The Queen In Parliament
Today's State Opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom once again showcases that very British taste for traditional formalities.
The Queen still travels in a gilded stagecoach from Buckingham to Westminster to deliver her speech to the members of parliament, even though the speech is now written by the government and consists of an official outline of its political projects for the new parliamentary session. The speech is still delivered before the House of Lords, even though that chamber ceased to have real power many years ago. An officer in a funny dress still summons the members of the House Commons to listen to the Queen's speech, and the Commons still slam the door in his face and keep it closed until he has knocked three times with his staff (all to commemorate a historical episode when the Commons refused to surrender several of their own who had run afoul of the king). The Yeomen of the Guard still search for powder kegs in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster (to commemorate the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605) and various officials still wear powdered wigs and walk backwards when retreating from the presence of the Queen so as not to show any disrespect for the Sovereign.
But this year certain cracks are showing in the ceremonial institution of the monarchy. Last week a law was passed that rid Parliament of those lords whose titles of nobility have been inherited rather than conferred as recognition for public achievement.
The week before Australia staged a referendum on whether to remove the Queen as their head of state (many former British colonies still recognize her as such). The proposal was rejected, but only because people were wary of the alternative offered: a president chosen not by the people but by the legislators. Polls consistently show Australians don't have much attachment to the British Crown.
And anyone who has opened a newspaper over the last couple of years knows the British royal family no longer commands the respect that used to be accorded to it in the era before tabloid journalism.
My own feelings about this decline in the prestige of the Crown are ambivalent. When I was a little kid my father explained that the surname Jenkins--unusual in a Hispanic country like Costa Rica--was the legacy of an old English miner who had migrated to Central America in the late nineteenth century. Right then and there I became a fierce Anglophile.
For quite a while I insisted on having five o'clock tea, even if it was all on my own and without benefit of sugar or cream. I set my watch to London time (which I later found out I had miscalculated) and cultivated an eccentric passion for dreary weather. I decorated my notebooks with the Union Jack (explaining to my classmates in the strongest of tones that it was not the logo for Reebok) and used my pocket money to buy the Economist. I beamed with delight when relatives humorously referred to me as the "English gentleman." The view of the Big Ben stirs emotions rooted in my deepest childhood.
But as much as I still love the British I don't particularly care for the monarchy and never have. To me the symbol of Britishness was never the bejeweled Queen, but rather that single, smiling, unarmed police officer (a "bobby") standing guard before the door of the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street. That was what the British stood for in my mind. Not extravagant pageantry, but a sense of tradition tempered by a cheerful reasonableness.
But I don't think the monarchy should go. Sure, it's outdated and occasionally embarrassing. The recent Diana-madness bordered on the shameful. It may be argued that it is wrong to have any hereditary political office, no matter how powerless.
But people love monarchs and princes. If the British were to abolish the monarchy what would become of their tourist trade? Would elderly couples from the Midwest still stand in line to see the Throne Room in Buckingham Palace? Level-headed reasonableness and practicality sometimes advise compromise with imperfect institutions. And as far as imperfect institutions go, the monarchy is a fairly harmless one.
And besides, if it were not for the British monarchy, in what other context would you get to see, once a year, bewigged lords publicly walking backwards and having doors slammed in their faces? It's a show I don't want to miss.
Alejandro Jenkins '01 is a math and physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.