Years ago, Britain’s King George VI – now immortalized in an award-winning movie for mastering his nervous stammer – was on a royal visit to South Africa with his family. The royal railway carriage, with its widescreen windows for better viewing, was parked for the night.
By accident, the accompanying railway car carrying the press drew alongside it. To the amazement and delight of reporters, they beheld the king reenacting for his wife and daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the Zulu war dance he had witnessed earlier in the day.
It was a rare and delicious lapse of regal decorum, the images of which served only to enhance the popularity of the king with his public. He had already endeared himself to the British people by steadfastly refusing to leave Buckingham Palace during World War II, remaining in London and sharing the dangers of the German bombing.
Princess Elizabeth succeeded her father as queen upon his death and remains a poised and dignified monarch, as close to British hearts as was her father.
The behavior of some of the new generation of British royals has clearly caused the queen and British public some angst. As John Burns put it in The New York Times, there have been serial divorces, sundry indiscretions (including the publication of the “Camilla-gate” phone call of Prince Charles to his then-lover), and revelations of dubious financial deals involving Charles’s younger brother Andrew.
Whether the British and American and other foreign audiences were as entranced as the breathless TV anchors with every tassel, sequin, and button in the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton seems questionable to me. But it nevertheless brought uplifting color and spectacular pageantry to the fore at a time when the world is beset by problems and strife.
It is hard not to cheer when the bands play; when the regiment of guards strides down the Mall in their scarlet tunics and bearskin helmets; when the jingling household cavalry, their silver breastplates glinting in the sun, ride escort to the magnificent carriages en route to Buckingham Palace. The British may be reeling under budget cuts, but they do know how to put on a smashing parade that makes your feet tap and your flesh tingle.
The reality, of course, is that the British monarchy is rather a rarity in today’s world, where kings and queens are on the wane. Many have been abolished or deposed, and only some 40 nations now have monarchs as heads of state. Many of them are British Commonwealth nations that recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. The rest are Arab, Asian, or African countries, although the Scandinavian nations still have royal families of splendid democratic instincts. (I am told the Danes sometimes see their royal personages bicycling around their capital.)
There is not much of a groundswell in Britain to rid the country of the royals, although the shenanigans of some of the younger ones have been frowned upon.
There have been mutterings that Prince Charles, who forsook the much-loved Diana for Camilla and is next in line to succeed his mother on the throne, should maybe take a pass. Then Prince William, next in line after his father, could overleap him and succeed to the throne when his grandmother passes on.
Here to stay
But all this is mere speculation and indications are that Britain’s royals are – for now – here to stay. Their role is largely symbolic and they have little political heft. But what they attract in foreign tourist money alone is significant. It is difficult to imagine London without Buckingham Palace, Trooping the Colours, the uniformed sentries, and all the pageantry that attends the royal family.
Prince William and his bride, Kate, are without much of the baggage that attends some other members of the reigning court. Perhaps they may add luster to a crown that has become a little tarnished.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.