In praise of royalty rather than “fixed” presidents
IN LONDON FROM MY BASE IN INDIA………. Surely only the Brits could and would do it – turn out in their hundreds of thousands along the banks of a river in cold wet and windy weather, with the sun never fully breaking through the clouds, to honour their 86-year old monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, as she celebrates her diamond jubilee. And they did so yesterday when the pageant of about 1,000 boats carrying some 20,000 people paraded down river through the centre of the city.
“There’s Boris, there’s Boris!” shouted people near where I was standing next to Battersea Bridge in Chelsea, close to the start of the formal pageant. “How do you know?” asked someone. “Look at his floppy almost white hair – it’s him” came the reply, and everyone cheered “Boris Boris”. But it wasn’t supposed to be his day – Boris Johnson, the re-elected Mayor of London was nowhere near the front royal end of the flotilla, yet it became his day too.
“Three cheers for the Dunkirk spirit” shouted an elderly guy with a naval-looking white beard a few yards from me as some small boats went past. “Three cheers for the Dunkirk spirit – our finest hour” and everyone joined in with the cheers as he repeated his clarion call three times.
Yet Dunkirk was not our finest hour. It was a retreat in 1940 from the German forces in France, but it can be seen as a victory because of the hundreds of civilian-owned boats crossed the English Channel and rescued over 300,000 troops marooned on French coast. To mark that achievement, some 40 of the boats were in yesterday’s pageant, and they were cheered.
That Dunkirk spirit of grabbing salvation from the jaws of defeat could be seen as a country in denial, just as the current four-day festival and holiday to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee is in a sense a country in denial, given the economic crisis facing the UK and the rest of Europe. Her reign has also seen society become wealthier though far more unequal – after tax, the richest 1 per cent now have 9 per cent of all income, compared with 3 per cent in 1977 (as the FT points out this morning).
There was however no denying the mood of real celebration, partly no doubt because people wanted a reason to be happy when there is so much bad news around, and this was a genuine reason. That was boosted with vague memories of Britain’s past years of glory. “Britain’s rules the waves” and “Land of Hope and Glory” were chanted every now and again in street parties across the country as well as along the Thames, though few people could get beyond the words of the first couple of lines (apart from the brilliant but rain-drenched choir on top of one of the river launches).
The security was tight, applied gently, and the armies of 6,000 police and other officials and volunteers appeared more eager to help and chat than to order people around – what a lesson for countries where officials feel on such occasions that they have to prove their status with unhelpful and usually inefficient bullying.
But the bigger lesson surely is the stability and mood for celebration that an hereditary monarch of Queen Elizabeth’s stature can bring to a country. Some people yesterday honoured Boris and others remembered the small boats of Dunkirk, but no-one forgot that it was the Queen’s day – a monarch who has only got her judgement wrong once in the 60 years, and that was for just three or four days when she was caught off guard by Princess Diana’s death in a car accident in 1997 and didn’t respond personally as quickly as it became clear the nation thought she should.
I am no instinctive royalist, but isn’t such a system better than having a president chosen by politicians, as now happens for example in India where the president is indirectly elected through the states. The party in government there tries (as it is currently doing) to find someone who will be sympathetic to it if a general election produces a hung parliament because, at that point, the president (like the Queen) chooses who to invite to form a government.
Ten years ago, when the Queen Mother died, I wrote in a Business Standard (Indian newspaper) column that I’d prefer a royal head of state to a president “fixed” by Tony Blair and his cohorts. The same applies even more with David Cameron. The challenge for Britain’s royal family must be to ensure that the Queen’s successor does not offend, but wins respect so that the monarchy survives and the choice of Britain’s head of state is not left to the equivalent of a Blair or a Cameron.
For the original longer version of this post, with more pictures, go to John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog – http://wp.me/pieST-1HMTagged in: British royalty, India politics, India president, London river pageant, Queen jubilee
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