The Legacy of the British Monarchy

Illness kept me home from school yesterday, and I watched the BBC’s coverage of the state funeral for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.  The grandeur, the pomp, the ceremony, and the tradition of it all reflected the importance of the monarchy to the people of the United Kingdom, as well as to the nations of the Commonwealth, for whom Her Late Majesty served as head of state.  As her son, King Charles III begins his reign, we can anticipate that his coronation, whose date is as yet unannounced, will take place on a comparable scale.

Naturally, all of this raises once again the question of whether the U.K. should simply retire the monarchy as an institution.  Apart from the fact that it costs taxpayers over £100 million per year, many critics protest that the institution can never separate itself from Britain’s brutal colonial legacy.  Though many British colonies gained independence during Elizabeth’s 70-year reign, this liberation too often came as a result of armed struggle as the British government showed great reluctance to relinquish control over lands that had brought wealth and prestige to the British Empire, always at the expense of the people suffering colonial oppression.

British colonialism lasted roughly four centuries, and the Empire committed injustices from seizure of people’s properties to oppression of workers to environmental devastation to murder and genocide.  For many people who inhabit the former colonies, the monarchy represents an inhuman legacy.  Even prior to colonialism, the British throne thrived on a barbaric feudal system that dehumanized and exploited its own subjects, and British sovereigns came to rule Scotland and Ireland as the result of campaigns far more devastating than the one Russian President Vladimir Putin currently wages in Ukraine.

Sadly, Elizabeth remained mostly silent on all of this.  The occupant of the throne has little role in government, and of that little the vast bulk takes the form of ceremony.  Nevertheless, ceremony carries significant symbolic power, which, properly and judiciously applied, could earn the crown legitimacy and enable it to earn a status beyond that of a vestigial remnant of an outdated, shameful monolith.

As Charles becomes the latest figurehead for the kingdom, opinion polls generally show that a majority of British subjects support keeping the Royal Family as a public institution.  However, a majority of young adults–those in the 18 to 24 age group–believe the time has come for an elected head of state.  Should later generations voice the same views, the British monarchy  could find itself obsolete by the middle of this century.

For the moment, most Britons love and value this institution.  If it has any meaningful value, King Charles has the burden of making that value clear.  He also inherits an invaluable opportunity to address the historical atrocities that have brought his predecessors–and now himself–to the throne.  His subjects will ultimately decide whether the U.K. remains a kingdom, and they will do so based on the case the king builds for the monarchy’s legitimacy.

5 thoughts on “The Legacy of the British Monarchy

  1. Thoughtful, as usual. I hope you feel better soon! At 3 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep I snooze-listened to the ceremony in the cathedral. Fell back to sleep with the hymns.

    1. Thanks–that would have been about 6:00 in my time zone. I watched the whole thing, starting a half-hour prior. I have many misgivings about the history of monarchy in general, yet I understand well how important symbolism is for a society. I truly believe that, in theory at least, tradition can be modified to reflect the evolution of a society’s values. Such potential exists here–along with immense pressure.

  2. I wish the new king himself could read this. What an opportunity – and responsibility – he has in his new role. It’s the dawn of a new day for Great Britain – but honestly, I think the real change will come with William, who fortunately got a good dose of Diana’s humanitarian spirit and seems to appear to be more real to the people. You’re right – – I agree that the royalty may live on as a public institution, but perhaps it’s time to retire the rest. You always write such interesting things for us to ponder!

    1. Thank you! I adore the elegance and grandeur of it all–as well as the potential it represents. But it is all so costly and increasingly hard to justify. This institution has a chance to transform itself from an expense into an investment. I keep my hopes alive.

  3. It is definitely costly and I don’t know if the younger generation will appreciate the extravagance. And Charles will always be compared to his mother. Thank you for an interesting post.

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