The BBC's apology to the queen – over a private conversation regarding Abu Hamza – says much about how monarchies survive and adapt.
Britain's monarchy raises the question of royal oversight
In a world where anyone can vent their opinions many times a day, one woman in public life stands out for expressing an opinion so rarely that when she does, it stops the news cycle in its tracks. She is the queen of England. So careful is Queen Elizabeth of what she says that, by my count, the world gets to hear her opinions about once or twice a decade.
In 2008 she asked an eminent professor at the London School of Economics why economists had failed to predict the most serious financial crisis in recent history. It was a delicious inversion of the fairy tale of the emperor with no clothes: a well-attired monarch laying bare the pretensions of a profession that had wildly oversold its skills.
The economists came up with a less than adequate response to her disarmingly simple question some time later: "A failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole."
This week the British people heard of another, no less resonant, question from the queen. Why had it taken so long for the British government to arrest the Egyptian-born preacher, Abu Hamza Al Masri? This is the hook-handed veteran of Afghanistan who preached jihad at the Finsbury Park mosque in London, inviting young men to swear allegiance to Osama bin Laden and facilitating trips for weapons training.
Abu Hamza became a tabloid favourite, a cartoon Islamist denouncing his adopted country and calling for vengeance against the infidel. British Muslims were appalled that this loudmouth came to represent Islam, and appealed for the police to reclaim the mini-Afghanistan he had carved out in north London.
The queen's views emerged this week during an unscripted radio segment by the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, who revealed that the queen was "pretty upset" that there was no way to arrest Abu Hamza. Surely he had broken some law? Asked how he knew this, Gardner blurted out, "She told me."
The source was unimpeachable, and therefore journalistic gold. Unfortunately for Gardner, the convention in Britain is that all conversations with the monarch are confidential. The BBC issued a grovelling apology for breaking this rule, and Gardner penned a private note to say sorry.
Foreigners will wonder what all the fuss is about. It was a good scoop, but a very ancient one.
Abu Hamza was detained in 2004 following a warrant from the US to extradite him on terrorism charges, including trying to set up a training camp in Oregon and sending young men to Yemen to kidnap tourists. While awaiting extradition he was convicted by a British court on 11 counts, including soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred. He has served his term for those offences, and is now likely, after an exhaustive appeal process, to be heading for the US for trial on the more serious charges.
The simple answer is that Abu Hamza served a useful purpose as a "honeypot" to attract jihadists from around the world to where they could be monitored. After the Al Qaeda bombings of New York and Washington in 2001, the British security service MI5 had to redirect its efforts to the world of jihad, where it was relatively inexperienced. It made sense to let Abu Hamza raise his flag in Finsbury Park and see who came to salute it.
This is an old tactic of the security services, and the only difference is that it all happened in the open air, amid angry headlines and anxious questioning by British Muslims about whose agenda Abu Hamza was serving.
It may have prevented some terrorist attacks. Certainly, security chiefs thought Abu Hamza too much of a buffoon to be a real threat. They were tolerant of him because they mistakenly believed that no British Muslim would wage war on his own country, until the London attacks of July 7, 2005 proved them wrong.
Reaction to the queen's comments has been divided. The popular press has praised her for asking the questions that the establishment brushed aside for reasons (according to the press) of political correctness. On the left there have been complaints of the queen "meddling" in politics, but this is overblown. The queen meets "her" prime minister every Tuesday to discuss politics and offer the benefit of 60 years experience. She clearly has her own views.
But the survival of the British monarchy in the modern era rests on it being kept out of the public domain. If the monarch is ever seen to meddle in politics, the magic would evaporate and the monarchy would be at risk. And that requires her to be supremely cautious about who she shares her thoughts with, including BBC reporters.
Do these constitutional arcana matter to anyone outside Britain? How monarchies survive and adapt is a live issue, even more so since the Arab revolutions toppled the leaders of three republics, and perhaps a fourth soon, but have so far spared the monarchies.
There are many reasons for the longevity of the monarchies, but one must be their suppleness that allows them to bend with the times without fracturing.
In the UK case it requires the monarch to be gagged and for the whole establishment (including the generally cut-throat media) to join in the pretence - ably upheld by the queen for 60 years - that she has no opinions on matters of public interest. This is a indeed bizarre state of affairs, but somehow it works.
There are several fake Twitter accounts claiming to be the queen's uncensored thoughts. Prime Minister David Cameron is about to open a personal Twitter account, which will be more personal, more politically charged and edgy than his official one. The queen, we can be sure, will not follow his example.
On Twitter: @aphilps