As I was beginning this blog, I read that Jerry Seinfeld had described the royal wedding as a “circus” on British television, setting the interviewer’s teeth on edge. The presenter remarked that he would not have minded a similar comment from a Brit, but it was highly objectionable coming from an American. If many Brits feel the same way why is it worse coming from an American? No doubt in part because an “in house” criticism will be based on an innate understanding of the cultural context. It is certainly true that Americans do not “get” the Queen and the royal family however, there is no reason why they should, as I once explained to a furious colleague.
Years ago an American association was coming to London for their annual members’ meeting. They asked their English counterparts for assistance in organizing the social events and my colleague was responsible for working with the Americans. One day they made a demand that he considered both outrageous and insulting. They wanted him to arrange for the Queen to give a garden party specifically for them. To his dismay my reaction was a gentle smile. Then I said, “Everyone knows there was this minor occurrence in 1776 called the American War of Independence. But they never seem to recognize that there were cultural consequences to the war.” I told him that I understood why the request was inappropriate but only because I have lived in Britain a long time and I have seen a garden party for myself. I have had many opportunities to observe the place of the royal family in Britain. I reminded him that once the Americans won their independence they no longer had a king and their cultural familiarity with royalty has therefore logically (and quite intentionally) disappeared!
Unlike Britain, the United States does not possess officials whose job is almost purely ceremonial. Not only do we not have the Queen, we also do not have ceremonial Lord Mayors and Lord Lieutenants (in the counties) and a host of other ceremonial positions that even most British people are unaware of. Americans look to power. The British Prime Minister had already agreed to receive the American group so it would never occur to them that the person with power would make himself available while the person without power would not. (The palace did indeed flatly refuse.) I liked this colleague very much but I suspect that he regarded Americans as broken Brits. I also wonder if Jerry Seinfeld and others who criticize the wedding and the royal family hold a similar view on British people. Their comments seem to say “Why don’t these people grow up like us!” In other words, why don’t the British abolish monarchy and become a “normal democracy.”
That is an interesting question and if more non Brits tried to answer it seriously they would learn a great deal about British culture and identity. Royalty takes up a fair amount of space in British newspapers. It isn’t just their pictures. The royal family is still paid by the taxpayer for official duties (just as in our history books) with parliament wielding the power of the purse. Every so often the question arises, “How much money should be allocated to the royals?” “What should they do with their lives to justify the expenditure?” But also “What sort of influence are they on society and vice versa?” In an age of greater deference, the number of public engagements per royal family member was not revealed. But today, the newspapers publish the total number of official duties undertaken by each member of the family on the “civil list” as it is known. One of the reasons for the extreme unpopularity of Sarah Ferguson while she was married to Prince Andrew was that she was considered “lazy” undertaking less engagements than anyone else. By contrast Diana worked very hard as a member of the royal family.
The royal family may seem irrelevant to tough issues like unemployment but the institution is too old and too close to the cultural bone here to be dismissed as a “circus.” Social advancement is something that Americans like to think characterizes the United States. In Britain, where not long ago language coaches openly advertised their services to people held back by their accents, social mobility has been achieved by linguistic affirmative action (for example sidelining some media presenters with upper class accents to make room for others) and constant vigilance. This can be compared to actions in the US regarding race equality over the years. Americans’ big divisive issue is race, for the British it is class.
Anti monarchists argue that the royal family sits at the apex of the class society and that without it class distinctions would be drastically reduced or disappear. Yet, Britain has become a fairer, less class bound society – even with the royal family in place. The challenge has been to demonstrate that having a royal family need not be in contradiction to social equality. This is one reason why Kate Middleton is so popular. Americans may see her as a wealthy young woman but to the British she is above all a “commoner” and that is not a term of disparagement, it just means she is not from the nobility and is not of royal blood. Even if she were of noble blood, there is still such a distance between the royal family and almost everyone else she would still be marrying out of her class as the young Lady Diana did. That was another misperception of the American association. Their assumption was that the palace would consider them important. But the Queen and the royals are considered to be in a class of their own. They decide who is important. When I went to one of the Queen’s Garden parties, courtesy of my workplace, the cleaning lady from our building was also there.
