Ruling Europe has been an ambition of many men for a very long time. Those who have come close — from Charlemagne on — have generally found it wise to pause for a few moments of grandeur in order to convince the mob. Playing King of the Continent, as all these men knew, required paying attention to the business of symbol and myth: Grab the crown out of the bishop’s hands and do it yourself. After all, the whole idea of government relies on a kind of communal, practical myth. As Madison and Company knew, to make people really believe — and I mean believe with necessary fervor, like a martyr believes — you need to take a monumental vision and wrap it all up in suitably inflated language and serve it up hot. In unveiling new, improved governments, presentation is everything. Actual governance is in the details.
For a celebration of details, there’s the proposed EU constitution, spun from the sere loins of bureaucrats, and revealed to the world draped in all the majesty of a building permit. For a day or so last week, the event became one of those milestones newspapers like to construct, then ignore. Giscard d’Estaing, the imperious Frenchman, tried to look regal, but really, the “Ode to Joy” bit, as described by The Daily Telegraph, seemed more like a scene out of A Clockwork Orange, with Giscard taking a bow, while the Eurocrats hygienically pummeled the notion of national sovereignty in the background.
Even those in the European press who tried to invest the event with some solemnity — see, for example, the three-part series in Suddeutsche Zeitung, or the newsbite-laden account in Le Monde — seemed fairly restrained. The Frankfurter Algemeine sort of said it for many when the paper called the document nothing more than what it is — a dull draft created by a boring committee. Instead of a vision, there are 460 prosaic regulations signifying the ways and means by which even more regulations to augment the existing 80,000 pages of regulations could be forthcoming. The document also sets forth the rights of the proposed hyperstate, but doesn’t standardize the damn plugs. Maybe they could call the thing “The Regulations of Man” and get a little mileage out of it.
In the U.K., the idea of a Europeanized, Frenchified Britain, with American highlights, comes at what seems to be a propitious moment. The leftwing press is all for it. Tony Blair is a man for whom the Modern Myth — that is, the assumption that the latest idea is necessarily the greatest idea — is everything. And the EU draft constitution is definitely the latest idea. Without a serious opposition — and the Conservatives are not at the moment a very serious party — Britain under Blair seems to continue to dismantle the peculiar myths that surrounded and defined the state, marking them irrelevant, and chucking them into the channel, the better to make room for New Blighty.
Last week, for example, Blair eliminated the Lord Chancellorship, an almost-mythic, 1,400-year-old office, by fiat. The suspicion was that Blair would appoint a “supreme court” which, he is right to suspect, would be more agreeable to his plans than the Law Lords were ever likely to be. The U.K. press, right, left and center, was pretty appalled. The next stop, no doubt: an elected House of Lords. Out with the myth of hereditary responsibility. Personally, I kind of like the skit-quality of calling political hacks “Lord The-Name-of-Your-Street.” It’s as though the British middle class have finally found a socially acceptable way of playing dress-up. But it doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t make much myth.
At the same time, reports the Observer, a commission on the future of the monarchy has recommended that the queen step down as head of the Church of England. It seems odd to do away with a woman as the head of the church, then put the church into schism over the issue of a female episcopate, among other things. So soon, the church will go, too, of course. “What next,” asks the Telegraph, “the Monarchy?” Damn straight, says the Guardian. Maybe she can go to Madrid, with Beckham: England has discarded its iconic captain. Meanwhile, the British have gone off their tea, and the Times, in an editorial, is calling for the construction of American-style drive-in theatres. “Some neck,” as Churchill once said.
Blair would like to do with some aspects of British sovereignty what he did with the Lord Chancellorship — declare the EU constitution adopted and, to use the ultimate Clintonian mindwash, just move on. But surveys, such as that commissioned by the Daily Mail as part of their own informal referendum, suggest people may not be quite so ready to jump on the Euro-wagon, after all. There is increasing pressure for a referendum before accepting the rule of Brussels, reports the Telegraph. According to Le Monde, even Giscard himself is urging Blair (and everyone else) to let the people vote.
Will Britain vote it down? There’s a small chance. In watching the Czechs follow the Poles in voting to join the EU last weekend, you get the sense that there’s something about the whole EU enchilada that resembles a pyramid scheme. It’s the Myth of Ponzi. Turn down the “Ode to Joy” long enough to think, and you see that the EU isn’t about “unalienable rights” or anything like that. It’s about cash. For poor nations, it seems like the only way out. For others, such as Britain, there are — options. So maybe the sentimental choices will win out after all. Not all the myths are dead. I mean, last week they once again trooped the Colors and, as the Telegraph duly reported, the Birthday Honors List was revealed: Helen Mirren is a dame, but now it’s official.
Some myths age better than others: Last week, noted the IHT and everyone else, was Johnny Hallyday’s 60th. I played his version of “Blue Suede Shoes” and it rocked. But he’d be alarmed to see Eric Hobsbawm, the planet’s chummiest Marxist, using the pages of Le Monde and the Guardian to announce the end of the American Empire — a myth dead without having been born. The take-away: no empire lasts forever.
Not even my domestic commonwealth, I’m sure. My ambitions, as a father, are limited by reason. But among them are to make sure my three lovely daughters know how to play poker and how to explicate W. S. Gilbert, the whole canon. If you can explain all the references in a good patter-song by age 13, then I say you’re smart enough for government work. Since we’re homeschoolers, I can be the superintendent of schools and the school board and the principal. My object, all sublime, I shall achieve in time, but we take it slowly, operetta by operetta. Last Sunday, for Father’s Day, I made my three daughters run through a chunk of HMS Pinafore. When they got to this bit —
…[H]e might have been a Roosian,
A French, or Turk, or Proosian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!
Or perhaps Itali-an!
But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!
My oldest piped up, “Then they ought to quit the EU.” Such hopes! But why not? And after they do that, they can bring back the Lord Chancellor! And toast him with tea! Of course I know very well that the British really could do without G&S. None of my English friends (pace all you Scots), can stand the topsy-turvy stuff, and the D’Oyly Carte is constantly begging for help, which won’t come. The British will toss them out, too. More’s the pity, I say. Let them eat Rice.
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