|Gerry's News Digest 101: The Diamond Jubilee and the popularity of the monarchy (June 15, 2012)|
Hi, this is Gerry and welcome to my News Digest for Friday 15th June 2012. Well, in the days leading up to the time when I had to write my scripts for today's show, there really was only one story in the news over here: it was the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In my Diary this time I've spoken about what I did during the weekend of celebrations and in this show I thought I'd talk about our monarchical system  of government and what people here really think about our present queen and about the monarchy in general. How popular is the Queen in fact? Why don't we have an elected head of state  as in most other countries of the world? Doesn't the royal family cost more money than we can afford?
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I've never actually lived in any other country that has a monarchy. I lived briefly in Canada but they share the Queen with us. Apart from that I've lived in republics of different kinds such as France, Germany and Switzerland, but I've always been struck by  the intense interest shown in these republics and also in the United States for our royal family. The public in these countries seems to have a huge appetite for stories and pictures of the Queen, and perhaps even more for the younger members of her family. At the same time, people often used to ask me if I was a monarchist. Did I really support this hereditary system of government  where certain people are born to hold important political positions?
I think my French, German and Swiss friends were emotionally attracted to the royal family but they were rationally sceptical of the undemocratic nature of monarchy. And this ambivalence  always tends to be present when it comes to assessing  the Queen and her role. Does the Queen's popularity depend on her celebrity status - as the head of a very glamorous family - or on her official status as head of state, commander-in-chief of our armed forces, head of the Commonwealth and so on.
I've just taken part in a local drama production of a piece called The Hollow Crown. This piece takes the form of a collection of writings about and by the kings and queens of England and then the United Kingdom for the last 1000 years. When the kings and queens had real power and were the real government of the country, I think people's attitudes towards them were similar to their attitudes towards governments today. If the people were able to live in peace and make a good living, the king or queen was probably popular, but in the same way that no elected president or government can usually stay popular for ever, the popularity of kings and queens periodically  rose and fell.
Then, as the crown began to lose power in Britain and parliament became the real seat of government , people's attitudes towards the king or queen changed. They didn't blame them for everything that went wrong - that was the prime minister's fault. Instead, the king or queen became more of a symbol of the country. More of a figurehead , and in recent times the head of a family that people liked to identify with.
When Queen Elizabeth succeeded  her father in 1952 she got off to a good start. The royal family's popularity had grown during the war. Her father never expected or indeed wanted to become king, as you will know if you saw the film The Kings' Speech. And it was clearly difficult for him to communicate with his people, but the family stayed in London during the bombing and with their two young daughters became a family that seemed to represent the country - carrying on in face of all the terrible events of the war. Then when the war ended, there was already a sense  in the country that a new beginning had to be made: we were entering a new age, and with perfect timing for the country but not for Elizabeth, of course, she found herself Queen at the age of 26. She was the young mother of two children, with no great education and not much experience of the world, so although her people wished her well there was no knowing what sort of queen she would make.
The remarkable thing about her, though, is that 60 years later just about everybody is agreed that she has done really well, she's dedicated herself to the job. Although other members of the family have been hit by various scandals, the Queen has never been touched by any personal scandal at all. She lives in her palaces and castles, of course, but she's never been a playgirl. She doesn't seem to waste money or show off. All the reports that we read about her testify to  the hard work that she's undertaken quietly and modestly all her life. And now that she's 86 and still working it's even easier to respect her. So there's no doubt that the Queen is generally popular and loved because of her character and her dedication to her work.
After 60 years of visiting schools, hospitals, factories, etc. in towns and cities all over the country, just about everybody  seems to have had some contact with her, and just about everybody says that she's always been polite and friendly when they've met her. So this is no flash-in-the-pan  celebrity. She's not a rock star, a footballer or a film star who's popular today but will be forgotten or disgraced  tomorrow.
So, are we all monarchists, then? Are we all fanatical patriots with our red, white and blue flags and all the fuss that we've been making over the last couple of weeks? Some people said that the fact that perhaps a million people went to watch the Jubilee celebrations in London means that we're all crazy about the royal family.
