How long can the British monarchy possibly go on? The question becomes a little more acute with the bombshell interview this week by the rogue royals of Sussex, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
The biracial American ex-actress essentially accused members of the Royal Family of racism (in fussing about the potential darkness of her unborn child) and psychological abuse (in driving her to suicidal thoughts). She and Harry came out reasonably well from the encounter with Oprah Winfrey, but launched accusations that are toxic in the progressive modern world.
That applies in Britain, where despite the nativist Brexit tantrum the younger generations are as multicultural and as sensitive to feelings as their cohort in the US. One wonders what would happen if the Royal Family became dreadfully unpopular. Would Britain forever continue its unconventional arrangement with the House of Windsor (and Mountbatten)?
Other countries have monarchies, but these tend to be either hereditary dictatorships, as in parts of the Arab world, or irrelevancies, as in corners of Europe. Rare is the monarchy with the opacity and artifice that one finds in Britain.
It is easy to dismiss as a harmless relic of the past left in place to soothe sentimentalists and attract foreign tourists to the Changing of the Guards. But there is more than this going on.
To begin with, the family is very rich indeed, with the Queen’s net worth estimated at close to half a billion dollars and the taxpayer forking over many millions annually through various arrangements that seem like either a budget or a stipend, depending on where one stands.
And while the monarch is supposed to “reign, not rule,” forays into politics are built into the system in systematic and beguiling ways. The Queen appoints prime ministers, and would appear to have some leeway in cases of unclear election results. The resulting government is then known as “Her Majesty’s Government.”
The annual Queen’s Speech before parliament is delivered by the monarch amid language that suggests a presentation of one’s own plan; yet it is written by ministers, rendering the Queen something of a puppet. Or is she? Is she forbidden from going rogue? Yes, but no, but sort of. It is the strict obeyance of tradition that makes this oddness be OK.
The Queen then holds weekly audiences with the prime minister (though some have been held by phone). Why? Not clear. The Palace advises that “though the Queen remains politically neutral on all matters, she is able to ‘advise and warn’ her ministers — including her prime minister — when necessary.” To what avail? Must the PM listen?
It’s not entirely clear what would happen in case of an outrageous enough scenario. In theory, the Queen can actually do a great many things, including appointing ministers, declaring war, and dissolving parliament. It’s just that she… never would. Or at least not until British Nazis rose to power and tried to burn down the Houses of Parliament. Or something.
Some welcome a nebulous buffer between the grasping politicians produced by fickle public opinion and the fate of the nation. But does such lack of clarity — and any hereditary authority — befit a modern state? The question seems far off today, but it may gain steam after a few more interviews like the one with Meghan and Harry. (Also, if the economy tanks, the pound collapses and the Scots secede in their fury over Brexit.)
The Queen has stumbled on occasion in the past. As watchers of the “The Crown” know, she was accused of stuffy aloofness in the 1950s and caused angst by failing to quickly visit the site of a Wales mining disaster that killed scores of children in the 1960s. Anyone alive in the 1990s will recall her subpar performance upon the death of Princess Diana.
Yet by and large, the Queen has remained popular. And the family, while occasionally ridiculous, has considerable sympathy. That is, I think, what ultimately makes the arrangement plausible.
She was lucky to ascend just after the British Empire fell apart in the mid-20th century, with Britain losing its assets from South Asia to the Middle East to the West Indies in dizzying succession. Traumatized nostalgists hold on to the Commonwealth, an association of former colonies that is symbolically led by the Queen and is largely fictitious except for a shared love of cricket.
She also benefits from Britain’s desire to be special. Not for Britain the dreary bureaucratic egalitarianism of the European Union, where Luxemburg and Latvia enjoy the same veto power as a former empire upon which the sun was never to set. While elitism can be distasteful, this one gets a pass from me. Who can begrudge the lot that gave us Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, the Beatles and Pink Floyd, Monty Python and Alfred Hitchcock? We all speak English, after all! Grant them their dainty, quainty ways.
I was invited to Buckingham Palace about 15 years ago, along with other Americans living in London. It was a whimsical affair in just the right fashion. For example, I discovered that one of the guests was invited in error due to an acronym mishap; it turns out not every SEC is the Securities Exchange Commission.
Famous actors and cynical business types quivered in giddiness awaiting Her Majesty the Queen. I sought counsel. The “Master of the House” advised me there was no need to curtsy or make other maneuvers (“She’s not your sovereign”) and offered other frank and fine advice.
“I understand it’s OK to embroil you in actual conversation,” I told Elizabeth II when my moment in line had arrived. “Of course, why not,” she replied. But I had not actually prepared. “Nice house you got,” I offered. “Thank you very much,” she said. The Queen was the very picture of royal grace, and I began to suspect she had met philistines before.
I was quite pleased with the performance on the whole, and swiftly took my leave. After several glasses of champagne, I was confronted by a gentleman who seemed not amused with me at all. “Duke!” I said to the Duke of Edinburgh, which I now realize was the wrong form of address. He winced, appearing to moreover have misheard me saying “dude.”
“I’m glad you’ve come to me, because I totally forgot to shake your hand back there in line,” I continued, perhaps inartfully. “That’s because you walked right past me, isn’t it?” Prince Philip shot back, with a hint of bitterness I felt was unbecoming in a duke. I offered my hand, but he turned around, crossed his arms, stood his ground and left me hanging for long seconds. Something of a diplomatic incident, as I recall it.
Nonetheless, I had a blast, and so did everyone, I do believe. There is charm in the silliness of it all. And in a world as berserk as ours is at the moment, that is good enough for me. It is sad to hear Meghan and Harry, and some apologies appear to be in order. But despite it all, God Save The Queen!
And also, if at all possible, the ailing, 99-year-old “Dude” of Edinburgh.