Queen unobtrusively celebrates 40 years as sovereign

June 03, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II made little fuss over the 40th anniversary of her coronation yesterday. She went to the races at Epsom, where she had two horses running.

The occasion was deliberately subdued at the palace's request. There was no formal dinner; there were no parades.

The only concession to the significance of the day were two cannon salutes (one of 41 guns in Hyde Park and one of 62 guns at the Tower of London) and a new 5-pound commemorative coin.

These are troubled times for the queen, so much so that last November she summed up the previous 12 months of her life as the "annus horribilis," her horrible year.

With this, she was alluding to the disintegration of the marriages of her two sons, Princes Andrew and Charles, and the tendencies of her daughters-in-law, Sarah and Diana, to be featured in occasionally salacious and nearly always scandalous stories in the tabloid press.

Windsor Castle, her favorite residence, had burned. And after nearly a year of pressure, she found herself volunteering to pay income tax, which she never has in her long reign.

Her start on the throne 40 years ago had seemed much more promising, so much so, in fact, that it was hailed as the beginning of the second Elizabethan Age. Her accomplishments and fortunes, however, never matched those of her namesake and predecessor.

By the time the first Elizabeth had completed 40 years on the throne, in 1598, her country had been greatly enriched and moved close to the center of the world stage. It was to grow into the greatest power in the world.

Today, Britain is still an important country. But it is neither all that powerful nor rich. And no one would suggest it is pivotal to the course of world events.

Britons are better off today than they were in 1952, when Elizabeth II became queen. (The new monarch's coronation ceremony was delayed until the following year.) They eat more nutritious food; most live in comfortable houses; many more of them drive cars; they travel, are more educated.

Despite succeeding recessions and a seemingly unending industrial decline, they have more of the world's goods today than they didwhen Elizabeth II was crowned queen.

Yet discontent is everywhere evident. A poll some months back indicated that given the opportunity half the people here would emigrate.

This discontent has legitimized questions about the monarchy's place in Britain, and polls suggest there is a turbulence of opinion about the monarchy that is moving toward a consensus.

A majority among those Britons asked by the Gallup organization in February, 64 percent, said they were still proud of the institution of the monarchy.

But even more said they believed the royal family has lost touch with the lives of ordinary people.

Only 9 percent queried wanted the monarchy abolished. Only 24 percent said they wanted it to remain as it is.

A full 65 percent said the monarchy should continue but "become more democratic and approachable, rather like the monarchy and royal family in the Netherlands."

The British monarchy has been losing its political power for more PTC than 100 years. Within the past three decades, it has begun to lose something more crucial to it, the deference and respect it once commanded.

Historian Roy Strong pointed out over the weekend that in the latter years of the reign of Elizabeth I, any portrait of her as an old woman was confiscated and burned.

Forty years ago, any photograph of Elizabeth II that made her look ridiculous or in some way undignified would probably have been treated with much the same savage dispatch.

But today the queen is mugged by television comics. The satirical television show "Spitting Image" shows her as a hag in a tiara, firing her worthless offspring from their jobs around the palace, beating them with bats.

Elizabeth I had political power and would have seen heads roll. Elizabeth II has none and can do little except to expect to see more.

Why? What has happened in 40 years?

Sir Roy wrote of the declining lack of control that the queen exercises over the presentation of her own image and that of her family, and the collapse, about 10 years ago, of the old "alliance of the palace and the press."

This alliance, established during Queen Victoria's time, encouraged the press to contribute to the exaltation of the monarchy. The monarchy itself, especially under Victoria, contributed for its part a sumptuous "visual vocabulary" of medieval grandeur, pageantry, costumes, jewels in abundance and regal color, all of which were eagerly consumed by the readers of newspapers.

Elizabeth II's coronation portrait, by Cecil Beaton, showing her in ermine, a glittering crown, a golden orb in one hand, the scepter in the other, was very much in this tradition.

The alliance was a mutually profitable arrangement and lasted for many years. Why it broke down is not certain, but that it has is more evident every day in London's dailies, where stories appear regularly that, if they do not demean the monarchy, rarely dignify it.

Perhaps the tabloids sense the mood of the population for a less regal monarchy and are reflecting its growing distaste for the kind of grandeur it once had such an appetite for. That is what the polls are saying most of them want: something simpler.

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