Although I was mildly surprised that Tony Blair admitted on BBC 2 that he smacked his older children, that statement was hardly, to me, the most interesting part of the program. The most interesting thing to me about the conversation was that it happened at all.
In the United States, we are not conditioned to think of Presidents as people who speak off the cuff. George W. Bush may simply be incapable of doing so in a mixed audience; I don’t know. Bill Clinton certainly could have handled a difficult studio audience, but no one would ever ask him to do so. The night before last, while flipping between my six channels at Wiston Park, I came across a discussion program featuring Tony Blair, a tough audience of casually dressed Britons, and a fairly aggressive host. Blair was answering questions about legislation that allowed the eviction of “problem families” from certain homes. The questions from the audience were clearly unscripted, and Blairwas forced to answer questions about the program on the fly, including very detailed aspects of execution. The questions were not all friendly, with some of the audience members clearly blaming Blair for details of the program that he could not possibly have been in control of.
The question here isn’t whether Blair is smarter than Bush, although he probably is. I suspect that even Bush could handle SOME hostile questions, given that he has been in politics for a number of years and must have faced such situations. The questions is why Americans tend to expect so much less from their executives in terms of public discourse than Britons seem to expect from theirs. I’m inclined to think that the important difference may lie with the British monarchy; the monarch is a figure of national acclaim who, whether we like him/her or not, ought not to be forced to answer certain kinds of questions in particular contexts. In the American context, there is no such divide. The actual executive and the symbolic executive are the same. Putting the symbolic executive in a potentially embarassing situation with a group of common folk is simply not to be done.
This suggests to me an idea that I hadn’t really thought through before, which is that the monarchy really does serve an important purpose in a democracy. There certainly would be some value, in our current political context, to being able to separate a symbolic figure of leadership and patriotism from an actual figure of leadership. Undermining the argument that opposition to the current government equals opposition to the state is certainly a valuable project.