However, none of this answers the question, why the royals remain. In my view there are quite a few reasons. First, although they may not be attached to the royal family, people may be attached to their national anthem, the look of their money, oaths of office, legal titles (see my previous blog) royal patents for business as a quality mark, the names of their naval ships and a host of other business, political and traditional indicators that would have to be altered if a monarch were no longer in place. These kinds of changes are difficult enough to make (not to mention expensive) in a revolutionary situation but that is not what the British have. People may not like the royal family but they are not being oppressed by them, so why change so much for so little gain?
Second, Americans and others may see the royal family as a historical phenomenon but the British do not. They see them as an integral part of their culture and central to British national identity (whether they recognize it or not). Many British friends who have worked in the US told me that they realized that they were not as indifferent to the monarchy as they had thought when they discovered the small doings of the royal family relegated to the US entertainment news. Seeing the royal family reported by glossy, big hair Hollywood style reporters who then moved on to movie star scandals caught them off guard and many admitted to being shocked despite themselves. It was the moment they realized that Americans were indeed another culture.
In Britain not only are the royals on the regular news but they are covered by a “royal correspondent” a serious journalist like the “political correspondent.” This daily coverage of the royal family in the news media, and especially in the newspapers is how patriotism is subtly maintained once people have left the school system. We are all socialized to be loyal to our country. Americans achieve this with the oath of allegiance, and official oaths to protect the constitution. We proudly fly our flag and crucially our powerful elected officials take on symbolic roles as well as governing. The President does not just sign bills into law. He leads the nation in celebration and commemoration, always wearing a flag or the national emblem on his lapel. Mayors, governors and other elected officials all cut ribbons as part of their responsibilities. British elected officials may take on ceremonial duties but we rarely see it in the media. The Prime Minister is usually filmed campaigning or in Parliament debating with the opposition. Ceremonies are the job of the royals. Except when he travels, even the Prime Minister is seen primarily as the leader of his party. Nor does Britain have a “first lady” role for the PM’s wife. Wives of Prime Ministers are usually very discreet. There is a good reason for this. Both the Prime Minister and his wife need to be wary of appearing to compete with the royal family lest the British press and public react.
Because they symbolize Britain, most people feel that abolishing the royal family would be like throwing away their identity as a people and it would also take the fun out of patriotism – British style. The British do not have a national day and many of them deplore the “over the top” American way of celebrating patriotism with bands and flags (unless they happen to be in the US in which case they love it!) All of their national celebrations are bound up with the royal family. There is no “4th of July”. British embassies use the monarch’s official birthday in June as the “national day” and in Britain on that day “Trooping the Colour” is the official birthday ceremony where select regiments parade before the Queen. It is a dignified and splendid occasion as each regiment wears magnificent ceremonial uniforms, but it is not the occasion for a national party. There are two events when the country gets decked out to celebrate, really celebrate their nationhood. The first is a coronation, which does not happen too often these days and the second is a major royal wedding. This is when the streets are filled with British flags in the US style. People have parties with their neighbors and as British yards are often small by American standards, the way to get together with the neighbors is a street party. There are several planned in my London neighborhood.
Finally, there is perhaps another reason why the British will keep the royal family as long as possible and Americans only need to look to their northern border to figure it out. The Queen is head of state of a number of countries including Australia and Canada. In polls on the subject most Canadians say they wish to retain the current arrangement and many give as their reason – the United States. Without the royal family connection Canadians are concerned that their national identity could be undermined. It is not easy having such a powerful culture on their border especially when most of the world cannot distinguish between an American and a Canadian speaking English. Although further away and with more cultural differences with Americans, the British sometimes also feel the pressure of American culture. The British film industry summons up on average one film a year so their cinemas are full of US made films and their television screens broadcast every top US show including in its day Seinfeld. No wonder the British can be defensive with Americans about the royals. They may prefer their own dignified reserve to our enthusiasm in matters of celebration but at the same time they do like it when Americans take a positive and sincere interest in their culture.
I love hearing some of the British news presenters clucking disapprovingly about the huge preparations of the American networks for the royal wedding. The message to their compatriots is “There they go again! Americans professing to be proud of their American values but going crazy over royalty as usual!” Very superior, very disparaging and (secretly) very delighted!