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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On September 18, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    The death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King Charles has, once again, forcefully reminded us that Great Britain, a small island off the coast of Europe, a declining political power and a diminishing economy, can still captivate the imagination and fascination of people as far-flung as Perth and Phoenix, Mumbai and Marseille or Cape Town and Copenhagen. This is both a paradox and an irrefutable indication of the influence of Britain. She’s lost an empire, she’s arguably no longer a meaningful power but she can still command the world’s attention.


    So what are the attributes of this sceptered isle that enthrall the world? Undoubtedly the first is its monarchy. When King Farouk of Egypt was deposed he famously said one day there would be only five kings in the world – the Kings of Spades, Clubs, Hearts, Diamonds and the King of England. He was referring to the fact the world considers the British monarchy unique.


    Why should that be the case? I don’t have a definitive answer. But the popularity of The Crown on Netflix is proof of it. Perhaps it’s to do with Britain’s flair for pageantry and its ancient customs and traditions? They remind us of a world we’ve lost and forgotten. Or perhaps it sparks a romance in us? Kings and Queens are alluring. But why are we interested in the British monarchy in a way the Dutch, Scandinavian or Japanese fail to excite us?


    The truth is it’s not just the monarchy people consider special but also Queen Elizabeth. At her death President Macron addressed the British people and said: “For you she was your Queen. For us she was the Queen”. That’s an amazing thing for a French President to say about a British sovereign. He meant it sincerely and no one in his country rebuked him for saying it.


    The second hold Britain has over the world is through its language. For many English is not just the language of aspiration but the preferred second language. Is that because of Empire, because America shares the language – even if it can’t pronounce it properly – or because English has qualities no other language does?


    Again, I don’t know. But the power and charm of English clearly explains why Shakespeare is the world’s best known author. You could think of several others who are as great – Dante, Homer, Pushkin, Kalidas – but they pale in comparison to the man we call The Bard.


    I would say a third reason why Britain’s influence is inordinately large is the BBC. It’s not as well-resourced as CNN and the Brits themselves are critics of it. Indeed, their governments are often committed to emasculating it. But for the outside world it has a unique reputation for integrity and accuracy. In 1984, despite the fact his late mother’s government had reached out to him with the news, Rajiv Gandhi sought confirmation Indira Gandhi had died by tuning-in to the BBC.


    I would add one more reason to explain the British allure. It’s their sense of humour. It’s not just subtle and understated, it also laughs at itself. The Royal Family is often the butt of British jokes. Charles, with his jug ears, eccentric interests and archaic manner, more than anyone else. In India you could be charged with sedition if you parody the Prime Minister or the President. The British realize that in humour lies popularity and, often, affection.


    Think of comedy shows like ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ and the ‘The Two Ronnies’ or go all the way back to ‘Laurel and Hardy’ and you can’t help wonder how British humour has made the rest of the world laugh. You can’t say that of the French, Germans, Australians or Americans.


    Let me rest my case by recalling Queen Victoria. This dour monarch lacked a funny bone and was usually unamused. Little did she realize she would gift the world the pithy phrase ‘we are not amused’ which is today a staple of sarcasm.

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