The political uses of monarchy

by niamh on May 4, 2011

The recent British royal wedding left me wondering what it was all about. One million people were said to have gathered on the streets of London for the occasion, and media coverage is estimated to have reached some two billion worldwide. Normally I’d be happy with a bemused shrug: ‘has the whole world gone mad?’ (Especially when I realized the staff in my local optician’s in Dublin had come to work dressed as if going to a wedding, to watch the proceedings live online). But massive state-sponsored pageantry can’t be brushed aside so easily, and the impending state visit by Queen Elizabeth to Ireland prompts me to pay it some attention.

It seems to me that we might take four possible views, not all of which are entirely independent of one another. The monarchy and all it entails could be seen as a matter of abstract constitutionalism; as an offshoot of modern celebrity culture; as a focus of political legitimation within Britain; as an immediately recognizable global brand.

The constitutionalist view was nicely expressed by Simon Jenkins: the monarchy has been stripped of all substantive power and is useful only as the guarantor of legality in a system with an uncodified constitution. Events such as royal weddings tell us nothing about the popularity of the government or even of the monarchy as an institution. The role of the monarch has nothing to do with talent or merit; its advantage lies solely in ‘continuity of the bloodline’, a decisionless way of selecting a warm body to fulfil constitutional functions. All else is politically irrelevant.

But then again, abstract constitutional functions don’t normally get people out waving flags. A broader conception of the ‘political’ might identify the contemporary monarchy as an aspect of celebrity culture. Popular fascination with famous people might itself be seen as a kind of democratically inflected deference to quasi-monarchical ‘personalities’.  And indeed the guests at this event included lots of entertainers and sportspeople and others who normally feature in glossy magazines. The intricacies of the royals’ emotional and family lives command enormous attention, conveyed as they are through the same mass media as the lives of film stars or characters in TV soap-operas. Even dysfunctionality, up to a point at least, does not forfeit interest and even sympathy.

Celebrity culture, and royalty as celebrity, may also be seen in terms of sexual politics. A great deal of media coverage of the royal wedding was couched in terms of the commoner-turned-princess, the ‘girl who never put a foot wrong in public’, and who eventually had her ‘fairytale wedding’. Marina Warner and Angela Carter might remind us that these images have also been a recurrent feature in ensuring female quiescence and hierarchical social control. ‘The kiss’ featured on the cover of virtually all newspapers, even broadsheets. Acres of newsprint and hours of TV time obsessed over ‘the dress’ and ‘the hats’. But I was particularly struck by the extraordinary military dress outfits of the principal male royals, looking strangely familiar from BBC Jane Austen costume dramas, but with an additional colourful Ruritanian twist for the occasion. Do all girls really love a uniform? I’ve never got this myself. But popular romantic fiction and military kitsch are clearly closely aligned somehow. No matter that fun has also been poked at what is said to have been Kate’s active pursuit of William over the years; irreverence is often a kind of backhanded tribute.

So the monarchy is both a constitutional relict from the bloody civil wars of the 17th century and an object of popular fascination. Both themes come together in a third view, developed in Linda Colley’s analysis of the construction of Great Britain. She considers the uses of the monarchy as the legitimator of the emergent United Kingdom during the 18th century, binding together the union of Scotland with England and Wales (Ireland was always more problematic). Colley notes the ongoing regeneration of the symbolism of monarchy in post-imperial, multicultural Britain. You might not readily think of yourself as ‘black English’ or ‘Asian English’ (and Anglo-Indian means something else entirely), but ‘black British’ or ‘Asian British’ quickly became established usage. The tradition evidently continues: the royal couple have been given new titles by the Queen to mark their marriage, and are now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Earl and Countess of Strathearn (in Scotland), and Baron and Baroness Carrickfergus (in Northern Ireland) (and William can presumably expect to be Prince of Wales some day).

Popular support for these uses of monarchy wax and wane. The institution was probably at an all-time low when Victoria’s handlers got to work reinventing it as the very model of a very English Gemütlichkeit, and the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas only became the fully anglicized Windsors in 1917, after war and revolution had deposed two of the three emperor grandsons of Victoria from their thrones. More than half those polled in Britain recently said they had no interest in this royal wedding; but three-quarters apparently thought it would be ‘good for Britain’, and the same number expect there still to be a monarchy in a hundred years’ time.

So the imagery of collective identity is always likely to be contested. Indeed, some twenty years ago Tom Nairn argued that monarchy as symbol of national integration had perverse consequences, binding people into a deferential culture (‘subjects’ not ‘citizens’) and symptomatic of displaced wish-fulfilment. Drawing on Marx’s ideas, he saw monarchy as a new kind of opium of the people, an ‘enchanted glass’ that kept Britain in a state of arrested political development. (He has a new edition coming out soon). But whether this is still pertinent is questionable. It seems to me that the culture of class deference is not much in evidence now. Moreover, since Nairn first wrote, Britain has undergone a profound constitutional transformation, with extensive devolution, the almost total abolition of heredity in the House of Lords, a new Supreme Court, and a Human Rights Act giving full effect to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Incidentally, Nairn’s preferred way forward is still a kind of born-again nationalism: not the revanchist and xenophobic sort that is once again emerging across Europe, but something nobler and more inclusive, leftist in flavour, grounded in smaller territorial units such as, well, Scotland… He is very hopeful about the progressive potential of small states, notwithstanding all the literature on the tragic choices they must make – as Wolfgang Streeck says, there are no longer markets within states, only constraints on states within global markets, a thoroughly Weberian ‘disenchantment’ of romantic nationalist independence ideals.

