LONDON — This is proving to a wretched winter for two of Britain’s most hallowed institutions. The reasons say much about the way the country has changed — and is changing.
The most headline-grabbing event has been the fallout from the collapse of the trail of a former royal butler accused of stealing effects of the late Princess Diana. This case collapsed when Queen Elizabeth recalled that he had told her what he was doing. But the real damage was done when one leading tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror, bought the butler’s story — and its archrival, the Sun, devoted its considerable energies to doing down the butler.
The result has been a stream of multiple page splashes about the royal family that have reflected badly on the House of Windsor. The details may or may not be accurate, and much of the tabloid copy is, at best, secondhand. But the overall effect has been to diminish further the standing of the royal family at the end of the queen’s Jubilee Year during which it had hoped to resurrect itself from the rows and revelations of recent years.
Ideally, the British royal family acts as a defender of national standards, but now its flag is deeply besmirched. It provides more fodder for gossip magazines and scandal reporting than leadership from the throne. The queen’s own reputation remains high — even if questions are asked about why she took so long to recall the evidence that acquitted the butler. But those around her, including her children, appear increasingly unfit to take on the essentially moral role that is all that’s left to the Windsors given that their political power is nil.
As the royal family has sunk into another trough of trouble, the political party that built its original rise in the 18th century in fealty to the throne is in equally bad — if not worse — straits. Having been routed at two consecutive general elections, the Conservatives are in the kind of despondency that induces predictions of even greater defeats ahead.
After changing leaders three times since former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was deposed, the Conservatives are now caught up in massive disruption. Lagging badly in the polls, their latest chief, Iain Duncan Smith, is seen as the target of plotting by older party figures out to unseat him. Duncan Smith tries hard, but is repeatedly undone by the strength of the dominant Labour Party government and by the dissidence of his own party members. Some polls suggest that the third party in British politics, the Liberal Democrats, could even move ahead of the Conservatives in popularity.
To be a British Conservative is a lonely state in which to find oneself. At home, the movement that once regarded itself as the natural party of government is torn between reactionaries and centrists, between visceral opponents of closer relations with Europe and those who back greater integration, between backwoodsmen and those who see the need for a new birth for the party. A Conservative nobleman reflected that the party now resembled the later years of the Roman Empire with seven or eight “dwarfs fighting over the rags that are left.”
The basic problem is simple and similar, in both cases. The Conservatives were a party of power, like the Liberal Democrats in Japan. They have gone through short periods of opposition and, as happened with Thatcher, emerged with a new and winning philosophy, but now they face terminal decline, and their only reaction is to fall — back on internal feuding.
Equally, the royal family is used to its place in the sun, above controversy, not needing even to think of defending itself, the monarch securely above the law and enjoying the respect of the nation. But now it is the butt of cartoons and jokes, and the shuttlecock of competition between tabloid newspapers.
All this says something about the state of Britain that the country is, understandably, loath to acknowledge. The old certainties have disappeared. In his two terms as prime minister, Tony Blair has sought to introduce new ways, new certainties. But these have not yet taken root.
As it faces the challenge of Europe, the sustainability of the Blair-Bush alliance and all the other questions hovering over it as well as the plight of the royal family and the Conservative Party indicate that the island nation on this side of the globe is in the process of a transformation that runs deeper than the everyday headlines. The problem is that such basic questions are regarded almost as games in Britain.
The British pride themselves on their irony, on not taking things seriously. But serious matters are at issue, and, as Blair gains ever-increasing power, the question of what other institutions will stand in the way of Japan’s Liberal Democratic-style perpetual dominance become ever more meaningful in a nation that has always relied on its democratic alternation — and the overriding moral authority of its monarchy.
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