What Kings and Queens Are For

October 23, 1994

It is only ceremony, ritual without much substance. But the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Moscow, the first by a British monarch ever, meant a great deal to both Britons and Russians.

It symbolized the effort of two major powers on the periphery of Europe to overcome 77 years of hostility and distrust to bring their relations closer than ever as each seeks to participate in Europe as never before. That's why the British government of Prime Minister John Major encouraged the queen to go; why Russian President Boris Yeltsin of Russia took so much time out of a crisis-ridden week.

That's what the British royal family is for. It does not govern. It provides pomp and tradition to camouflage change in government and society. It personifies a link between the democratic present and the autocratic past.

Simultaneously, a biography of her son, Prince Charles the Prince of Wales, written with his cooperation, comes out, revealing his private life, undermining the public relations value of her trip. Jonathan Dimbleby's biography lets on that Queen Elizabeth was a cold mother, Prince Philip a domineering father, Charles' early school mates a bunch of bullies, Diana the Princess of Wales unstable, their marriage a sham from Day One.

The biography refutes a spate of books and articles giving Diana's view of the marriage, which is why Charles cooperated. This is not what the British royal family is for. Its duty is to the British state and people, not to itself, not to the public craving for soap opera, not even to the media.

The myth of the British monarchy depends on bloodline and the will of Parliament, which has forced out three kings since the 17th century. Serving the state is the monarch's duty. Happiness in marriage was never required and rarely achieved. The tabloids, in claiming the crown shakes with each tittle-tattle, are inventing a constitutional mandate that was never there.

Prince Charles' cooperation with his biographer was on the advice of his key retainer, a modern meritocrat rather than aristocrat, the two believing that candor will restore public confidence in the heir to the throne. Instead, it brought criticism for violating the principle that mystery, not candor, guarantees the throne's prestige.

Enough. Charles is heir to the throne. No constitutional reason has been proffered to deny him. The British monarchy and its cult are more likely to erode on the Swedish model than to be abolished in a grand republican gesture. Meanwhile, the queen in Russia is what the monarchy, at its most relevant, is about.

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