Finally, we come to the fourth view of the British monarchy, which would view the pomp and circumstance as a distinctive kind of self-presentation on the world stage, a PR agent’s dream. The monarchy is not seen here as the beguiler of the masses as the preceding two views might indicate, but as a deliberate invocation of continuities with the past, combined with new forms of adjustment to Britain’s current interests and relationships with other states. It is therefore entirely analogous to the hereditary, elected and appointed heads of state of other countries; more flamboyant than the Scandinavian monarchies, to be sure; very much to be understood against the deep background of its historical evolution.

I believe this latter view of the British monarchy has become the dominant one in Ireland in recent years, which is precisely what has made it possible for the ‘historic’ four-day state visit to take place later this month. Ireland and Britain have normalized their relations with one another on every other important front. It is all the more important therefore that this moment of symbolism should go well.

{ 79 comments }

1

reason 05.04.11 at 8:34 am

“So the monarchy is both a constitutional relict from the bloody civil wars of the 17th century …”

I always saw it is as relict of the medieval mafia.

2

realdelia 05.04.11 at 8:38 am

It seems to me that the culture of class deference is not much in evidence now.

I hope the new glasses help with this.

3

chris y 05.04.11 at 8:59 am

I always saw it is as relict of the medieval mafia.

Well, yes, but Niamh is quite right that the form of the modern British monarchy derives from the settlements following the wars of the three kingdoms and the collapse of the protectorate in 1659. The capos of the English mediaeval mafia had after all largely exterminated themselves between 1455 and 1485, so the construct that was cobbled together in the late 17th century was largely a creation of the early modern mafia.

4

maidhc 05.04.11 at 9:47 am

Forget history, I see it mainly as a promotion of tourism. The British are quite good at trotting out these events every so often, and Americans and former colonials (if you see what I mean) eat it up. Sales of commemorative plates and dishtowels go through the roof. Thousands are inspired to come and ride the double-decker bus tours.

5

Kieran 05.04.11 at 10:55 am

and media coverage is estimated to have reached some two billion worldwide

The “billions watching” thing is just ridiculous, as it always is with such estimates (you see similar guff about the Oscars every year). Where were these two billion people, exactly?

6

Guido Nius 05.04.11 at 11:25 am

@5: Thanks for that point. It takes exactly one moron to come up with ‘two billion’ estimates.

7

Alan 05.04.11 at 11:52 am

Looking back no further than the last 100 or so years, it seems to me that generations of selective breeding does not produce a noticeably better or worse head of state than choosing, every few years, a new one on the basis of appearance, rhetorical skills and advertising budget.

8

John Protevi 05.04.11 at 11:53 am

@ 5 and 6: this is a good debunking of the “two billion watched” claim.

9

dsquared 05.04.11 at 12:07 pm

For what it’s worth, media ratings analyst nargs reckon that the only event ever to have been watched by one billion people worldwide was the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

10

Guido Nius 05.04.11 at 12:13 pm

9 might be true because I watched that as well.

11

Ian 05.04.11 at 12:17 pm

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a monarchy, but given the current capitalist structure, monarchy is a useful damper on the ambitions of the super-rich. In America, the super-rich are answerable to no-one – they own the politicians, they’re above the reach of the courts. The sons of the super-rich don’t go into public service, don’t risk their lives in the military. They believe they owe nothing to anyone, but everyone owes them something.

In a monarchy, the picture changes ever so slightly. No matter how wealthy you are, you still own deference to the monarchy. At least in Britain the narrative of service to country is stronger. Sure, the super-rich can co-opt the institutions of state, but the monarchy can also try to co-opt the super-rich.

12

Ian 05.04.11 at 12:21 pm

Though, perhaps the most fascinating thing about the British system of government can be summed up by the following: Baron May of Oxford. That a leading scientist can be given a voice in government (no matter how small) by virtue of appointment to an obsolete feudal office is utterly fascinating.

13

chris y 05.04.11 at 12:32 pm

Looking back no further than the last 100 or so years, it seems to me that generations of selective breeding does not produce a noticeably better or worse head of state than choosing, every few years, a new one on the basis of appearance, rhetorical skills and advertising budget.

This seems to be an argument in favour of having an Old English Sheepdog as Head of State, which is an idea that has its appeal.

14

ajay 05.04.11 at 12:42 pm

That a leading scientist can be given a voice in government (no matter how small) by virtue of appointment to an obsolete feudal office is utterly fascinating.

I don’t think that’s a very convincing argument, because Steven Chu managed to get a voice in government as US Energy Secretary, so the obsolete feudal office isn’t absolutely vital.

13 is a good point – there are regiments which have penguins and other livestock as colonels-in-chief and they seem to do OK in the role – though there might be problems if it was coupled with appointing a rabbit as Pope.

15

philofra 05.04.11 at 1:11 pm

I remember once somebody telling me they live for events, like anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas and so on. I think a lot of people do because of humdrum lives. Events also represent marks in life, measurements, and milestones. The Royal Wedding was a great spectacle. It was also a nice clean event with nice people and nice pageantry, like only the British can do.

It is an event world and technology has made it more immediate, voyeuristic and in ‘your face’.

16

wufnik 05.04.11 at 1:19 pm

I still remember being at a Who concert at Wolf Trap in 1970, when Pete Townsend turned to the audience and asked something along the lines of “Don’t you wish you had a Queen?” The crown roared.

