Britain hails its queen, questions monarchy

Elizabeth II celebrates 50 years on the throne in a four-day national party that continues Tuesday.

Over a four-day holiday, hundreds of thousands of Britons are enjoying nationwide festivities to mark the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

The golden jubilee, which began Saturday, includes classical music performances, a fireworks display launched from the roof of Buckingham Palace, and performances Monday by Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osbourne, and other rock stars in the palace garden. Street parties around the country are set for Monday and Tuesday, which are national holidays, and the queen and Prince Philip will ride through London in a gold state coach Tuesday to St. Paul's Cathedral for a thanksgiving service.

Around the edges of the celebrations, however, some doubters are raising questions about the future of the British monarchy.

"The old style of monarchy is out of date," says Paul Richards, vice-chair of the Fabian Society, a think tank linked to the ruling Labor party. After the jubilee party is over, he predicts, "there will be an increasing public mood for change, and the royal family itself knows it has to change to survive."

Any such clouds on the horizon seemed distant this weekend, though. After a rough few years stained by scandal, the royal family is riding a wave of public support that recent personal tragedy appears to have bolstered.

On the eve of the Queen Mother's funeral in April, a poll found 54 percent of people want the monarchy left as it is, and only 12 percent admit to republican sympathies. A year ago, 34 percent of respondents said they would like to scrap the monarchy altogether.

Though some of the antics of the younger royals have drawn criticism, Elizabeth herself is widely admired, and the deaths this year of her sister, Margaret, and of her mother seem to have deepened popular sympathy.

Her evident sense of duty, her vision of herself as a stable and unifying symbol, and her personal foibles such as her love for corgi dogs (she has had around 30 during her adult life) have earned her broad affection. One recent poll found 72 percent of her subjects felt she has done either an "excellent" or at least a "good' job as monarch.

Republicanism has not posed a serious threat to the British monarchy for more than 350 years, and abolishing the crown is not on the political agenda. In other countries, monarchies have been overthrown by revolution, civil war, or foreign invasion, "and none of those are very desirable options," says Mr. Richards, a member of a new Fabian Society commission that will study the role of the monarchy.

Hardly any serious politicians voice any criticism of the royal family, or of the system they embody, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has launched major constitutional reform in other fields, shows no sign of wanting to extend it to the monarchy.

"A lot of people of my generation," he said in a TV interview last month, "have decided, in part because of how important a unifier for the country the queen has been, that actually this is a better system – rationally, not simply emotionally or as part of tradition but rationally – this is a better system."

But a significant minority of Britons – 30 percent in the April poll – want to keep the monarchy only if it is radically overhauled, and some commentators have begun to ask how this hierarchical and in many ways anachronistic institution might be made a better fit for 21st–century Britain. When Elizabeth was crowned, 35 percent of her subjects believed she had been chosen by God. "That shows you how much we have changed as a society," says Richards. "There has been a collapse of deference, and intense media scrutiny, which have contributed to a change in attitudes towards the institution" of the monarchy.

But the monarchy has not reflected that sort of change, says James Wilsdon, strategy director of Demos, a radical think tank that has often given Mr. Blair ideas. "It offers a very backward looking vision of Britain...and acts as treacle, gumming up the works" of social change, he argues.

Demos, which last week issued a report calling on the queen to abdicate soon so as to open the path to reform, suggested that young royals should be educated at state–run schools instead of the elite private schools they have attended in the past, that the royal family should give up some of its castles and palaces, and that the monarch should no longer be head of the Church of England, now that Britain is a multicultural and multifaith nation.

Reformers of the monarchy would also like to see the Queen's political power – rarely used but potentially significant – to be taken away from her. Queen Elizabeth must give the royal assent to all legislation (she has never withheld it), and she chooses who will form a government after general elections (controversial only in the event of an unclear election result).

If the business of reigning were untangled from the business of ruling, the British royal family would end up more like its continental European counterparts. This is not how most monarchists here would like to see it.

"I don't wish to see too many changes" says Sir Patrick Cormack, a member of parliament for the opposition Conservative Party. "People like a bit of pomp and pageantry; they don't want a gray–suit monarchy." Talk of reform, he snorts, is just "chattering classes stuff. It doesn't reflect the way most people think at all."

And anyway, adds Sir Brian Mawhinney, a former Conservative cabinet minister, the royal family has changed with the times. The queen began paying income tax in 1993, when she also agreed to slim down the Civil List – the members of her family subsidized from the public purse. "And when did you last hear of a rock concert in the Buckingham Palace gardens?" he asks. "The strength of the royal family is that change evolves.... it's a very British, almost unseen evolutionary process."

When the jubilee hoopla dies down, political analysts expect a debate on the monarchy's role and future to pick up within Labor ranks, as the government pursues its path of constitutional reform that has already transformed the House of Lords, and devolved power to Scotland and Wales.

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