This past week William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, arrived in the United States for a quick visit to see the sights and give them an opportunity to do something that is generally frowned upon in Britain: Act like “real” people, albeit with a modicum of decorum. In their home country, they can’t be seen to be having too much “fun” on the taxpayer pence. As in a previous visit in 2011, the took in the colonists’ culture (this time an NBA game), show their concern for the downtrodden (visit a Harlem child development center), and fulfill their function as Head of State will visit President Obama to discuss a suitably innocuous charitable hobby (the illegal wildlife trade).
Being a student of history, I’ve always been fascinated by kings, emperors and such; although the British monarchy hasn’t held real authority since the 19th century—King George III was the “face” of “tyranny” for the American colonists, but he was a man easily led because of his tendency to act before he thought. Since then the British monarchy has become merely an artifact of the “ancien régime.” The ancestors of both the current House of Windsor and its predecessor, Hanover, were originally German principalities, but have in time become “Anglicized.” I find it interesting that not only is there a continuing prejudice against marrying a Roman Catholic, but against marriage to anyone who does not have blue eyes (and white, of course). Hence the just half in jest suggestion by some that British royalty is “inbred.”
Because of this, many people (mainly in Britain itself) who question the relevance of an institution largely of symbolic “importance” being propped-up by the taxpayer dime. During this U.S. visit, protesters outside the Barclay Center where the Bronx Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers were playing agitated against the recent chokehold death of Eric Garner, wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Apparently the protesters were attempting to make some “political” point; one poster pronounced that black lives were more “precious” than that of “inbred” royals. To be frank, I thought the whole thing was a wasted effort and in bad taste, hardly advancing their cause.
Nevertheless, it can be expected that CNN and network morning shows will be all abuzz at the latest news of their every step, because some “romantic” types have nothing better to do but sit in front of their television sets and dream about things that might have been if they been born in world of Harlequin paperback novels. To the rest, it’s “nice” of people who are somehow more elevated than you are to deign to visit us and mingle with the provincial, but at the end of the day, life goes on as it has before. Since the queen herself is unlikely to diminish herself among us with her divine presence, we’ll have to wait for the Pope’s next visit before something like this becomes an “event.”
Much of the disquiet concerning the royal family is about money. Is the expenditures used to prop-up the royal family excessive? Although personal expenses are largely paid from private sources, such as landed estates owned by the royal family, for occupation and upkeep of “publicly” owned royal residences and for its public functions, the queen, her family and her entourage receive a fixed sum from the Sovereign Grant, which in 2011 replaced the Civil List; instead of an itemized list of expenses to be funded, the Grant which came into effect from 1 April 2012 consolidated the funding to oblige them to keep them to a budget. This past fiscal year it is £36.1 million, which is about $57 million, which sounds like lot I suppose, but it is a tiny percentage of the UK government budget. Although that allows the royals to live quite well, some of that money goes to pay for jobs like “Liveried Helper” and “Linen Keeper.”
To justify this expenditure according to the House of Commons grant annual review, “The Sovereign’s role comprises two distinct elements: The role of Head of State, which is a formal constitutional concept, common to all nations, and involves the official duties which The Queen, by constitutional convention, must fulfil. The role of Head of Nation, a much more symbolic role in the life of the Nation, involving duties which are not directed by the constitution but which The Queen carries out where appropriate or necessary. Since the United Kingdom has no codified constitution, the role of Monarchy is defined by convention – a non-legal but nevertheless binding rule.”
• The State Opening of Parliament; • The appointment of the Prime Minister; • The approval of Parliamentary legislation; • The approval of official appointments; • The approval of secondary legislation through the Privy Council; • Representational duties as Head of State – paying and receiving State Visits to and from other Heads of States; • Receiving the credentials of foreign Ambassadors; • Regular confidential Audiences with the Prime Minister.
The Queen is also: • The Fount of Honour, and all honours are awarded in Her name (although, with notable exceptions, most are awarded on the advice of the Government); • Head of the Armed Forces; • Head of the Judiciary; • Head of the Civil Service; • Supreme Governor of the Church of England. In all these roles The Queen provides a sense of continuity, a focus for loyalty and an assurance of political independence and neutrality for these institutions.
HEAD OF NATION The Queen’s role as Head of Nation is as significant as Her role as Head of State, and can be divided into four key elements – identity, continuity, achievement and service. Unity and National Identity The Queen has a significant function as a symbol of national identity, unity and pride. For example, it is as Head of Nation and not as Head of State that The Queen:
• Makes the annual Christmas Broadcast; • Sends messages of congratulation on national achievements; • Sends messages of condolence at times of national tragedy. Continuity and Stability The Monarchy provides an important sense of continuity and stability at a time of rapid social, cultural and technological change. The regular rhythm of the Monarchy provides reassurance to many people. This is helped by: • Annual traditions like the State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Colour, Garter Day, Maundy Service, Holyrood Week, Royal Ascot Week; • Anniversaries marked over the course of The Queen’s reign – Silver Jubilee, Golden Jubilee, Diamond Jubilee, Coronation and family anniversaries to which people can relate - Diamond Wedding Anniversary etc; • The Queen’s impressive personal continuity – has known twelve Prime Ministers and met eleven of the last twelve US Presidents. In this way The Queen and the Monarchy are a stable fixture in many people’s lives.
Wow. I could do some of that stuff lying down. Seumas Milne of the UK Guardian, an admittedly somewhat biased observer, opined that “As a rule, progressive Britain prefers to ignore the monarchy. First, it's embarrassing: 364 years after we first abolished it and long after most of the rest of the world dispensed with such feudal relics, we're still lumbered with one. Second, there are always more important things to confront – from rampant corporate power and escalating inequality to incessant war and the climate crisis.
“And last, the media and political class form such a sycophantic ideological phalanx around the institution that dissent is treated as, at best, weird and miserabilist…Far from uniting the country, the monarchy's role is seen as illegitimate and offensive by millions of its citizens, and entrenches hereditary privilege at the heart of public life. While British governments preach democracy around the world, they preside over an undemocratic system at home with an unelected head of state and an appointed second chamber at the core of it.”
Like most Americans, I just find the British monarchial system just an inoffensive clinging to some past glory time, like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table stuff. The “celebrity” image didn’t really begin until that media creation Princess Diana; when she and Mother Theresa died within a few weeks of each other and under starkly different circumstances, some of us did note the hypocrisy and offensiveness of the relative reaction to their passing on. I find it curious that although many Brits find the royals increasingly “offensive” to their sense of equality and justice, someone as hollow as “Di” who was intoxicated on her own celebrity was the “exception” to the rule.