International Herald Tribune, February 7, 2002
As Queen Elizabeth Marks 50-Year Reign, Britons Seem to Shrug
T.R. Reid, Washington Post Service
LONDON - It was the 6th of February, as the young bride known as Lilibet was watching a glorious pink sunrise over the Kenyan jungle, when the message came from London. King George VI had died. As of that instant, his daughter Lilibet had a new official name and a new job: "Queen Elizabeth II by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith."
Fifty years to the day after that fateful phone call, the Queen of the Realm, now a white-haired grandmother of six, is still busily engaged in her royal duties, signing documents, greeting diplomats, traveling around the world. And for 2002, most of Elizabeth's official calendar will be devoted to celebrations of her half-century on the throne.
There were no special events Wednesday, because the queen chooses not to celebrate on the day her beloved father died. But Buckingham Palace has a dizzying round of events — trips, speeches and ceremonies — planned for May and June to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
There is only one problem with the royal anniversary: Her Majesty's subjects do not seem to care.
The news media here report that the palace is in a "panic" because so few communities have planned parties or festivals. Lord Peter Levene, the financier picked by the queen to manage Jubilee planning, abruptly quit the post, reportedly because there was too little for him to supervise. Opinion polls show that people admire the queen's hard work and upright character but do not feel enough of a personal connection to want to celebrate her long reign.
Britain's government has created an extra holiday this year to give the nation a four-day weekend at the beginning of June, the center of the Jubilee celebration. "People like the free day off, but beyond that there's not much excitement," said Anthony King, a political scientist who oversees polling for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. "The polls show a feeling of distance, from the royalty and therefore from the Jubilee."
A quarter-century ago, when Elizabeth celebrated her Silver Jubilee, things were different. Thousands of cities, villages and neighborhoods held street parties — 4,000 of them in London alone — to mark the popular queen's 25 years on the throne.
"I can definitely remember 1977, sitting at a long table in the street, waving flags and eating sweets," said Matthew Savage, a 30-year-old Londoner. "Everyone was just jolly. This time, I can't imagine that I or anybody I know would do that."
That year also brought a burst of new hospitals, schools, highways and gardens, most named "Jubilee."
Britain today is considerably more prosperous than it was in 1977, but the Golden Jubilee won't come close to matching the silver anniversary.
London's big memorial for the event, for example, was originally planned as a new footbridge across the Thames, lined with images from Elizabeth's half-century as queen. But the budget turned out to be so tight that the "Jubilee Bridge" is now to be a walkway hung off the side of a railroad bridge. The royal images along the walk will be sacrificed to make room for billboards, advertising that will help pay for the multimillion-dollar project.
A key reason for the evident lack of interest in this year's jubilee is that Britain is a more democratic nation today than it was in 1952, or even in 1977.
Children of the titled families are no longer allowed to inherit seats in Parliament. Students have to pass entrance exams to attend Oxford, even if they are the 16th Viscount of Suchandsuch and the previous 15 all went there.
"Over the years, support for the inherited monarchy has diminished," said Tony Benn, a prominent Labour politician who renounced his inherited title. "Almost everything else in British life is a function of merit now. So people say, 'Why should we choose a head of state through an accident of birth?'"
Although British kings as late as Elizabeth's father played some role in the selection of prime ministers, the monarch today has no political power. In theory, Elizabeth issues formal declarations and appoints top officials in the government and the Anglican church; in practice, she says and does only what the prime minister tells her. "For the queen to refuse is now virtually unthinkable," said Mr. King, the political scientist.
When Elizabeth dons her bejeweled crown each fall for the formal opening of Parliament, her only official task is to recite, verbatim, the "Queen's Speech" — a legislative message written by the prime minister. The queen taps a sword on the shoulder of each new Knight of the Realm, but the prime minister decides whose shoulders she will tap.
And yet much of the culture and language of monarchal rule persists — a fact that clearly riles many Britons.
As every U.K. passport makes clear, the nation's 59 million people are not British "citizens" but "subjects" — that is, subjects of Her Majesty. The 250-year-old national anthem, "God Save the King/Queen," (with the last word changed depending on the sovereign) is a song, not about the nation, but about the monarch: "Send her victorious/ Happy and glorious/ Long to reign over us/ God save the Queen!"
"Why should we sing that?" asked Jonathan Freedland, a columnist of the Guardian newspaper. "Why should anybody 'reign over us?' Why should we be anybody's 'subjects?' It just doesn't fit in the 21st century."
Those objections, of course, would apply to royalty in general. But support for the current royals in particular has slumped because of the various marital and business scandals involving Elizabeth's four children, all of them covered voraciously by the news media, which rarely show any reticence about unveil ing palace secrets.
Even the 75-year-old queen, despite her own record of personal rectitude, has become a target. In the tidal wave of grief that engulfed the nation in 1997 after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the news media turned sharply on Elizabeth. The queen was accused of being a cruel mother-in-law to Diana, and criticized for failing to express grief after the fatal accident in Paris that killed the princess. "Show us you care, Ma'am!" screamed a banner headline in the Daily Mirror.
To mark the Golden Jubilee, Britain's most pro-monarchy newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, has run a long biographical series about the queen. It depicts her as hard working and dutiful, but as cold and a failure as a mother. "She is better at dealing with horses than with people," the paper said.