London Press Watch

Feb. 7 2002 4:17 PM

London Press Watch

The power of the sacred.

Among all the articles in the British press bemoaning (or possibly rejoicing in) the lack of popular interest in the Queen's Golden Jubilee, the opinion polls showing that only a minority of the public think the monarchy will survive the 21st century, and the republican sentiments regularly expressed in the Guardian and the Mirror,there has been surprisingly little written in defence of the institution that has presided over the governance of Britain for more than 1,000 years. The most eloquent piece that has appeared in support of constitutional monarchy was written for the Daily Telegraph this week by Ferdinand Mount, a former conservative political columnist who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement.It was illustrated by a drawing of people sheltering from heavy rain under an enormous crown floating in the sky. And the article stressed the usually too-embarrassing-to-mention spiritual dimension of the monarchy, its hold over people's hearts. Only in his teens at the time of King George VI's death, Mount recalled the "almost unbearable solemnity that immediately suffused me" when his headmaster gravely announced the event to the school assembly. But he went on: "Since that damp February morning 50 years ago, journalists, politicians and even courtiers have been hard at work trying to empty the Monarchy of any such heavy significance, stripping down the institution into something that is at best a homely convenience, at worst an obsolete piece of machinery that ought to be left to rust in the corner of the field."

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It may have been wishful thinking on Mount's part, but he claimed that "ordinary people", unlike the modern British intelligentsia, "find no difficulty in understanding the symbolic qualities of the Monarchy". "They readily discern, behind the little rituals of receiving bouquets and opening hospitals, the continuation of an ancient contractual relationship between monarch and people," he wrote. He called the monarchy "the one focus of national community that indisputably exists" and listed some of its practical advantages——"its ability to accommodate different races and religions, its peaceful handovers of political power, its restraints on the abuse of power". But these, he said, "derive from its deep-rooted hold on the hearts of the people. Loosen that hold, and you might loosen a lot of other things as well."

In Britain, Mount's article constituted a rare stand against a growing consensus around the view that there is something inherently wrong with the hereditary principle, that the royal family is "irrelevant" and "out-of-touch", that the British people are degraded by being categorised as "subjects" rather than "citizens", and that Monarchy is incompatible with true democracy. Since there is no evidence that the existence of the Monarchy restricts the freedom of the individual—be he "subject" or "citizen"—in any way at all (it being Her Majesty's elected government that likes to do that), the objections to it are for what it symbolises rather than for what it actually does. As a symbol, an ever-growing number of Britons find it an embarrassment. They think it makes Britain seem fusty and old-fashioned and impedes its progress towards international acceptance as a modern, American-style meritocracy. Maybe they are right, but its deeper value is sometimes better understood abroad than it is here. We stumbled yesterday upon an article in Milan's Corriere della Sera by Arrigo Levi, one of Italy's most distinguished journalists who used to be the editor of another great Italian newspaper, La Stampa of Turin. Levi is old enough to have covered the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 for Italian radio. "In describing the ceremony", he recalled, "one had to impress on the listener that one wasn't attending a 'ceremony in period costume', like a mediaeval joust or similar type of event that is put on today for the benefit of tourists, but an authentic Sacred Representation of a kind that still survives and is conducted with great naturalness in the Vatican and in a very few other august seats where an ancient and still living power has been exercised for centuries or millennia. The emotion that is generated by such occasions is incomparably greater and makes one feel the drum-beat of history." For Levi, whose republican credentials are not in question, Britain is fortunate to have had a head of state dedicated to its service, regardless of whether elected or chosen by accident of birth. "To be king, but to feel and behave like a subject, is easy to say, but very much harder to do," he said. "Blessed is the people that has such a king to lead them."