Cristina Odone on the foreigners' favourite Brit

What does Britain stand for? Even where the red flags fly, it's still the Queen

In Kerala, in southern India, you can still find many traces of the state's communist past. Red flags festoon lorries and vendors' shacks; the hammer and sickle are reproduced above village schools; and some of the houses still bear graffiti about past "comrades" elected to ministerial posts.

How this rich residue of red power would warm my editor's heart, I mused, as I strolled around the villages. Until, that is, I saw a sight that would have deeply offended the republican Peter Wilby: a huge Technicolor photo of the Queen. Nor was this a lone example of royalist sympathies. Photographs of Elizabeth II - flanked either by her family or her corgis, or sitting alone, smiling benevolently over her family's former colony - hung from shelves bearing saris, ayurvedic oils and Camel Lights cigarettes. And when the manager of my hotel saw me standing beside my packed cases early Monday morning, he nodded approvingly: "Of course, you'll be going home for the jubilee . . . wouldn't want to miss it!"

The Queen is big in Kerala. While her subjects rumble about republican options and grumble about royalty grown fat on our taxes, the Windsors continue to appeal abroad. In fact, in the shorthand used by one nationality to refer to another, the Windsors are Britain. Prime ministers and foreign secretaries come and go; the Dome sinks into oblivion; roast beef remains suspect: the symbols of Britain are whittled away by time, EU directives on pasteurisation and Blair's wish to forge a new Britannia.

For those in Britain, this dismantling of their former identity has yet to prove liberating; for those outside, it has proved altogether confusing. Who exactly is an Englishman today? What does Britain stand for? No wonder, then, that for the woman in Cochin or the man in Cologne, the essence of the United Kingdom is that familiar figure with her neat curls and reticent smile, who says nothing out of place and keeps her head while all around her - family, courtiers, politicians - lose theirs. To those for whom Britain is alien, she provides continuity and, through her misbehaving brood, entertainment.

So while the British scoff at this hereditary fantasy, foreigners hold it up as the one British narrative they can still understand. The Peter Wilbys and Jonathan Freedlands may call for her head, but the Queen can rest assured that, in Kerala and elsewhere, the people still think she's great.

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