What if, instead of debating whether partisans will put the country’s interests ahead of their own or find reasons to move beyond the gridlock in which they have mired Congress, Washington surmounted the political system and put someone above it? Someone who, like a living Statue of Liberty, symbolizes the nation and represents not one ideology but the American people.
In other words, what if America had a queen?
As Britain celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, it’s also grappling with a host of thorny issues. Consider: The country is in a double-dip recession, with unemployment at 8.2 percent and joblessness among youth around 20 percent. Its continental neighbors — to which it is shackled through the European Union — teeter on the verge of fiscal collapse. Prime Minister David Cameron is dealing with government workers striking over pension cuts — tens of thousands joined protests last month and more strikes are planned this summer — as Cameron himself seeks to survive a lobbying scandal and to avoid further embarrassment over ties to the phone-hacking inquiry that has rocked Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Yet there are some things Britons are not arguing about.
You can see a unifying force in the flags, banners and ribbons festooning storefronts, boats and homes from the quiet of the Cotswolds to the tourist-packed streets of London. (The Daily Mail reported Friday that Britons in Randwick set a world record for “the longest line of continuous bunting after stringing up 14,583 triangular flags for four unbroken miles.”) Or in the bottled water advertised as “queentisentially British.” Street parties to celebrate Elizabeth’s 60-year reign are planned across the nation this weekend — which the government has decreed a holiday — along with an official concert, a service of thanksgiving and a thousand-boat flotilla up the Thames. For the concert marking her Golden Jubilee, 10 years ago, Queen guitarist Brian May belted out the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” from the roof of Buckingham Palace.
Elizabeth is now Britain’s second-longest-reigning monarch, behind only her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. She was 25 when she ascended the throne and has been served by 12 prime ministers.
Having a head of state who is above politics is key to the British system. It is the queen who opens Parliament with an address — written by elected officials — that outlines the legislative agenda for the year. It is the queen who appears on currency; the military branches are her services; taxes are levied and laws are carried out in her name.
She engages in none of the compromise that is crucial to holding together Cameron’s coalition government, negotiates none of the tightrope-walking that is necessary to maintaining Britain’s association with the European Union as citizens question its value.
None of this is to say that Americans should try to import the very institution we rejected centuries ago. It’s not surprising that, at a moment of national celebration, the monarchy would be popular. (That’s why many Brits saw an economic boon in Kate and William’s wedding last April.) But the strength of the royals’ popularity, at a time of fiscal misery and political discontent, is striking. The Guardian newspaper reported last week that 69 percent of Britons say their country would be worse off without the monarchy; only 22 percent said it would be better off. The favorable sentiment persisted regardless of geography, age or political beliefs. Recently, the BBC found that 73 percent of respondents favor Elizabeth remaining the head of the Church of England.
National symbols that rise above politics, such as an Olympic team — and London will host this summer’s Games — contribute to such positive sentiments. Amid the fluttering Union Jacks, there is an appreciation here of the queen as an enduring representative of Britain. This sort of transforming, unifying spirit seems to occur in the United States only after tragedy.
The sun, of course, has set on the British Empire, leaving the monarch with largely ceremonial powers. But the grace with which she has wielded them over the decades has inspired a national pride in her institution. Amid our partisan gridlock, Americans might consider what, if anything, could transcend our politics.
Autumn Brewington is the editor of The Washington Post’s op-ed page.