I think it’s a bit more complicated, as an American having lived here for 13 years now. There’s monarchy all over the place in Europe, but no one takes the slightest bit of notice, except for Britain. And there are a lot of reasons for that, the most important ones, I imagine, relating to empire and the Commonwealth, the member countries of wh ich account for about 30% of the global population (which may be where that two billion viewers thing comes from). More importantly, though, is that the Britsh monarchy really does embody the notion of service to the nation in ways that I think are not readiy translatable to Americans, but which Commonwealth members (who were wll represented in the wedding crowds, by the way) would relate to. Elizabeth, who is still pottering about at age 85, has set the standard here, and Charles (whatever one thinks of his taste in women) and, particularly, Anne, have extended this far beyond what royalty would have considered possible earlier in the century. It’s their job now, they do it well, and I think that the British public by and large appreciates it.

And that uniform thing? Aside from John McCain’s kids, when is the last time anyone saw the offspring of an American president or presidential contender in uniform? (Mitt Romney’s five sons come perhaps a bit too easily to mind here.) Or the children of a British Prime Minister, for that matter? I think you have to go back to the 1960s or 1970s. That’s inconceivable here. Prince William’s day job these days? Search and Rescue helicopter pilot in the Royal Air Force.

Paul Fussell once noted that the Boy Scouts (another organization dedicated to service), like the Catholic Church, has survived by being adaptable. Likewise the British monarchy.

17

ajay 05.04.11 at 1:52 pm

Aside from John McCain’s kids, when is the last time anyone saw the offspring of an American president or presidential contender in uniform? (Mitt Romney’s five sons come perhaps a bit too easily to mind here.) Or the children of a British Prime Minister, for that matter?

It’s been a very long time since there was a prime minister with children in the armed forces. Macmillan’s son was in the army during the war; Eden’s son was killed in the war; but neither were PM at the time. I think you’d actually have to go back to Churchill; Randolph Churchill was in the Commandos. And Attlee’s son was in the Merchant Navy while his father was PM.

18

tomslee 05.04.11 at 1:58 pm

It’s time for a randomly selected, limited term monarch.

The Queen’s Representative in Canada (the Governor General) is selected by – well I’m not quite sure who. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes not so much, but overall the selected person does the needed openings and closings of things on a smaller budget.

Just as we select juries of our peers at random and people generally rise to the challenge, I think a randomly selected monarch (with a few months training after selection) would engender a nicely democratic “one of us” cheering on (which lies behind the appeal of Kate M) together with the necessary ceremonials. It would disturb neither the constitutionalist nor the celebrity aspects the post describes, and would build collective identity without the problem of deference.

19

tomslee 05.04.11 at 2:00 pm

I first argued for a random monarch solely to liven up a conversation, but the more I think about it, the more I actually like it.

20

NomadUK 05.04.11 at 2:14 pm

It’s time for a randomly selected, limited term monarch.

No. Far better would be Parliament by sortition (the sample size would tend to minimise the effect of outliers), with a dedicated monarchy — raised in the tradition of service to the State, and sense of historical duty — to help keep some kind of brake on it.

21

Smudge 05.04.11 at 2:20 pm

The uniforms weren’t limited to the military. The array of unifomed, or at least costumed deacons, arch-deacons, bishops, archbishops, Chief Rabbis meant that , with the exception of the grooms family, all men with roles in the event were in some sort of prescribed dress, whilst the women were either dressed by top designers or were Princess Anne.

22

Myles 05.04.11 at 3:02 pm

whilst the women were either dressed by top designers or were Princess Anne.

Brilliant. Pippa’s dress was great, though.

23

Matt McIrvin 05.04.11 at 3:25 pm

Aside from John McCain’s kids, when is the last time anyone saw the offspring of an American president or presidential contender in uniform?

On the other hand, there was GWB on the aircraft carrier, wearing a uniform purely for show.

24

Ed 05.04.11 at 3:49 pm

Republics either combine the head of state and the head of government, as in the US and South Africa, or separate them as in Germany and Italy.

Where the head of state and the head of government is combined, the deference that people have to the head of state accrues to the head of government, which weakens accountability. Where they are separated, had the head of state is a powerless retired politician, people wonder what the point is.

Ian makes good points. Also, the Windsors are not a great example in that they have chosen to be highly visible in ways that other constitutional monarchs aren’t.

25

Gazbo 05.04.11 at 4:08 pm

I spent a lifetime unable to comprehend the affection people have for royalty until I read C. Northcote Parkinson’s (he of Parkinson’s Law) wonderful book “The Evolution of Political Thought”.An unabashed monarchist, he makes a persuasive case for aristocracy – not so much that it’s best as that it’s inevitable.
I remain stubbornly democratic of course.

26

Bloix 05.04.11 at 4:39 pm

“when is the last time anyone saw the offspring of an American president or presidential contender in uniform?”

See the photo at this link of Vice President and former presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Joseph R. “Beau” Biden.

http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2010/05/15/beau-biden-says-hell-be-back-soon/#more-104309

27

Katherine 05.04.11 at 4:51 pm

No matter how wealthy you are, you still own deference to the monarchy.

And who exactly do the monarchs/royals owe deference to? How is it different to have a bunch of people at the top who owe deference to no one, compared to… having a bunch of people at the top who owe deference to no one (but are called royalty and have owed deference to no one for a lot longer)?

28

MyName 05.04.11 at 5:16 pm

I think people are looking at this wrong. You shouldn’t be asking “why does England need a Monarchy” because obviously it could get along just fine without one. The really big question is “why haven’t they gotten rid of it” and the answer is that 1) It would involve rewriting the constitution in many fundamental ways and more importantly 2) You would still have this rich, well connected family out there who now has no incentive to stay “above the fray”.

I’m not saying you would be very likely to get the Queen or Prince Charles to be party leaders, but people would still listen to them and they would still have lots of money and influence that they could spend on the party of their choice. They would become, overnight, a large source of competition for anyone in high political office. And in many ways, the fact that the royals do engage in all of these public service and government PR things helps to strengthen their position because it keeps them publicly visible. What you would need in order to get rid of the monarchy is not a revolution, but for a series of actual useless do-nothings to end up as head of State.

