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On the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, a London correspondent wonders why so many Brits dream of sipping tea with her.
LONDON, UK – Here's a description of a job you can't apply for:
· National symbol,
· Embodiment of past greatness,
· “Still point” in a rapidly changing world.
· Must like jewels, riding in horse-drawn carriages and delivering speeches written by people you disagree with.
· Leisure opportunities include horseback riding and walking in the rain in isolated part of Scotland.
· Retirement not an option.
For 60 years that is the job Queen Elizabeth II has done, and with only one very rough patch, in the days following Princess Diana's death, done exceptionally well.
No wonder, Britons dream about her, as the Pet Shop Boys sing. Apparently there is a survey — often referred to but that I have never actually seen — that says the most common dream Britons have is of taking tea with the Queen.
Personally, I haven't had that dream. But I know I have dreamed about her at least once, although, like most dreams the details were forgotten as soon as I woke up.
The reason for her hold on Britain's collective subconscious, is partially due to longevity and partially due to the job description. She is a Jungian archetype.
The reality of her day-to-day official political duties are easy to enumerate: The Queen is Head of State, and meets other heads of state on their visits to the UK. That part of the job is a little odd, I suppose, since most of them are democratically elected, and she inherited her position.
Every Christmas she gives a speech on television and radio to her subjects. For some it is a patriotic duty to watch, although virtually none could tell you what she said 48 hours later.
She goes around the country performing civic duties, like opening new libraries, and travels to Commonwealth countries on state visits.
She has a political role as well. The Queen holds a weekly meeting with the Prime Minister but really can't influence policy in any kind of direct way.
She opens each new Parliamentary term by reading a speech outlining Her government's legislative program. It may be presented to her on a cushion by the Lord Chancellor, who walks backward from the throne after delivering the pages. The assembled Lords and MP's may present a vast spectacle as she looks up from the words, but nothing can change the fact that the words are not hers.
As for what she thinks about the speeches she reads, nobody knows. Imagining her thoughts is another thing the British do — awake or asleep.
It is an endless, unchanging routine and she's been at it for 60 years.
People talk about presidents living inside the bubble. It becomes a problem after a while as the man in charge is increasingly isolated from reality. But at least a president has had time outside the bubble to form his worldview.
The Queen has been inside the bubble since she was born and any exit was shut when she was ten years old and her father, George VI, replaced his brother Edward VIII on the throne. As George's oldest child, and with no brothers, from that day she knew what her fate was.
It is a weird world inside the bubble the Queen inhabits. Back in the '90's I attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It's not as exclusive as it sounds.
Every July the Queen hosts a series of these events at Buck House, as the locals call it. Several thousand people are invited to each one. Ambassadors, journalists, MPs, military officers, people from her horsey set, assorted friends of friends of the Royal Household, and ordinary folk who have done good works, all get a chance to wander the back forty — literally, the back garden is 40 acres big. That's a large plot in the middle of a densely populated city like London.
The garden includes a lake with pink flamingoes and a pavilion where you could throw a large wedding or bar mitzvah.
People arrive and are conducted through the palace to a back terrace that runs the length of the building. They walk down a wide flight of stairs and spend an hour or so wandering. The English being the English, they wander alone or with people they know. This isn't an occasion for striking up a conversation with strangers or networking.
In marquees (tents) they can take tea, sandwiches and cake. Time slows to an 18th century pace, gentle ambling with no electronic inputs to over-stimulate the senses, and then She appears along with her family.
They form a tableau on the terrace so the several thousand can get a good look. The Queen stands a little forward of the group. Then someone from the Royal Household, the Lord Chamberlain I guess, conducts her down to the lawn where she is introduced to a pre-selected cross section of the multitude.
A crowd forms around her and rolls this way and that as she is guided here and there to meet the lucky few.
At the time, the Queen's children were all getting divorced, and I remember thinking, no wonder Princess Diana didn't want to live like this. She came from one of England's great families but had been formed outside the bubble. She knew there was a real world and it did not inform any part of this Royal one.
Interestingly, Diana's death, was the pivot point of Queen Elizabeth the Second's reign. At the time her approval ratings had to 66 percent. Britain's republican movement, always a minority, had wind in their sails. Today, that is reversed. A Guardian/ICM poll published last month shows the Queen and her family enjoying record popularity. Asked if they thought Britain would be better off or worse off without a Royal Family, 69 percent said worse off.
The survey did not ask about personal views of the Queen herself. My educated guess would put the number well above 80 percent.
I think the main reason for the Queen's popularity, aside from the fact that people under 70 tend to look fondly on anyone who makes it past 85 with all their marbles and moving body parts in tact, is that, as the Daily Telegraph's Mary Riddell notes, mere politicians are incredibly unpopular: "… that the spirit of Britain is embodied in a hereditary monarch with wealth beyond most people’s dreams of avarice says as much about politicians’ failure as it does about the Queen’s success."
Professional national embodier is a heckuva way to spend one's life. Next time I dream about her, I will have to ask Her Majesty how she feels about it — and try to remember the answer when I wake up.