Although American-born, I’ve been a loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen for about thirty years; but I’ve resided most of my adult life in her kingdom and definitely want to celebrate her breaking Queen Victoria’s record by reigning over us longer than her great-great-granny’s 23,226 days. As a 12-year-old I watched her coronation on the first colour TV set in Lexington, KY, and have felt ever since that there’s a point to the pageantry. While American presidential inaugurations do their best to emulate it once every four years, there’s really no contest. I’m sad that I have a poor record as a monarchist, in that we had to cancel going to a Buckingham Palace garden party owing to a big family birthday back in the USA (and I don’t imagine we’ll be invited again). But contrast this event with even a personal tour of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden, and it’s an easy British victory.
My dual nationality is a bit of a nuisance when it comes to estate-planning. But it does mean that I am probably unique in having been able to vote for both the President of the US and for the Prime Minister. (I’m in Mr Cameron’s constituency, and doubt whether there’s another dual national here who also voted for Obama.) Over the years I’ve come to think that the British system is superior – that monarchy is a sensible way to provide a Head of State; and that the institution, being the font of honours, is preferable to the American way of doing things.
The honours system of course gets corrupted from time to time, from Maundy Gregory to the present day. Yet titles, which change your name, and the lesser right to put meaningless letters after your name, are a healthier incentive and spur to ambition than the pursuit of power via money. Even life peerages given to political party donors are better than Trump-like efforts to buy high office (or, come to that, having “elected” municipal offices that are really political patronage, as is the case with the religious zealot county clerk, Kim Davis, who who spent less time than she should have done in prison for refusing to issue marriage licences to gay couples in my native KY).
As US politicians and political commentators are now beginning to appreciate, the parliamentary democracy that supports the monarchy is preferable to the rigid structure laid down in the US Constitution. Politically-minded people in the US look with envy on our ability to dismiss a government before the end of a fixed term. How different and less painful some episodes of recent American history would have been if a House of Representatives bent on impeachment proceedings and an outraged Senate could have simply forced new presidential elections, instead of waiting for four years to be up. Such an arrangement might have made JFK think twice about the Bay of Pigs Invasion, while LBJ might have been less bullish about Vietnam. Nixon would probably have been more careful about employing burglars, Clinton would have kept it zipped, and Bush would surely have got someone to explain WMDs to him in a simple fashion he could understand.
Indeed, some Americans are starting to think that their sacred written Constitution is clumsy compared to our flexible unwritten constitution. Though polls have showed that some Americans think the Constitution contains passages that are in fact from the Gettysburg address (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”), and in 1987, 45% of respondents to one survey thought the US Constitution contained the words “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (they come from Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme), Americans still tend to treat the document as scripture. As the eminent (British, but resident in the US for many years) political philosopher Alan Ryan wrote in 2013 [in the TES, 03.01.13]: “It would under any circumstances be difficult to persuade the American public that the Constitution was littered with absurdities – two senators per state, giving North Dakota as much clout in the Senate as California? – but it has become utterly impossible to alter, now that half the population is convinced that anything it dislikes – the Affordable Care Act, for instance, or bans on gay marriage – must be unconstitutional.”
As for the person, rather than the office, Americans are probably more interested in HM than we are, but no one can dispute that she is a more dignified Head of State than recent Italian, French and quite a few recent US presidents. It’s true that the minor royals shocked us all a little in 1987 with It’s a Royal Knockout, but that’s as nothing compared to shenanigans in the White House. Just to refresh your memory, the President at that time was a former B-movie actor who was having a spot of bother with some of his own children. Who would not choose HM the Queen and her family, if given a choice between hers and the Kennedy, Bush or Clinton dynasties?
And a postscript. Some years ago the New York Times Magazine commissioned me to write a piece on the obvious rift between Her Madge and her then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The editor, who I believe had a flat in London and thought he knew the British well, had a suspicion that there was more to their apparent tension than the misfortune of both women wearing the same dress at an official function. Indeed, I reported, Mrs Thatcher did not appreciate why the Queen cherished her ties with the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth), the group of 53 nations that once formed parts of the British Empire. Mrs T had little use for them, or for the UK’s ties to them, while the Queen regarded them as her Commonwealth. My editor in NY saw this disagreement as trivial and not remotely newsworthy, and paid me a handsome kill fee.
It was, of course, the opposite of trivial, as Mrs T’s attitude affected everything from immigration to Britain’s relations with the EC. My informant was a member of her cabinet, the late John Biffen, later Lord Biffen, a great politician and a personal friend of mine – and, of course, I owed it to him not to reveal his identity, though I don’t think he broke any rules in telling me about these differing views. In the past few years I’ve read several references to the split between HM and Mrs T, confirming that the grounds of it were as I said in my unpublished scoop all that time ago.
The moral of the story is that there are things about the Brits and the system of government here that many Americans, even editors, just don’t get. Is the contrary true, I often wonder?