What is the Role of the Royal Family Today?

In the spirit of tea and crumpets, rather large hats, and a forgetfulness of the letter “H”, the Monarchy is about as British a subject as a foreigner can imagine. In a vision of raised pinkies and delicate china, the British Monarchy persists in the imagination of anglophiles all over the world. To an outsider, it is the pinnacle of British-ness, representative of bygone days of extravagant wealth and for some reason, a much beloved rigid class structure with an emphasis on the power of noble birth. Every boy and girl has at some time dreamed of becoming a prince or princess, of amassing fabulous wealth and embarking on a noble quest to save and defend your country and unite it with a True Love's Kiss. And in today's cynical modern world, the UK is one the last bastions where the dream is alive. That is, only if you're a direct descendant to the throne and your greatest, grandest parents conquered a nation thousands of years before you had any control over the matter. The fact is, today the Monarchy is nothing more than a symbol, but don't let that discount the Queen, a symbol is still a powerful weapon, especially in the hands of a global power such as the UK. The question remains however, a symbol of what? Depending on who you ask, the Monarchy can represent either the best, or the worst of Bristish society. To a lot of people, the Queen is a regal sort of mother, a powerful national figure to unite her people under a single ruler. She is a cultural icon, representative of an historic tradition older than than even most modern countries. To attack the Monarchy would be to spit in the very face of Britain herself. And surely, if Britain did have a face, it would be Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And yet, to others she remains a figure of an outdated and unnecessarily extravagant system. She may be lacking in power, but her vast wealth (acquired by no means other than a lucky birth) and influence raises the eyebrows of her detractors. To them, the idea of any monarchy goes against the fundamental merits of democratic thought, and the idea of having an unelected ruler makes her subjects subservient instead of  willing participants of government. Obviously it is a contentious issue, and especially difficult to discuss from an American perspective. However, surprisingly, it is not an argument that I personally am unfamiliar with. The delusion of democracy in America does not equate to pure freedom like many imagine it does. The ability to choose a ruler does not equate to any control of the rule itself. The saving grace of the system is the term limit, but that still allows for four years relatively uncontrolled rule, influenced only by the level of popularity the president maintains. Typically, that level of popularity has less to do with his rule or policies, and more to do with the desire to have a beer with him. So in that regard, from an American perspective, there are a lot of benefits to the Monarchy that may not be as noticeable from a purely analytical aspect. To truly understand the role of the Royal Family today, it requires both a historical breakdown of its right and purpose, as well a modern day comparison to other governments as a measure of efficiency and necessity.

            The first question to ask when approaching the subject of the Royal Family seems to be “Why them?” Why does Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of House Windsor deserve to live in a palace, have fabulous wealth, and have direct influence over government? Who is she and what are her qualifications for the job? Well, the Windsor family is really just the renamed Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family. They changed their names during WWI to sound less like the enemy (Even though Kaiser Wilhelm was a grandchild of Queen Victoria and first cousin to George V). But then the question is, who are they? It starts with Ernest the 1st, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. His younger brother Leopold became King of the Belgians, while his second son, Albert, married Queen Victoria, and became the beloved Prince Albert. Queen Elizabeth II and her family all descend from that line, taking their name from Prince Albert, and their claim from Queen Victoria. Now, everything seems to make sense considering that our present Royal Family can claim lineage from Queen Victoria, but everything just opens up again when you go back and ask the same questions again. Who is Queen Victoria? Victoria is the daughter of the fourth son of George III (who was so famously challenged in the Declaration of Independence) and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. She and the Georges above her belong to the Hanover dynasty, where things get really interesting. As a result of growing anti-Catholic sentiment (established initially by Henry VII of the Tudor dynasty and the growing conflict that ensued), James II lost the throne to William of Orange. But when William died without issue, the throne was returned to James's protestant daughter Anne. When Anne was dying, the threat of a roman catholic dynasty re-emerged, with all of the strongest claimants to the throne being devoutly Catholic. This situation was remedied with the passing of 1701 Act of Settlement, rendering any Catholics or spouses to Catholics legally unable to contend for the throne. As a German descendant of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, George of Hanover (later George I), was the strongest, protestant claimant to the throne and soon established a dynasty of his own, despite being 52nd in line for the throne. So even Queen Victoria's line to the throne is flimsy at best, despite the huge technological advances made during her reign. What's the point of all of this genealogical backtracking? Essentially, it's to establish that the throne is completely arbitrary. Any legal right/claim doesn't really matter when the monarch can create the law. So with the historical background established, the question becomes about right. What right does Queen Elizabeth II claim to deserve her wealth and power?

