"Although Jack Straw was hanged," Disraeli once wrote of a notorious English rebel, "a Lord John Straw may become Secretary of State." The point commands the attention of Americans at the time of the royal wedding, for it traces the tie between snobbism and democracy. That tie was the hallmark of British greatness. It is now fraying, which explains a certain decline.

The monarchy stands at the head of British society. Kings and queens, princes and princesses, may be deaf to music, blind to art and indifferent to literature. They may lack elegance in dress, wit in conversation, discrimination in choice of friends and flair in parties and other amusements.

Still, the royal family is the first family in Britain. It is hedged, as the service at St. Paul's Cathedral indicates, by a certain divinity. Its affairs takes precedence, and its favorites enjoy advantages in politics and business. That so much should be conferred by the mree fact of birth asserts the role of the royals. They personify an unequal society, a society dominated by gradations -- of birth, ow wealth and of ability.

The respect accorded to the royal family, in other words, is diffused generally throughout the kingdom. Aristocrats enjoy a piece of it, of course. So do successful men of business, political figures who have made their mark and leaders in the armed forces and the clergy. Even those most remote in spirit from the court -- scientists and artists and intellectuals -- share in the privileges the royals exemplify.

The self-assertion of those privileged orders, in fact, gives to liberty in Britain, indeed to Anglo-Saxon democracy in general, its special flavor. The first barrier against autocracy was built by the barons at Runnymede in Magna Charta. Puritan notables, most of all John Milton, articulated the case for freedom of conscience. The Whig magnates inthe Glorious Revolution of 1688 asserted the right to self-government. The captains of industry, in the Reform Act of 1832, made an indent for the voice of business in the ruling of the realm.

By a process difficult to defina and slow to take effect, but unmistakable and irresistible, the victories achieved by the privileged orders were generalized. Over the centuries, freeborn Englishmen of the lowest social strata acquired what their betters had won. Individual liberty, universal suffrage, political parties and even the welfare state developed from the gains achieved by landowners, and Puritan notables, and captains of industry.

Government by the people, in Britain, accordingly went hand in hand with social inequality. Democracy was united with snobbism. The system of rule that thus evolvedwas distinguished by its stability. The rivalrous ambitions and restive pretensions which queered self-government on the European continent were checked in Britain by the inhibiting force of a social custom that found magnificent expression in Jane Austen and Thackeray and Dickens. Britain, spared the conceit of those obliged to break by main force from positions of inferiority, enjoyed what Sir Lewis Namier called a "democracy of respect."

The "democracy of respect" finds its nemesis in challenge to authority. Britain abandoned its empire when challenged locally, and, as a result, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and South Africa are continuing and well nigh insoluble problems. The demands of the trade unions have exposed the weakness of management and made British industry a walking cripple in world markets. More recently, the disorders of whites and blacks in the poorest centers of major cities have utterly baffled the government of Margaret Thatcher.

Britain, across the board, is clearly on the wane now. The challenge to authority may prove insurmountable. There may not always be an England -- or at least not the one so renowned until the second half of this century. But even if it represents the afterglow of a glorious sunset, the royal wedding teaches a lesson in statecraft. As Bage hot put it in a famous passage of "The English Constitution" more than a hundred years ago:

"No feeling could seem more childish than the enthusiasm of the English at the marriage of the Prince of Wales . . . but no feeling could be more like human nature as it is, and as it is likely to be. . . . A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and, as such, it rivets mankind."