29

Main Street Muse 05.04.11 at 6:09 pm

For those of us in America, there are several reasons why we care about the British royals:

1) Our first national act was to split from the British king to establish a more democratic form of government. Yet our history and constitution remain intertwined with England’s traditions far more than with any other European monarchy. (I don’t know anyone who got up to witness the wedding of a Grimaldi, do you?)

2) Do not underestimate the power of the princess! Diana brought style, beauty, glamour and even a bit of substance to the royals with her AIDS awareness and anti-mine advocacy. She made us look at the royals in a whole new way. William and Harry are the boys we watched walk head down behind their mother’s coffin. We so want a happy ending to their tale!

3) In England, the monarchy is not a relic of the bloody 17th century civil wars, but a potent reminder of the great presence England held for centuries on the world stage. If you travel extensively in the world today, you’ll see the very strong and enduring influence of England on almost every continent. The tiny little island nation ruled over massive areas in Africa, North America, Europe, Australia (settled as an English penal colony!) and Asia (including the Indian sub-continent.) Those uniforms (Will married in a red coat!) harken back to the era of England’s great power and global presence.

4) A wedding is fascinating in and of itself – both the beginning of a new life and the end of the old. And it’s a story focused on love through “better or worse” (though we all know how that tends to play out…) And we DO love our celebrities!

5) Above all else, there is irrationality buried in the hearts of nearly all who breathe! (An irrationality that tends to upset the neat theories and mathematical equations of economists.)

30

praisegod barebones 05.04.11 at 6:17 pm

Ian @ 12: I realise it would be an exaggeration to call him a leading scientist, but I was rather hoping, when I clicked, that Lord May of Oxford would turn out to be Brian May…

31

Keith 05.04.11 at 6:39 pm

The Monarchy is embedded in our collective unconscious. It’s the rough edges of fairy tales and history peeking through the modern world. We spent so many thousands of years with kings and queens and the traditions that go with them that at least on some level we have a hard wired Monarchist neurocircuit in our brains. Some of us learn how to defuse it and others just embrace the occasional activation of fealty to tradition and the pageantry of culture. It’s weird, but a benign sort of weirdness, like going to Ren fairs or dressing up like psychopaths on Halloween. A sort of cathartic mocking of the old fangled with just a touch of reverence for a way of life that we no longer live.

32

wufnik 05.04.11 at 7:32 pm

“See the photo at this link of Vice President and former presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Joseph R. “Beau” Biden.”

Right, I forgot about him. My bad. The point still stands, though.

33

CJColucci 05.04.11 at 8:12 pm

As an American with no dog in this fight, my own attitude is that the monarchy makes no sense, but does so little harm that getting rid of it is more trouble than it ‘s worth. I have to wonder, though, at about what point in British history did it cease to matter whether the monarch (as opposed to leading ministers) had any actual ability, beyond the under-rated skill of avoiding public embarassment and maintaining a dignified presence? (I understand that Prince Albert had the makings of a serious public official, and was frustrated at the lack of outlets for his talents.) And I sometimes wonder if there have been monarchs with real ability who have been frustrated at the antics of the officials who actually run things and their inability to step in.

34

Omega Centauri 05.04.11 at 8:57 pm

I don’t think it burrowed into our unconcious a la keith, but clearly many people have a need for royalty of one sort or another. Here it is mainly Hollywood stars, that fascininate the multitude, but formal Royalty (I think) satisfies this deep cultural need even better. There must be a reason why fairy tales are so popular, particularly ones about the girl marrying the prince.

I’d say the Windsor’s have done a bangup job, of promoting their own brand, allowing an institution that appeared to be fading away to make such a dramatic comeback.

35

Guido Nius 05.04.11 at 9:00 pm

34: or just a combination of gossip, voyeurism and entertainment?

36

chris 05.04.11 at 9:28 pm

There must be a reason why fairy tales are so popular, particularly ones about the girl marrying the prince.

Isn’t this rather circular, though? People need food and water and want companionship and sex, but they also need and want what culture tells them to need and want and often it’s hard to distinguish the two sets of needs without resorting to comparisons to nonhuman behavior or pointing out that you will literally drop dead without it. There’s lots of climates where people only “need” clothing because they think they do, and because everyone else will react strangely to them if they don’t have any.

Stories about princes and heroes can’t be explained by a need to follow leaders if they *cause* the need to follow leaders. (Although there’s a big difference between a prince and a hero: the hero is defined by his deeds, not by his birth. I wonder if there are any cultures that have internalized the concept of reversion to the mean enough that they don’t assign any special status to the children of highly accomplished people? They might still have leaders, but not royalty.)

37

Britta 05.04.11 at 10:01 pm

As a counterpoint to Mainstream Muse and Keith, I’m not sure how many Americans actually were enamored by the Royal Wedding. I take the meme that Americans were more excited than Brits with the same grain of salt as I take the claim that billions were watching this wedding. There are more or less Anglophilic pockets of the US, but not all of us feel a connection to the UK or her royal family, beyond a common mother tongue.

To be a bit polemical, I have found, in my experience with British people, a strong desire to project a longing for the British empire/high British culture onto Americans, mainly by Brits. It seems a common assumption that Americans consider themselves inferior British (or English) people. I don’t know if this is to make up for some psychic loss of the US colonies (in 1774 and again in the War of 1812), a desire not to lose status as the cultural crown of the English speaking world, or an unwillingness to acknowledge that in the most influential English speaking country in the world, a majority of current US residents have no claim to British heritage whatsoever, but I find that Brits in general seem much more interested than Americans in keeping cultural and historical ties to the US, however it is always framed in such a way to appear as though it is the Americans who actually desire to do so.

