To Look at The Queen: An American Looks at Britain

The British Royal Family. Image: AP
A surprise in Britain is how easy it is to see the Queen. Her daily round of ceremonial ribbon-cutting and orphanage going is posted in the Court Appointments column in The Times. All you have to do is show up right on time and join the onlookers.

Another surprise in Britain when you go around some miserable slum is how Prince Charles has been there ahead of you. The Prince’s distant melancholy image is contradicted by the enthusiasm of public housing dwellers about the interest he takes in their problems. He has rightly accused Britain’s architects, who design prison-like housing estates and tower blocks, inspired by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, blight most British cities, of consistently ignoring the “feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people.”

When Prince Charles speaks out there are complaints that he should stay out of politics as if saying nothing doesn’t carry just as heavy a moral responsibility. What gives his views authority is like a good reporter, he goes out, mingles as much as he can, and asks, asks, asks. What better experience for a future King? Britain has peculiar need of somebody like this.

The Prince has said: “If you go around the country in my position, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve listened, I’ve looked a lot—you can’t just sit and do nothing about it.”

It can be argued that the British Royal Family’s real power lies in the very ability to influence the media. Royal correspondent Judy Wade says, “Without the media, the monarchy could have trouble staying in business.” Buckingham Palace with all its heraldry and chivalry, some of it going back to the days of William the Conqueror, has to strike a balance between serving the public, satisfying the appetite of its subjects for fairy-tale romance, and resisting a wholesale invasion of its privacy and the kind of attention that conflicts with its mystique.  

The British monarchy has always walked the tightrope on keeping on the good side of the press. “It is their single, real organ of power,” writes Charles Jenck in his 1988 book The Prince, The Architects and New Wave Monarchy.

In 2012, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 60th year on the throne, but through the years, there has been no serious talk of abolishing the monarchy. The cost of taxpayers’ money is great and nobody knows how much exactly the Queen really worth; estimates go from $100 mn to $100 bn. But certainly, the monarchy has been and will always be a great help to Britain’s unity and cohesion. And inevitably the Queen has power, just as Prince Charles, as the heir to the throne, has influence. Nothing in British history suggests that taking no action on public issues is to be neutral. Silence, too, sets the tone.


Adapted from An American Looks at Britain by Richard Critchfield. New York: Doubleday, c1990. 

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