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On February 6, 1952, the sudden death of King George VI brought a young woman of 25 to the throne of Great Britain. She has now reigned for 60 years, longer than any other British monarch except her great great grandmother Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63½ years. At 85, Elizabeth II is the oldest person to have ever sat on the British throne and she has been served by no fewer than 12 prime ministers, while 12 men have occupied the White House in that time. Few people alive today remember any other British sovereign.
The British monarchy is a remarkable relic, one of the oldest institutions in the Western world. And, unlike most other surviving monarchies, it still reigns in considerable splendor.
While the British Empire is a distant memory, the Queen still reigns in no fewer than 16 countries and, as head of the Commonwealth, is connected to dozens more. She lives in three palaces (Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh). The five other palaces are museums (Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London), the Houses of Parliament (Westminster Palace), and housing for other members of the royal family (St. James’s Palace and Kensington Palace). In addition, the Queen maintains two private residences (Balmoral in Scotland and Sandringham in Norfolk).
The royal art collection, were it in a museum, would be among the greatest museums in the world. The Queen’s personal collection of jewelry (separate from the crown jewels) has no equal.
Elizabeth II has now reigned for 60 years, longer than any other British monarch except her great great grandmother Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63½ years.
And while the Queen has little day-to-day political power, by her coronation oath, she is the ultimate guarantor of the British Constitution. She has, in Walter Bagehot’s famous formulation, “three rights: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.” She meets regularly with her prime minister and, while these conversations are strictly between the two of them, she is believed to have considerable influence.
How does a democratic country such as Britain justify something that seems so undemocratic as vesting in one family the highest office of state? The answer, I think, lies in the fact that, simply, it works. It also brings Britain several advantages that are certainly worth preserving.
Every country needs a head of state, or at least every country has one. Most democratic countries today follow one of two models: the American or the British. In the former, the office of head of state is combined with the office of head of government, and that office, both powerful and ceremonial, is filled by election. The person elected serves for only a limited time before needing a fresh mandate or meeting term limits.
In the British system the two offices are separated, with the head of government—a prime minister—selected by parliament. If the country is a republic, parliament selects the head of state as well, usually a nonentity at the end of his or her political career. (Quick: who’s the president of Germany? I don’t know either.)
The royal art collection, were it in a museum, would be among the greatest museums in the world.
But if the country is a monarchy, the head of state is known throughout the world and commands wide attention just by virtue of being royal. There is a deep, atavistic interest in royalty in the human race. Just consider the number—well above a billion—who watched the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton last year on television, many having to rise at ridiculous hours in order to do so.
When the Queen visited California in 1983, the weather was terrible. But a million people waited in the driving rain in order to watch as a car carrying her drove by. How many would have gotten drenched to see a car carrying what’s-his-name, the president of Germany? How many fathers call their young daughters “princess”? Every charity official knows that the presence of royalty at an event—even relatively minor royalty, such as Princess Michael of Kent or the Duke of Gloucester—will guarantee that event’s success.
Intellectuals tend to snobbishly decry this human love for royalty, but the British would be crazy not to exploit their unique national asset. Royalty cannot be created, after all, at least not in modern times. The most recent royal dynasty to be established in Europe is that of the King of the Belgians, founded in 1831. Queen Elizabeth II carries the royal blood of a thousand years in her veins; her ancestors’ accessions and deaths mark the eras of British history. She is the living symbol of what Britain is and has been since the time of Alfred the Great. The ordinary people, if not the intellectuals, understand that.
Some people decry the expenses of royalty, which in Britain run about $60 million a year—one dollar for each inhabitant of that “Sceptered Isle.” But how much of that cost would disappear if the monarchy were abolished? In fact, virtually none, for most of the expenses are for maintaining the palaces and collections, and those expenses would go on regardless. Would Windsor Castle cost any less if it were wholly a museum and not also a royal residence?
How does a democratic country such as Britain justify something that seems so undemocratic as vesting in one family the highest office of state?
And the economic benefits of British royalty are considerable. The tourist dollars generated by royalty, and aspects of it, more than cover the expenses. Want to see the crown jewels in their vault at the Tower of London? You have to stand in a very long line for a very short glimpse. Would the changing of the guard and trooping the colors ceremonies—which draw tens of thousands of tourists to London—continue if the occupant of Buckingham Palace was a president of the United Republics of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? I doubt it. Even if they did, they would be empty of meaning, a mere pageant with a void in the center.
Cecil Woodham-Smith, in her great biography of the young Queen Victoria, wrote that, “The British nation prefers to have a sovereign at the head of the state; indeed, the devotion of the British nation to the monarchical system has been the envy of European rulers. But—the British sovereign must abide by the laws and limitations imposed by British customs and reign as a constitutional monarch.”
Queen Elizabeth II has certainly done that. And the British people—her people—will demonstrate their gratitude in this year of her Diamond Jubilee. And meanwhile the loyal citizens of the Great Republic will look on at the doings in their Mother Country with a mixture of respect, bemusement, and, perhaps, just a touch of envy.
John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.
Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group
Intellectuals tend to snobbishly decry any love for royalty, but the British would be crazy not to exploit their unique national asset.
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