38

bh 05.04.11 at 10:25 pm

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a monarchy, but given the current capitalist structure, monarchy is a useful damper on the ambitions of the super-rich.

I don’t buy this at all. There’s no meaningful mechanism by which it would occur. And the real-world results don’t bear it out either, at all, unless you imagine that the world consists of solely the US and UK.

I’ve been suprised by how non-annoyed I’ve been by the whole royal wedding spectacle — a decade of horrific headlines will put mere silliness in perspective, I guess — but absurd rationalizations like these bring out the small-r republican in me.

39

bianca steele 05.04.11 at 10:52 pm

Britta,
You probably are right, but I have sometimes found that ordinary, non-elite Americans care more for, e.g., Shakespeare, than non-elite Brits do, and that this is sometimes misunderstood as snobbery being an American trait (that is, pretending to be British when one is not even of English descent). When in fact there is a populist Shakespeare tradition, for example, in the US (with Julius Caesar being conflated with King George). This can cause confusion, and it’s probably best left unmentioned.

40

bianca steele 05.04.11 at 10:54 pm

And (to continue), I think it would be a mistake to confuse something like liking Shakespeare with things like thinking royals are cool, but others’ mileage may vary.

41

Jason 05.04.11 at 11:33 pm

I think Matthew Yglesias gets at something here:

http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/04/pomp-and-circumstance-in-the-american-republic/

There is a common idea in the US that the presence of a monarch would act to prevent the “chief executive” from acquiring the combination of political power and the glow of popular nationalism that can lead in undemocratic directions.

However, with the current polarization in the US it seems difficult to have the entire society rooting for the same person. I doubt many Republicans imbue Obama with that glow, nor Democrats former president Bush; I can’t say that an American monarch would change the political situation much, and I’m not sure the combination of glow and power couldn’t happen even with one.

42

Main Street Muse 05.05.11 at 12:05 am

To Britta and Bianca, my perception on American interest in the wedding was based not only local trends (I was suprised at the number of people who talked about it later in the day), but national – it is very rare that the networks interrupt local programming for hours to bring us the wedding of anyone.

(Did they do it for Tricia Nixon’s wedding? Or for Chelsea Clinton’s? Or the Bush twin who married recently? I have no idea!)

But we all know the networks brought us the Royal Wedding from start to finish. And given their focus on bringing in advertiser dollars, I believe it was because they knew they’d find a large audience in America for the royal spectacle.

43

Britta 05.05.11 at 12:16 am

Main Stree Muse
Actually, according the the WSJ “wedding ratings: perchance to dream,” about 22 million Americans (18.6 households) watched the royal wedding, about the same number as watch American Idol on any given day, and about a fifth of those who watched the Super Bowl. The WSJ calls it “not exactly a ratings success.” So, it was mildly popular, but hardly captured the imagination of the US.

If we are going on anecdata, I don’t know a single American who watched or talked the wedding, live or otherwise. The only people in the US I know who did watch the wedding were British and Australian. Again, I’m sure there are some Americans who are fascinated by the wedding, but it’s hardly a national phenomenon.

44

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb 05.05.11 at 2:04 am

It was a “Media Event,” in the technical sense of Dayan and Katz, a televised programed disruption of business as usual expressing societal solidarity, the collective conscience of the 21st century.

45

dr ngo 05.05.11 at 3:40 am

FWIW, I do know a number of Americans who watched the wedding live, and others (including myself) who caught all or part of any of the innumerable “highlights” that followed that evening or the next couple of days. AFAIK, we/they were motivated not by any profound Britophilia, but by a superficial and childlike (childish?) delight in fancy pageantry – including the anthems (many of my friends are choristers) – which the Brits do well . . . and perhaps a tinge of unacknowledged curiosity about celebrities who are not all Hollywood junkies. OTOH the English branch of my family avoided the event entirely, one member going so far as to be sure he was on a train (to Scotland) at the time.

I can’t see what relevance this anecdata has to the original question(s), but there it is anyway.

46

Doctor Memory 05.05.11 at 4:20 am

MyName@27: your point seems to suggest that Oliver Cromwell, for whatever his other faults, had a good idea or two when dealing with the monarchy.

47

Lurker Grad Student 05.05.11 at 5:16 am

I’d bet that most of the people who watched (or cared about) the wedding the US were heterosexual women. The princess fantasy is a major part of American pop culture aimed at women. You can see it girls entertainment (e.g. Disney princesses, My Little Pony, children’s books aimed at girls etc.) and in entertainment aimed at adult women (e.g. Romantic comedies were the American falls in love with a British aristocrat, some romance literature, etc.). It surprises me that many people miss this when discussing which Americans care about the royals.

48

zamfir 05.05.11 at 5:53 am

Is that true for the newer my little ponies too? There is a princess mentioned all the time, but as a distant wise teacher to whom the main character writes letters. Is there some point where the princess appears with weddings and stuff?

49

Brainz 05.05.11 at 6:00 am

I just came across the Hungarian Doctrine of the Holy Crown, which seems like a brilliant solution to the problem of the Head of State.

The Sovereign is not the king, but the Holy Crown. This is the unquestionable power, as it is the entity connecting heavenly to earthly. The crown is therefore a living entity and sacred, from this point it is the symbol of the permanence of the heavenly transcendent presence. The nation and the ruler (king) are hierarchically below the crown. Both are on same level in the hierarchy.

King Log beats King Stork every time.

