Why do Brits make so much of the Queen? (It's Existential) What QE2's Silver Jubilee in 1977 taught a young journalist
Now Then! (#1)
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, 1977, her 25 th 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 has become Diamond for celebration of a 60 th, and again, many of the same scenes and hymns and Champaign glasses marshaled into order…
In this day and age!
Regardless of the gob-smacking (am I using that 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 or our very brains and its microscopic 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 or pocket tiny, for Queen Elizabeth II.
Why, for Heaven's sake? What's it all about?
I noted, standing there in 1977 amid swirling cheers and waves on the edge of Green Park, that some celebrants had happily draped the Union Jack - the British flag - around their shoulders. Newspaper photos and BBC and ITNTV reports show how others, in hamlet lane and Midland city street and yard, 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.
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 displays also the curious notion of Commonwealth, was a bit more complicated - a longer, somewhat different history.
The answer - for that young journalist looking for a conceptual key to help add new sense to the story?
The British monarch is to the Brits what the American flag is to the Yanks.
- At least in this one sense: it is sign and proof of national identity and continuity down through the fickle and constantly changing ages.
Each symbolizes, and is a highly visible example of, the long run of national group experience, passed on from generation to generation, of continuing cohesion, despite all internal quarrels, even civil wars.
It's a 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 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.
In America, we sing to our flag.
We Sing to Our Flag, They to Their Monarch
Our musically outrageous and grammatically mysterious National Anthem ("Oh-oh, Say, can you see…" I can still get chills of wondrous group feeling, or something, as I did when we'd sing it in grade school music class) 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 even our own most troublesome natures.
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 fruitful troubling brutal and lovely history of Britain. We may have been monsters and angels - we want to be good - but in any case this is us.
For us Americans, it's 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 symbolic use of the Union Jack, but they don't use it with such centralizing fervor as we do in America.
Then there's the existential thing.
Those poor royal babies, we Americans sometimes 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 in line to the British throne?
They have no choice, short of an embarrassing and highly visible abdication of their birthright.
A Golden Prison
"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 12 th 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 she gave a radio 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 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."
A Momentary Stay Against Confusion … in These Scattering Times
It's about group survival, group cohesion - something to rally around, together.
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 jubilee.
So, we Americans use a bit of fabric of certain design - a design that alters 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 a bit, if we want, in a sort of possibly guilty pleasure in enjoying a little fascination with 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.
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 and flesh-and-blood, publicly celebrated, inviting civility… and from time to time, unlike the Sphinx, happy to offer a smile.