Thomas Sutcliffe: The usefulness of the Queen's empty rituals

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The Independent Online

It doesn't help if you cross-reference some of the facts released in Buckingham Palace's celebratory portfolio of royal trivia: the Portrait to Bridge Opening Ratio currently stands at 9.3 royal portraits for every bridge opened. Of course this doesn't take into account the Queen's other sacrifices on behalf the nation - the 256 official overseas visits or, far more impressive in its stoical disregard for personal comfort, the 34 Royal Variety Performances. But even so there seems to be a mismatch between recognition and achievement. Republican sceptics will no doubt seize on the list - and the attention paid to it - as further evidence of our abject submission to ceremonial flummery. Sardonic monarchists should take some comfort from it too, though. That this is a long and respectable tradition in British life was confirmed for me by rereading Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution, the source of that famous remark about daylight and magic. Most of Bagehot's arguments for the monarchy are looking a little foxed these days. His suggestion that the mass of the people are just too thick to cope with any alternative system - that a constitutional monarchy supplies "a comprehensible element for the vacant many" - won't really hold water any longer, since even the most besotted and vacant royalist doesn't believe the Royal Family exercises any real power. Nor does it supply a counterbalancing glamour to that offered by political life. By separating social supremacy from high political office, Bagehot suggested, hereditary monarchy preserved the latter from inevitable corruption. Without that fact "clever base people would strive for it, and stupid base people would envy it". These days, though, that side of things is taken care of by Posh and Becks. What remains absolutely up to date in Bagehot's essay is a sense of wry affection for the absurdities of the nation's relationship to its monarch. If you only knew Bagehot from his most famous quotation - the one about the monarchy being the "dignified" bit of the constitution as opposed to the "effective" bit - it would be easy to assume that his attitude was solemnly protective and po-faced. In fact he's drily funny about the serial inadequacies of British kings and queens ("what he did was commonly stupid and what he left undone was very often wise" he wrote about James II) and quite open about the arbitrary nature of their status. Some might think that too much attention was paid to the Queen's daily constitutionals and the Prince of Wales's excursions, he writes, but it is instructive to "trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance". And part of his answer is that there is a constitutional usefulness in the fascination, since it is independent of party allegiance and the changeable political weather. If anything the present Queen threatens this arrangement because she is dangerously over-qualified for the role - but Charles' succession should restore the balance. In the meantime, the Buckingham Palace list - a stock-taking of a life of largely empty ritual - reminds us how useful it can be to have a head of state you don't have to take too seriously. A towering architectual landmark I was pleased to see that Sheffield's cooling towers were leading the field in a Channel 4 project to find sites for large-scale community art. I regard them as friends - since whenever I use the M1 to head north they tell me I don't have too far to go to my destination - but I also like the way they offer a mute rebuke to the tawdry gazebo of the Meadowhall shopping mall on the other side of the motorway. To your right, the old economy of manufacturing, to your left the new economy of instant credit and food courts - and there's surely no argument about which offers the more impressive architectural legacy. Sadly, road safety considerations will probably rule out the more imaginative schemes proposed by local residents, which include converting the towers into giant hot and cold water taps and using them as colossal flowerpots. But at least they've been moved from the "Problematic Eyesore" pigeonhole in the local planning office to the "Cherishable Landmark" box. * The Streets' new single "When You Wasn't Famous" begins with a lament about privacy. "How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers when I know they've all got cameras", he protests - raising an issue of civil liberty first brought to our attention by Kate Moss. It's not going to get easier for them. The 3 mobile phone group is apparently in talks with ITN and Sky to allow its subscribers to feed video clips directly to news editors. Along with weblogs, this is generally taken as an advance for "citizen journalism" and A Good Thing. But if we're worried about the massive increase in CCTV cameras and licence plate- reading speed cameras, shouldn't we be equally nervous about the growth of this amateur surveillance network? Big Brother is watching you - and after that, he's going to call his mum and say he'll be home in 20 minutes.