50

Myles 05.05.11 at 6:34 am

I just came across the Hungarian Doctrine of the Holy Crown, which seems like a brilliant solution to the problem of the Head of State.

This is actually, almost literally, the doctrine of the Hungarian monarchy.

51

Zamfir 05.05.11 at 6:50 am

No shit.

52

Charles Peterson 05.05.11 at 7:50 am

I care nothing for this spectacle, or most others (spectator sports, olympics, showbiz celebrities, etc.). I happen to have my own hobby (high end audio) which trumps all that for me, and provides an alternative set of concerns, celebrities, etc., all of which, I admit, signify nothing, but can be fun, and heart poundingly emotional even. Only audiophiles, unlike young girls, don’t scream, but the burn lasts a lifetime. Tonight I’m linking my audio website for the curious.

I find interesting the claim made by a friend of mine (former US intelligence analyst stationed in London) that separation of head of state and head of government is extremely useful in a post imperial context. He even claims it doesn’t matter who it is (yes, he said even Scalia would do, and of course it would be good for us if he left his current gig for it).

I had hoped for something better, a counterpoint to plutocracy. For awhile I wanted to believe and did believe in it. But thanks to probing commentary here over time I’ve disabused myself of that notion. It’s got to be wishful thinking. The only counterpoint to plutocracy is us, and sadly, it doesn’t really seem like I’m up to the job. It’s just gotten worse since I’ve been around.

All I really know is what we have now, market liberal democracy, isn’t working. It’s continuing to fail to deal significantly with the most pressing issues ever presented to humanity, such as global warming, nuclear weapons, and many other issues of that kind. And presented with all this, all we get is more and faster.

I believe James Madison feared democracy, fearing mainly that demagogues would catapult to power and cancel debts. Somehow he missed the greater danger, that demagogues would catapult to power and institute deflation and social welfare destruction on behalf of the rich. Maybe we can’t blame him too much, the Eighteenth Brumaire hadn’t been written yet.

53

ajay 05.05.11 at 9:43 am

I was rather hoping, when I clicked, that Lord May of Oxford would turn out to be Brian May

Britons of all political stripes have, though we may not always admit it, a special fondness in our hearts for time-hallowed tradition, for pageantry, for splendid costumes and public display – in short, for Queen.

… I mean, for the Queen. Sorry.

54

ajay 05.05.11 at 9:46 am

37 is funny, because it consists of an American telling other Americans that they’re wrong about what Americans think, and then telling Britons what Britons think.

55

Niamh 05.05.11 at 10:45 am

@ Braynz 49, the constitutional doctrine about modern British executive power in Westminster is that it inheres in ‘the Crown in Parliament’ (the Scottish legislature is different as it passes Bills that then receive Royal Assent to be enacted). But in fact the monarch’s actions are entirely at the advice of the government. There is no significant ‘royal prerogative’ now and the ‘Queen’s speech’ to Parliament is the government’s speech. In Bagehot’s terms, we can debate where the ‘dignified’ or symbolic aspects of power lie, and wherein ‘efficient’ or effective power inheres, but already in the 1870s his view was that the Crown had no meaningful access to power in its own right.

@ Main Street Muse 29, I suggested that it’s a relict not a relic, that is, an inheritance, a form that has been retained and modified over time, the oddities of which have to be understood in path-dependent terms.

@ John Protevi 8, I think it is manifestly absurd to think that two billion people actually watched this event live and in its entirety or even at all, or indeed that it was equally appealing to men as to women. The point is about media coverage and reach, the ‘global brand’ effect.

56

mossy 05.05.11 at 10:50 am

Er, how about we watched it because it was gorgeous ? The dresses, the hats (ridiculous and not), the carriages, the uniforms, the horses, livery, clergy — the hundreds of thousands of people (in silly hats, with face paint) storming (in a polite sort of way) the Mall. And it was “real,” ie not staged by Hollywood with a Cast of Thousands or lots of CG figures.

Maybe you all are right about some deep underlying need/explanation, but maybe not. I liked watching the spectacle.

57

Guido Nius 05.05.11 at 11:10 am

56 is true and even I saw the Big Behind after getting encouraged to do so.

58

dsquared 05.05.11 at 11:55 am

Actually, according the the WSJ “wedding ratings: perchance to dream,” about 22 million Americans (18.6 households) watched the royal wedding, about the same number as watch American Idol on any given day, and about a fifth of those who watched the Super Bowl

I presume, though, that American Idol and the Superbowl are scheduled for sensible evening and weekend-afternoon slots, rather than at 6am EST? A Californian would have had to wake up at 3am to be counted in those ratings – I don’t think I’d bother to do that if the live execution of Osama bin Laden was being hosted by Angelina Jolie in the nude.

59

MPAVictoria 05.05.11 at 2:17 pm

“I don’t think I’d bother to do that if the live execution of Osama bin Laden was being hosted by Angelina Jolie in the nude”

No, though I would surely watch the rerun of it later in the day.

60

extexan 05.05.11 at 3:17 pm

I concur. 3 am is an entirely unreasonable time to hold a live-broadcast tv event. It shows a clear lack of concern for their ratings points/share.

61

ajay 05.05.11 at 3:29 pm

Obama having his press conference at 6 am on a bank holiday Monday wasn’t a great media move either, tbh.

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ScentOfViolets 05.05.11 at 4:04 pm

Er, how about we watched it because it was gorgeous ? The dresses, the hats (ridiculous and not), the carriages, the uniforms, the horses, livery, clergy—the hundreds of thousands of people (in silly hats, with face paint) storming (in a polite sort of way) the Mall. And it was “real,” ie not staged by Hollywood with a Cast of Thousands or lots of CG figures.

