When British Prime Minister David Cameron told his cabinet colleagues the happy news of Prince William's engagement this week, the Queen's ministers cheered and thumped the table to signify their joy. Many Britons were equally delighted that the prince and his bride-to-be, Kate Middleton, had finally sealed the deal -- evidenced in the acres of newsprint and fawning television coverage. To be sure, the hype has bored many others witless. Some sophisticates even wrote off the matter as "two people who met at university announced their engagement." But it's hard not to miss the point, if banal, that it is important that the heirs to the throne, as Prince William is, marry and produce heirs of their own.
The coming months will see no end to the fawning or resentment, depending on whom you ask here in London. Yet as superfluous as it may all seem to the outside world, moments such as this are an apt reminder that even in the modern world monarchy does in fact serve a purpose. In Britain, the royal family has usefully freed prime ministers from simultaneously filling the monotonous diplomatic role of head of state. In the United States, where the president still fills that post, some paring down is in order.
So I offer a modest proposal -- albeit to a country whose very founding was prefaced by disgust with a king. America needs a royal family: Britain's.
such a suggestion will seem absurd at first. Britain itself is questioning the
cost of the monarchy in these straitened times of austerity. Questions have turned
to the scale of the wedding. Could it really cost as much as $50 million?
Wouldn't that be "irresponsible" at a time when the government is
pushing a program of severe public-spending cuts through Parliament? Is it
really necessary to make William and Kate's wedding day a public holiday?
Penny-pinching, however, is a poor excuse for a revolution. Republicans who would abolish the throne will be sorely disappointed if they think that the excesses of flummery and plumage that accompany such royal occasions will leave Britons cold. In 2002, the media predicted that the celebrations to mark Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee would be a flop. Cynicism and apathy were expected to win the day. Modern, democratic Britain had no time for antiquated pomp and circumstance, they predicted.
Yet then, and again today, republicanism is always on the verge of a breakthrough that never quite comes. The jubilee was a triumph and a surprisingly moving one at that. More than 1 million people gathered in central London to celebrate the Queen's 50 years on the throne. Even the Guardian newspaper, which favors an elected head of state, was compelled to admit that the jubilee's success had given republicans "food for thought." It was as if the words of 19th-century constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot had been written yesterday: The monarchy was, he wrote, "the dignified part of the constitution," an institution that "excites and preserves the reverence of the population." Few Britons today might put it quite like that, but the royal family remains more revered than might be thought probable.
Of course, there have been dark moments. Charles and Diana's doomed marriage and the royal reaction to the princess's death tarnished the monarchy's brand. But the Windsors have since been rehabilitated. After a difficult spell, the royal household has proved adept at adapting to the realities of tabloid Britain. They have absorbed Lampedusa's aphorism that "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." (As a reminder, the Queen joined Facebook last week.)
Some of this is doubtless due to Queen Elizabeth's sterling service. In 2012, she will celebrate 60 gaffe-free years on the throne. Prince Charles -- and his habit of pronouncing on political matters -- may infuriate some. But even those who despise the class-ridden trappings of monarchy admit that his mother has done the "job" almost faultlessly. So much so, in fact, that except for the subject of horse-racing, almost no one knows what the Queen actually thinks about anything. The signs are that William -- remarkably well-adjusted considering his parents' trial-by-tabloid marriage -- is cut from his grandmother's cloth. Few think he will embarrass the institution.