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Britain Throws Party Fit for Queen

Monarchy: Elizabeth II celebrates her 50 years on the throne. The occasion reprises the debate on the relevance of the Windsors.


LONDON — If the British monarchy were a publicly traded corporation--and who's to say there won't one day be an IPO of Windsor Ltd.--the stock would now be climbing as high as the new Typhoon fighter jet that will stage a dramatic flyover Tuesday to cap the four-day Golden Jubilee weekend celebrating Queen Elizabeth II's 50 years on the throne.

As for such a royal stock's prospects for years to come, what wizard can predict that? Next to soccer, Britain's second-favorite sport is handicapping the monarchy's long run, and Britons use milestones such as this Jubilee for national navel-gazing: Do we still want the monarchy? And if we do, what kind of people does that make us?

The woman at the center of all this is England's 42nd sovereign in 936 years, and only the fifth to spend half a century on the throne. She is a 76-year-old grandmother who has let her hair go white (actually quite becoming with a diamond tiara), and has let her children go to divorce court. Like Elizabeth I, this Elizabeth was 25 years old when she became queen. It happened at some unknown moment in February 1952, as she was watching wild game from a Kenyan treetop, and as her father, King George VI, died in his sleep.

The four-day holiday marking her half-century reign--the "Greatest Party Weekend in History," one tabloid promised--began in weather as warm and golden as melted butter. The promising whiff of regimental horse doo--a guaranteed harbinger of a full-on royal event--was briefly accompanied by the scent of smoke from a small fire at Buckingham Palace on Sunday. The blaze interrupted rehearsals for tonight's pop concert but was soon extinguished. Damage was said to be minimal.

Tonight's "Party at the Palace" concert, even more than Saturday's classical concert in the palace gardens, signals a monarchy willing to take its lumps and make changes: 24,000 ordinary Britons out of 2 million who wanted tickets were invited to the two concerts. They didn't have to be good or accomplished, just lucky.

In the royal box for Saturday's concert were a conservative politician and--stop the presses--Prince Charles' girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles. In the royal box tonight to hear Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Ozzy Osbourne will be liberal Prime Minister Tony Blair and those heartthrob teenage brothers, Princes William and Harry.

Tuesday will begin with a thanksgiving service in St. Paul's Cathedral, and while the queen will go there in the lumbering gilded state coach, she will depart in her most expensive jubilee gift, courtesy of Bentley: a multimillion-dollar automobile with a bulletproof body and a satellite phone hotline.

But Tuesday will also show the face of New Britain, a parade and show of 20,000 performers, among them a Hells Angel biker, 5,000 gospel choir voices, African and Caribbean performers from the remnants of the Commonwealth so dear to the queen's heart, and a children's troupe from London's Chicken Shed Theater.

Robert Lacey stands atop the ladder of royal writers as the queen stands atop the monarchy. His new book is called "Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II," and he says the monarchy has been able to adapt and flourish since King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 after civil war.

Oliver Cromwell, who took over the nation as lord protector, had himself buried with crowns on his coffin and, kinglike, tried to name his son as his successor. The British preferred the real thing, thank you, and in 1660 happily welcomed King Charles II back to his father's realm.

The new Britain and its old monarch, says Lacey, are now a match:

"One of the functions of a monarchy in a changing world is to be a beacon of unchanging values. At the same time, it is constantly running for reelection, it constantly has to prove its relevance."

The pop concert, he said, was "a stroke of genius." Such music, he said, has "come to symbolize" the new, inventive Britain.

The Golden Jubilee planning started tentatively; the palace as well as critics spent months trying to lower expectations and fretting over costs--critics because they're critics, and the palace so that if the celebration failed, and especially if it failed expensively, it wouldn't be compared poorly to the Silver Jubilee of 1977.

But in February, the queen's sister, Princess Margaret, died, and in late March, the 101-year-old Queen Mother did too. Sympathy rose, gradually joined by the prospect of a good time, and the Golden Jubilee was on.

The Windsors of 2002 are not the family of 1977. They have been changed by years of embarrassments so familiar they hardly bear repeating, which doesn't stop the press from doing so.

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