Our Dignified Constitution
Fourth of July reflections on the Queen’s Jubilee.
Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
It was perhaps inevitable that our Fourth of July celebrations last week might have seemed anti-climactic after the four-day festivities a month ago accompanying the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Fireworks, however spectacular, cannot compare with the thousand-boat flotilla on the Thames cheered on by masses of river-side spectators (shivering and soaking in torrential rain) or the horse-drawn carriage procession (again, the streets lined with people) from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace, the Queen regally bedecked and costumed. (Surely the Queen’s hats are costume pieces.) A pano-rama worthy of Hollywood, it was described, televised, and enthusiastically hailed throughout the world, with the Queen as the star of the show, a worthy successor to that other Good Queen Bess whose name she bears.
On second thought, it is the Jubilee that, to an American at least, may be anticlimactic, a display of mere “virtual reality”—in contrast to the Fourth of July, which commemorates a truly momentous event. In liberating us from that monarchy, the Declaration of Independence delivered a devastating blow to the very idea of monarchy, preparing the way for a Republic that was not only a new form of government but also a new social order. Almost in that instant, the New World made the old monarchical world appear archaic and obsolete. It is as if we had ushered in modernity itself. Now, in the twenty-first century, with modernity so far advanced that it threatens to be superseded by something called postmodernity, we have been regaled with a “reality show” glorifying an institution that seems to defy modernity, flaunting a monarch who is the token figurehead of a commonwealth that is itself a token remnant of the British Empire.
Today, when Americans find the very word “lady” suspect, we are shown the British paying homage not only to Ladies (officially titled and properly capitalized) but also to Princesses, let alone the Queen. And while we have discarded, in the name of equality, such courtesies as men opening doors for women, we are regaled with images of commoners, however exalted in other respects, curtsying to the Queen (and Princesses of lesser title curtsying to Princesses of blood). Indeed, those “commoners” (the name itself, to an American ear, is invidious) are not citizens but subjects of the Crown. And these social amenities do not begin to take into account such more serious anomalies as the cost of the royal households in a period of economic crisis and severe austerity. To an American, the monarchy is surely Britain’s “peculiar institution,” as slavery was ours. And the Jubilee, celebrating the monarchy, is surely a triumph of nostalgia over reality.
Or perhaps not. In paying tribute to the Queen—the grace and dignity with which she carries out her ceremonial duties—the British are testifying to her real public function, which is to reassert, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the unity, continuity, and vitality of the polity as well as society. This is why there has been, in recent times, no whiff of the abolitionism (the abolition of the monarchy, in this case, rather than slavery) that was a recurrent theme in earlier British history. A letter to the London Times rebuked a reporter who invoked the good behavior of the Queen as an argument in support of the monarchy. This is irrelevant, the correspondent protested: “To approve of the Queen because she is ‘good at the job’ rather suggests republican sympathies,” implying that a Queen who was less “good at the job” would warrant the abolition of the monarchy. The same objection might be made to an article in the Wall Street Journal which explained why Americans should “hail the Queen.” “Slyly witty and supremely dutiful, she is the glue holding together a modern, multicultural Commonwealth”—as if it were the wit and dutifulness that provided the glue, rather than the sentiments attached to the monarchy itself. Almost in passing, the article cited the Victorian writer about the monarchy who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.”
In fact, it was that eminent Victorian, Walter Bagehot, who let daylight in by exposing the magical function of the monarchy. Bagehot’s The English Constitution is outmoded in some respects; it was written in the two years before the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, which was a major advance toward democracy. But it is still a remarkably perceptive analysis of the monarchy—of the monarchy then and, more provocatively, of the monarchy now, in the most democratic and modern of times.