at least, to have done a decent job of perceiving what the deep meanings and unique job of the inherited head of state in Britain may be — myriad signals of national identity and continuity that could, perhaps, not be so easily delivered by the British head of government.
(Elizabeth II is now conferring weekly with her 12th prime minister, as she has with all of them, starting with Winston Churchill, who is said to have held her truly in awe, choked up when the new young queen gave a broadcast speech promising to serve her people for her entire life, “be it short or long.”)
In any case, there it is — U.K. monarch or U.S. flag — each being fact and tangible proof of centuries-long survival as a group — whether you’re looking at Britain’s queen, waving from the Buckingham balcony, or America’s flag that we Yanks want, in these scattering times, to see yet waving … expecting it to keep doing so since once in a battle the “bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night” that it “was still there.”
It’s about group survival, group cohesion — something to rally around, together.
“A Momentary Stay Against Confusion” … in These Scattering Times
It’s like what our much loved American poet Robert Frost said a good poem is — “A momentary stay against confusion.”
Except that with the American flag, and even longer with the British royal line, it gets less and less momentary with each passing year… and especially each jubilee year.
So, we Americans use a bit of fabric of certain design — a design that changes a little from time to time through the years, as do the British royals, but still remains, complete with, and even despite, the history of those alterations.
And of course, we Americans can indulge, if we want, in a sort of guilty pleasure in enjoying, or being fascinated by, all the celebratory doings across the pond, since they are, after all, a display of part of our own national history, albeit one that we rejected — call it a parent past, in whose philosophical heart many of the ideas of liberty that we cherish and now try to live by were developed.
So, compared to the rest of the world, we’re relatively close, the United States and Britain. Nor is it entirely coincidence that what we sometimes still call our National Hymn, the song that starts with the words, “My country, ’tis of thee…”, is set to the melody of “God Save the Queen (or King).”
There remain, of course, other and far more ancient symbols of national continuity — in stone.
Athens’ pillared Parthenon and Egypt’s stony Sphinx still hold their places of honor and weathered endurance, standing far longer than our flexible American fabric has fluttered above our joys and sorrows.
In Britain, they still do it with long suffering flesh-and-blood, publicly celebrated, inviting civility… and from time to time, unlike the Sphinx, happy… and able… to offer a smile.