GELFAND’S WORLD--To give you an idea of how uninterested I am in the British royal family, I had to look up how to spell Meghan Markle’s name, and, in addition, make sure that her husband is, indeed, Prince Harry.
It turns out that they are also referred to as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. I find it incredibly humorous that in some press accounts, they are being referred to as “the Sussexes.” Pedants on this side of the Atlantic may point out that Harry’s family name is Windsor, but apparently when it comes to the royals, the rules can be bent. In this case, it is a way to distinguish Harry and Meg from the other boring family members including Harry’s brother who is Bill, or possibly William.
But there are a couple of points to be made here. One, surprisingly, is a long-overdue review of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, something I have been intending to do for the past year. One conclusion from that book ties in with the royal mutiny.
So here’s the first part. When I was growing up, one member of my family was a real anglophile, mostly because the Royal Air Force had been so heroic in fighting off Hitler. On the family book shelves, there was a bound copy of the whole set of Churchill’s HOTESP, as this was back before there were Kindles or iphones. I recently got a Kindle and downloaded the entire set of 4 books for a pittance. Then I read through the entire set.
So here’s what I think about the history. Churchill’s opus is basically a Cliff’s Notes summary of the more comprehensive and detailed histories. As a sort of extended encyclopedia article, it is pretty good. As interesting reading, not so good. Barbara Tuchman it isn’t. Put it this way – a couple of years ago I found an inexpensive copy of Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and I read it through once again, from start to finish, (nearly 600 pages) after having read it the first time maybe a quarter of a century earlier. It’s that good. I will concede that unlike Tuchman, Churchill had been busy with other issues before he finished up on the History. On the other hand, if you would like a single comprehensive listing of everything Britannic for the past 2000 years or so, this makes for decent bedtime reading.
But like Tuchman figured out while writing The Guns of August, there was an underlying lesson in Churchill’s history – something that he couldn’t quite figure out how to voice. In Tuchman’s case, the lesson was the failure of the generals prior to and during the First World War. In Churchill’s case, the lesson to be taken from hundreds of years of turmoil was the danger of having a hereditary monarchy.
It’s a curious conclusion to draw about Churchill’s views, because he had been the leader of a parliamentary system in one of the earliest countries to enact a democratic system, yet in the History, he comes across as strongly pro-monarch, if only a little less pro-monarchy.
But reading through the History, the facts become plain. It wasn’t just that the grandson of a decent ruler could be inept, corrupt, or both. It was also that the question of who succeeded to the throne could be a topic of concern for the surrounding countries, and their attempts at meddling could lead to continental wars. It was, in a way, a little like our modern day concerns about Russia trying to bend our own electoral outcomes, but with longer lasting consequences. For one pertinent example, read about the war of the Spanish succession. There really was such a thing, and it had to do with who got to be the next king of Spain.
The conclusion that much of the world reached, particularly following WWI, was that hereditary rule was a danger, particularly if you were of the social level that got drafted into an army. What one pundit noticed several decades ago is that modern democracies don’t often fight each other. Compare today’s relative peace in western Europe with the situation from 1300 through 1945.
So here we are, viewing a largely concocted crisis among what are referred to as “The Royals” over there. Now, just for the moment, imagine that we were still in an era of hereditary monarchy, that the heir to the British throne was, by accident of birth, Prince Andrew instead of Prince Charles. It would substitute irresponsibility for mediocrity and, I would remind you, the U.S. has the ability to substitute somebody else for Trump when his 4 years is up.
But the British do not live in a time of a real monarchy, and that’s the dirty little secret that isn’t much of a secret, but is the threat to the Queen and the other princes that the Meghan-and-Harry mutiny means. The Windsors engage in pomp and public service, to the extent that figureheads can do that sort of thing. The princes have been taking over a lot of what the Queen has been doing, whether it is touring commonwealth countries, cutting the ribbon to signify the opening of a new factory, or visiting a home for orphans.
This is not the sort of life that Henry V led, or even George III. In those days, kings were kings, even if they were drooling on their own shoes. In England, kings could dissolve the parliament at will. It’s true that once in a while, a caretaker would have to take over the actual activities of royal rule, but this was within a system that accepted monarchy and merely awaited the next ruler, hoping that chance and providence would yield up a better match to the needs of the people.
No longer. The British Isles and the countries of western Europe – not to mention all of us ex-colonies – live as republics with democratically elected rulers. The royal family serves at a level approximated by what president’s wives do in this country. The difference is that we change presidents. In the UK, the citizens can change the prime minister. But out of tradition, respect for an ancient institution, and nowadays as a way of generating tourist income, there still is a royal family. I suspect that even the British like to watch all those royal parades at least once in their lives. You know, “I attended Queen Elizabeth’s coronation when I was a youth.” For the younger generation, it’s one of the recent royal weddings.
And this is where Meghan and Harry come in.
The British royal family is, apparently, under all sorts of rules as to how to dress, how to hold a tea cup, and so forth. The idea that you could just buy a plane ticket and go on vacation is out of bounds, and the idea that you would engage in an outside career is also pretty much unacceptable. Thus the royal family is stuck in a ceremonial role that seems to have become very much the straight jacket for any normal person. Consider for example an American who has been used to dealing with the stress of finding acting jobs while simultaneously dealing with covert racism and – to be clear here – driving a car by herself, being able to walk into the coffee shop and sit quietly in the corner while nursing a brew, and driving down to Laguna for an afternoon if she wanted.
It must be suffocating for somebody who has been used to real life. Yes, you get food and clothing and medical care, but there is a dress code that makes a military academy career seem like freedom.
The princes have been raised in this asylum so they actually don’t know any better. You have Charles, well into middle age and approaching late middle age, and still waiting. You have Diana’s children, also raised in those confines. Even Duchess Kate grew up in a culture which accepts the monarchy as an ongoing institution. But imagine what it must be like for an American – a southern Californian at that – being confined behind the walls of one of the palaces or manor houses and only able to travel around under security protection and the watchful eyes of the tabloid press.
And there is the vicious opportunism (and racism) of the British tabloid press, going along with a substantial bit of racism that is an element of English culture. Those who understand the system and have been watching Meghan’s treatment (and that of her child) have been pointed in describing the open racism of the tabloids and even of many of the people. How nice it would be to live on Vancouver Island at least part of the year, and even have a chance to visit Toronto once in a while.
Will Meghan and Harry also be spending some of their time here in Los Angeles? We won’t know for a while.
But what’s ultimately amusing is the idea – so frivolous to the American sensibility – that the royal family could order this couple around. Apparently, the older generations can limit the money that Harry can take from the royal accounts, but they can’t cut off his head like former monarchs could. And this fact, above all, turns this whole story into a joke.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)