That’d be our family. Video clips are eversomuchmore convenient; at the time I believe my daughter’s mother was working the box office at the Maplewood Barn community theater, I was grading papers, and my daughter some sort of rehearsal going on. We all could have made time – but watching it live just wasn’t that significant. Otoh, as you point out, it is real-life Disney pageantry – and worth watching just because of that.

Anybody here by any chance read Fables?

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ScentOfViolets 05.05.11 at 4:25 pm

I presume, though, that American Idol and the Superbowl are scheduled for sensible evening and weekend-afternoon slots, rather than at 6am EST?

Er, strike what I just said; all of us were in bed at the time. For some reason I switched a.m. and p.m.

64

philofra 05.05.11 at 5:24 pm

Walter Bagehot saw the political need for the monarchy, that it was a buffer between the people and government. He viewed the monarchy as essential because the people tended to be ignorant of their government but not of the monarchy. According to him, and most likely, the monarchy was easier to imagine than a constitutional government. The balance kept people happy.

Today things are a bit different. People are individually empowered, not like in Bagehot’s day. But people still seem to be ignorant and indifferent to constitutional government.

65

Britta 05.05.11 at 6:55 pm

It was a “Media Event,” in the technical sense of Dayan and Katz, a televised programed disruption of business as usual expressing societal solidarity, the collective conscience of the 21st century.

If a “Media Event” happens, and no one watches, is it still a Media Event?
(ok, a bit of poetic license there, but the broader point still holds)

But seriously, I feel a bit silly harping on this point, especially since it’s only tangential to the main point of the post, but I’m not getting the view of the royal wedding as “expressing societal solidarity, the collective consciousness of the 21st century,” at least not, as a whole, for the US. I could elaborate, but I will keep this derail as brief as possible.

But WRT Niamh’s questions, I’m not sure what the monarchy represents to Americans, (whose viewpoint is only relevant to this post if we are considering what made this wedding/royal spectacle to any extent a worldwide phenomenon, or if we accept on face value the claims I’ve heard some Brits make that probably most of the one million people in London were tourists from America, because actual British people wouldn’t want to watch).
To Americans, points one and four are pretty irrelevant.
For point 2, certainly, Americans primarily relate to the British monarchy as celebrities, and in that sense, they are the real deal. We have “acting royalty” and “political royalty,” but they are “royal royalty.” We also have the advantage of hearing just enough about them and their scandals to be intriguing, but not so much to be over-saturating. They only break into our pop culture when they do something absolutely outrageous, like selling government access for hundreds of thousands of pounds, dressing like Nazis, or dying in car accidents. Otherwise, we really have no idea what the royal family does. This means too, that when we think of the monarchy, we really only know the most outrageous members. Everyone knows Fergie, Diana, Harry, and now William and Kate. I doubt most Americans could name all of Queen Elizabeth’s children, however.

Point 4 is probably more interesting. As a PR brand for Britain in general, I’m sure the monarchy generates a decent amount of American tourism. In terms of actual diplomacy, I’m not sure how much the monarchy as representative of head of state promotes Britain to our head of state. The Obamas weren’t invited to the wedding, which at best signals non genuine closeness and at worst signals a deliberate snub. Maybe the Queen didn’t like her ipod? From my experiences living in Australia, the Queen as head of state seems to have much more symbolic power over there than here. (And indeed, Julia Gillard was invited to the wedding.)

On the fairytale/Cinderella angle, that was one very much hyped by the media, though I don’t know how many American women were into this angle separate from the “ooh, pretty!” angle in general. British class distinctions have less salience in the US (reruns of “to the Manor Born” on American public television notwithstanding), so I doubt Americans were as caught up as the British in the idea of nouveau filthy rich marrying aristocratic filthy rich as some sort of sign of class egalitarianism. Again, I’m sure there are some American women who saw it this way, I just don’t see it as a general trend.

66

Britta 05.05.11 at 8:41 pm

ajay @ 54
ha, yes, that’s why I said I was being polemical. Certainly I don’t know how “Britons” think, I was just relating, in my experience, I have had many British people say these things to me, seen this attitude expressed in UK media, and more recently experienced these sorts of comments on blogs (I lived in Australia for a long time, so how Americans relate to the UK and the Commonwealth was a frequent topic of conversation, and many people in Australia are British immigrants and tourists), and I was speculating in somewhat essentialist terms on why that might be the case. After being told on a regular basis for years by Brits and Aussies “what Americans think,” I am certainly less apologetic about doing the reverse :P

Certainly, an “I’m an American and I experienced X” really only has weight insofar is it is one person’s experience. I’m not trying to say Main Street Muse and others are wrong, but rather to offer a contrasting experience.

67

Strategist 05.06.11 at 3:16 am

@54 Nice quip, Ajay, but Britta’s comment was fair.

“I have found, in my experience with British people, a strong desire to project a longing for the British empire/high British culture onto Americans, mainly by Brits”

The coverage by the BBC was excruciating in this regard. God knows what the Daily Mail was like, I don’t read it. No doubt lots of cultural reasons for it, but I would just advise everyone (especially Niamh) not to forget the straightforward need we have to have something to sell to the world. As the Sex Pistols told us:

God Save The Queen, because tourists are money.

68

Alex 05.06.11 at 4:02 am

A Californian would have had to wake up at 3am to be counted in those ratings

dsquared, you’re getting old. That’s not the right way round to do it. “Late to bed, late to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise”. Or something . . .

69

Norwegian Guy 05.06.11 at 5:04 am

Does inviting the two living former Conservative Prime Ministers to the wedding, but not the two Labour ones, count as a political use of the monarchy?