            To start, let's look at her fully styled title: "Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”. There's a lot of significance hidden in those words. Specifically, “by the Grace of God”. Even though it's just basically a hollow title, it establishes that the Queen's right to rule is a Divine Right. While I'm sure no one really takes that very seriously, it's still a dangerous legal precedent. It brings up the obvious question: By the Grace of what God, exactly? In a country where almost 60% of people consider themselves Christian, 25% have no religion, and 5% consider themselves Muslim, claiming any sort of divine right is going to bring up some sort of religious issue. Especially in looking at the 60% of Christians, how many of those Christians are Catholics? Is it by the Grace of God that Catholics are forbidden to sit the throne? Can a Queen appointed by the Grace of God hold sway over a country in which over a quarter of the population don't even believe in any God? This is where the idea of “right” falls apart. Really, there is no right. There's no real technical claim to rule the country. The only right to rule is the right of happenstance. Hopefully your parents married into the right family, or maybe you belong to the correct religion, or maybe you're so frustrated you behead the King and set up your own republic.

As much as the Monarchy would love to be seen as a line of descent, a smooth connection to Our Most Noble Ancestors, it is anything but that. The Monarchy is a patchwork of power, not a line, muddied by marriages and incest and usurpation. Some of England's most beloved Kings and Queens are really German relatives of Kaiser Wilhelm. The Windsors are the Saxe-Coburgs, the Tudors are Lancasters, the Yorks are Plantagents. William the Conqueror was French, Cnut was Danish, Alfred the Great and Offa both fought with the truly native Britons in Wessex and Northumbria. [5]None of it makes sense, none of it is aligned neatly.  If you break down the history of the Monarchy there is very clearly nothing direct or divine about it at all. Kingship arose because power was claimed by those who seized it, and over the thousands of years, that idea has been lost amongst seas of varying lineage and nepotism. Like nations and their borders, kingship is objectively arbitrary.

            Now, this would be a bigger issue if England still lacked elected representatives. Nowadays, the arbitrary nature of kingship (while true), means a lot less now that the Monarchy has lost most of its power. Despite its current issues both in the UK and in America, the democratic system of government is far less arbitrary. The claim to power in that system, is that the officials were wanted, which is pretty hard to argue. The “right” to rule is placed in the hands of the citizens, not in God's or a foreign marriage contract. Barrack Obama and David Cameron are rulers by Grace of The People, which is exactly where the power should lie. But don't let that discredit the Royal Family, what they lack in Political Power they make up for in Cultural Power. And this is really important, even if it may not seem so. The most effective aspect of Britain's political system is the division between government and the Head of State. Her Majesty has been the head of state since before most of the population was even born. Everyone has grown up with her, they like her. And what's not to like? She's great. That, to an American, seems really weird. Mostly because we're not used to liking our head of state.

The downside to the democratic system and majority rule is that 49% of the country loses. Regardless of the issue, America is consistently a nation culturally divided supporting two different possible heads of state. And the result of intense elections filled with negative rhetoric and mudslinging is that we end with a head of state who 49% of the country can't stand. Our primary governor is also the face of our nation, and in having our face change every four or eight years, we can become much more fractured as a nation. For example, look at George Bush. For eight years he was the face of our nation abroad, he essentially WAS America. And so to the outside world, this became America. Take for example the old “Bushisms” of the 43rd President. A “Bushism” was a term coined just for George Bush regarding his consistent failure in using colloquial terminology or proper grammar. Famously he asks “Rarely is the question asked, Is our children learning?” On the other side we have this collection of “Obama's most ghetto moments”, which, if you watch, you'll see is not “ghetto” at all. What is present though, is a constant attempt to disrespect our Head of State and central Face of America. Taking note of every “dumb” thing George Bush does really just serves to make America look dumb. The same goes for Obama. Having a culturally approved Head of State  serves to protect against the diviseness of democratic politics. You may think David Cameron is a bit of an ass, but no one would ever want to disrespect Her Majesty. Meanwhile, if you Google any American politician (Bush, Obama, Romney) and “Hitler”, you'll access tons of images comparing every possible American politician to Hitler. That is the worst aspect of American politics, when each side dedicates its campaign to making the other look worse than them, everyone just comes out looking bad. It's a question of who's the best, it's a question of who's the least worse.

What the Royal Family provides is unity. Simply put, everybody loves them. They're a face of the country that everyone can get behind, regardless of their politics.  While the Conservative and Labour party battle it out in Parliament, everyone stands behind Her Majesty. Even the Scottish nationalists wanted to keep their beloved Queen, with Alex Salmond saying that the queen would be proud to rule over an independent Scotland.  The Royal Family exists above the petty politics of the democratic system. They prevent a solid, unified face for the United Kingdom and the Common Wealth. The Royal Family ties the Commonwealth together, even Canada and Australia love Her Majesty. They exist in a fantastic realm in our imagination of princes and princesses wealthy beyond our wildest dreams. They're a callback to bygone days and a respite from the modern cynicism of today's cruelly honest world. And when we watch them get married or have a baby, for just a moment, an entire nation forgoes its sorrows in the united belief that they are one people, under one Queen. And even though the family might cost a lot of money, and has no real right to rule, damn it, people just like them. That's all that's really necessary.