During the Jubilee Thames Pageant with the 1,000 boats, there was a small demonstration by republicans. Their slogan was "Votes not Boats!" They were demonstrating against the monarchy. The television journalists who went to talk to them claimed that they had no real support. "Look at the million people who've come to see the Queen," they said. But isn't it likely that a million people would have turned up to watch anybody who organised an event as big as that. People like to party - it doesn't really matter what the excuse for the party is. So some people celebrated the Diamond Jubilee in the same way that they might support some big fund-raising event organised by television and pop stars.
Other people who were there are British or English nationalists. They like to wave the flag and dress up in red and white and blue to show that they belong to what they think is the best country in the world. They use the Queen as the figurehead for their national pride.
Then there are the royal fans. And a lot of those are foreigners. Among the crowds for the Jubilee there were plenty of tourists. Some of these people know more about the royal family than I do. They're true fans. They read all the magazine articles, they read the books, they collect the memorabilia - and they often have their favourites. The royal family is a sort of soap opera for them.
So not everybody at the celebrations was a monarchist, but at the same time there are nowhere near enough republicans in this country to bring about any change. Why not? Well, firstly, most people will say that there's no need to change. We have a system that works well for us at the moment. There's an American saying which describes this attitude: if it ain't broke , don't fix it. If we had an elected president with power, we could have conflict between the presidency and the parliament. If we had a president with no real power, we'd risk having some old politician that lots of people would neither like nor respect. Choosing and electing a good leader is always a challenge. The advantage of a hereditary system is that there's usually no argument about who gets the job - but there is also little control over the quality of the candidate for the post.
And it is here that the question of what kind of a person the monarch is becomes important. If you're lucky, like the British have been with Elizabeth, you get a person who does the job really well - somebody with a strong sense of duty , somebody who leads a respectable life and somebody who's never tempted to interfere  in the real government of the country. If in the future we get a monarch who doesn't match up to these high standards then the calls for a change could start to build up.
Finally, what about the cost of the Queen? This is a question that I heard a number of times from my frugal  Swiss friends. But it's not such an issue over here, I'd say. Firstly, the royal family has historic wealth like many other old families. There's never been much of an appetite to seize the private property of the rich in Britain. We don't have a wealth tax , for example, only income tax on what you earn and inheritance tax on what you inherit when somebody dies and leaves you money or property. And in fact, King George III handed over all his royal lands to Parliament in 1760 in exchange for an annual income from Parliament, and those lands are still owned by Parliament. Then, the Queen and all the members of the royal family have been paying tax like everybody else for the last 20 years or so. Although our tax authority is called Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) she also has to pay them her fair share of tax. And finally, the money that the Queen will receive from Parliament from next year onwards is calculated as a percentage of the profit earned by those royal lands that George III handed over 250 years ago, and she's only going to get 15% of that profit. So, all in all, the cost of the monarchy is not such a hot political issue over here as you might think.
So to sum up, don't expect any immediate changes in our constitution, at least not in the lifetime of our present queen, who's still looking very fit. And on that loyal note, it's the end of this show. Don't forget you can follow me on Twitter under the name of Gerrypod. You will soon be able to see the Twitter traffic on the website along with your other comments. But for now, thanks for listening and, until the next time, take care.
 monarchical system: a system (of government) with a monarch (king or queen)
 head of state: the official boss of a country, not necessarily the head of the government (In the USA and France the president is both had of government and head of state, but in the UK or Germany there are two separate positions.)
 struck by: impressed by
 hereditary system of government: a system where positions are inherited (passed from father to son, mother to daughter, etc.)
 ambivalence: feeling two different (often contrasting) things at the same time, such as liking and disliking
 assessing: measuring, judging
 periodically: changing over time (one thing for a first period of time, something different for another period of time)
 seat of government: the place with the power to govern
 figurehead: here: symbol (A figurehead is the name for the wooden head and torso that used to be placed on the front of wooden ships.)
 succeeded: here: followed her father onto the throne
 a sense: here: a feeling
 testify to: here: tell us about
 just about everybody: very nearly everybody
 flash-in-the-pan: something that lasts only for a short time
 be disgraced: lose respect, lose your good name
 if it ain't broke: (informal American English) if it isn't broken
 sense of duty: a feeling about what you have to do
 interfere: involve yourself in, join in (something that doesn't concern you, or something where you're not welcome)
 frugal: (people) who don't (like to) spend too much money
 wealth tax: a tax on what you own (your property)