70

ajay 05.06.11 at 8:27 am

67: there’s also the point that the average Brit will tend to meet Americans in Britain, and those are going to be the ones who are relatively keen on or interested in Britain and British culture and so on, because that’s why they are here.
We don’t meet the Americans who regard Britain as a disease-infested, class-ridden, snaggle-toothed Third World hellhole whose red-coated inhabitants only stop wiping their boots on the trampled bodies of innocent Irish peasants in order to start kicking Mel Gibson’s blonde-haired children to death, because those ones tend to stay at home in Power Cable, Nebraska.

71

ajay 05.06.11 at 8:30 am

The Obamas weren’t invited to the wedding, which at best signals non genuine closeness and at worst signals a deliberate snub.

Not really, no. There weren’t any foreign (ie non-Commonwealth) heads of state invited as far as I’m aware.

72

ajay 05.06.11 at 8:31 am

Royals aside…

73

dsquared 05.06.11 at 8:47 am

I note that more Americans watched Princess Diana’s funeral than either Ronald Reagan’s or Michael Jackson’s, neither of which were at 6am.

There weren’t any foreign (ie non-Commonwealth) heads of state invited as far as I’m aware.

There were not, because of course as you know Bob, it was not a state occasion.

74

ajay 05.06.11 at 9:32 am

Ah ha, I suspected as much.

75

ejh 05.07.11 at 3:18 pm

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ajay 05.09.11 at 10:55 am

I have found, in my experience with British people, a strong desire to project a longing for the British empire/high British culture onto Americans, mainly by Brits

Additional to that, if there really isn’t a longing for British culture in America, then someone should probably tell all those producers and distributors who keep spending millions of dollars to make and market things like “The King’s Speech” and “Atonement” and “The Queen” and “Finding Neverland” and “Master and Commander” and “The Lord of the Rings” and “Gosford Park” and “Shakespeare in Love” and “Elizabeth” and “The Full Monty” and “The English Patient” and “Sense and Sensibility” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The Remains of the Day” and “Howards End”. And all this Shakespeare stuff too while they’re at it.

77

Myles 05.09.11 at 11:35 am

millions of dollars to make and market things like “The King’s Speech” and “Atonement” and “The Queen” and “Finding Neverland” and “Master and Commander” and “The Lord of the Rings” and “Gosford Park”

I’m Canadian, and I found Gosford Park unwatchable.

the trampled bodies of innocent Irish peasants in order to start kicking Mel Gibson’s blonde-haired children to death, because those ones tend to stay at home in Power Cable, Nebraska

Or the South Side of Chicago.

Does inviting the two living former Conservative Prime Ministers to the wedding, but not the two Labour ones, count as a political use of the monarchy?

Not a state occasion. I do prefer that the royal family gets a bit of discretion here, because it should be part of the trade-off of constitutional monarchy and the whole system of legitimization that their own somewhat less salubrious preferences are recognized as being both extant and separate from their state rôle.

God Save The Queen, because tourists are money.

Well said, although I have been trying to convince people of the same about the Arabs and the housing market.

Zamfir: No shit.

I didn’t realize he actually linked to the actual Wiki article, with which I am familiar.

OTOH the English branch of my family avoided the event entirely, one member going so far as to be sure he was on a train (to Scotland) at the time.

My British acquaintances went as far away as Italy to get away from the whole hubbub. And they are hardcore Tories.

Aside from John McCain’s kids, when is the last time anyone saw the offspring of an American president or presidential contender in uniform?

The whole notion that the presidential papabili pool of a bourgeois republic should, as a matter of custom, have progeny in arms is, to me, not only bizarre but noxious. The whole JFK-vintage episodes of this kind of hereditary, lordly oblige business was a deeply sorry sight, and the less it repeats the better off everyone is. Given that having sons of high statesmen in arms is actually more trouble for the armed forces than they could ever be worth, I think they should be banned from the sort of thing altogether.

You probably are right, but I have sometimes found that ordinary, non-elite Americans care more for, e.g., Shakespeare, than non-elite Brits do, and that this is sometimes misunderstood as snobbery being an American trait (that is, pretending to be British when one is not even of English descent).

This actually has led to serious silliness in North American schools in teaching Shakespeare. American high school English teachers have this atavistic attachment to shoving as much Shakespeare into curricula as could possibly be fitted (or not fitted) that sometimes it becomes entirely unbecoming.

And those fascinators ought to be introduced to the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps they could do a swap? The Ascot gets the mint julep, and the Kentucky Derby gets extravagant and fanciful fascinators?

The coverage by the BBC was excruciating in this regard. God knows what the Daily Mail was like, I don’t read it.

The Mail employs Peter Hitchens. Never have I seen any Briton so obsequiously, skin-crawlingly sycophantic toward the U.S. (that is, unless he’s sure he isn’t being read by any Americans.)

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bendsinister 05.10.11 at 7:48 pm

“The whole notion that the presidential papabili pool of a bourgeois republic should, as a matter of custom, have progeny in arms is, to me, not only bizarre but noxious. “

Libertarianism: neoconservativism for the effete

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Louis Carabini 05.11.11 at 4:30 am

…………………………la-oe-gartonash-monarchy-20110428……. My answer is In theory no in practice probably yes…If William and Kate behave themselves unlike some of the gamier members of s royal family and contribute to the development of a modernized slimmed-down constitutional monarchy this can actually be better than the likely alternatives. Instead it has the queen and William and Kate…These arguments from history poetry and soft power would have to yield if a constitutional monarchy seriously distorted the democratic process made impossible an open society with life chances for all and held the country back in a stuffy past of hierarchy and privilege…In theory it does all those things.

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