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The once and future monarchy

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LONDON — Britain is another country. They do things differently there. Occasionally, they do things that no one else still does. The coronation of King Charles III confirms that the British are the past masters of royal ceremonial occasions. It also shows that there is still a demand for it, and not just among the British themselves. The whole world watches these royal theatricals. They are entertaining, but they are more than entertainment. Only the pope attracts such sustained interest from so many peoples. And he, though he doesn’t advertise it, is also a monarch.

When observers note that the outfits at the coronation resemble the costumes in Disney movies or Star Wars, they have it back to front. The movies lift the look and the plotlines from the real thing, but they miss the reality of the thing. The House of Windsor is a dysfunctional family business, and it is also a sacred cult. The royal family members are amateur social workers, and they are also professional political symbols. It is this dimension, where the sacred cult meets the soap opera, that gave the coronation its uncanny power.

Coldstream Guards stand to attention along The Mall ahead of the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla in London, Saturday, May 6, 2023.

(Richard Heathcote/AP)

Monarchy is supposed to represent timeless principles and unchanging foundations, but the House of Windsor has undergone drastic renovation in the last few years. Charles’s coronation follows the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex (2018), the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (2021), the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 70th year on the throne (2022), and then her funeral (September 2022). The divine showrunner has shaken things up. The guard is changing.

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What will Charles’s reign be like? Short, probably. At 74, he is the oldest monarch to ascend the throne. He kept himself in good working order during his decades of waiting, but the job is harder than it looks: the foreign tours and formal dinners, the endless feigning of polite interest, the constant awareness of the cameras. There is also his real work, reading the stack of state papers that arrives daily from No. 10 Downing Street. Like any grandparents, Charles and Queen Camilla will want to spend time with their grandchildren, especially as two of them are in California.

At his coronation, Charles looked tired, distressed, and overwhelmed, like a man who has got halfway around Home Depot before realizing that his trolley has a squeaky wheel. It is all too late. He is too old to be an active monarch. He and Camilla can never recover the lost years when they were having children with other people. Still, he must push on into the dusk, for the sake of duty, the children, self-respect, and common sense. As Macbeth says, “I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

In 1953, Charles’s mother bore the 5-pound weight of St. Edward’s Crown with a ramrod back. But she was 25. Charles and Camilla sagged under the weight of their crowns. The more the regalia was piled on, the smaller Charles seemed. A little, white-haired old man in the golden bathrobe of a Byzantine emperor and a crown like a diamond-crusted puffball, with sacred sticks in his hands and a look of mild confusion on his face, he looked like the loneliest man in the world. A president of the United States can always phone his predecessors for a chat. They understand what it’s like. That is why the ex-presidents are a gang of friends. No one knows what it’s like to be the king of England. If Charles could call his mother or grandfather, he would not be king.

Britain’s Prince William and Kate, the Princess of Wales with Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis arrive at Westminster Abbey ahead of the coronation of King Charles III and Camilla, the Queen Consort, in London, Saturday, May 6, 2023.

(Andrew Milligan/AP)

It must be strange to be 74 years old when you finally start the job for which you were born and stranger still to get it finally because your mother, the only other person who understands what it is like to be you, has died. It is less than a year since Charles lost his mother and little more than two since he lost his father. It is little more than three years since Meghan and Harry announced their decision to “step back as ‘senior members’ of the royal family,” causing the worst rift since King Edward VIII announced his intention to marry Wallis Simpson.

No wonder Charles looked a little sad. Or was it that, looking out at the audience members who were looking at him, he saw not just the wreckage of his family but also the wrack of time? The new king is a philosophical sort and a sensitive soul. He is also tougher than he looks. The peasants on social media mock his sausagelike fingers, but he has his hands on the crown after all. The House of Windsor is the winner of the real game of thrones.

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The 20th century was a disaster for monarchies. Like many rare species, they were hunted to the point of extinction. Today, there are just over 200 states in the world, but there are only 26 working royal families. Yet the picture is not quite as bad, if you are a monarch, or good, if you are a republican, as the numbers suggest.

Forty-three sovereign states, a fifth of the total, have a monarch as head of state. Two of them, Malaysia, which is very large, and the Vatican, which is very small but has global authority, are ruled by elected monarchs. One of them is, uniquely, a co-principality: Andorra, a valley in the high Pyrenees between France and Spain, is ruled jointly by the bishop of Urgell and the president of France. This makes Emmanuel Macron simultaneously the standard-bearer of European republicanism and also an unelected monarch, or half of one.

The remaining 40 states have hereditary rulers. A few, most of them in the Gulf and Africa, are absolute monarchies. A few are absolute jokes. Monaco, for instance, is in the south of France but not of it. With less than a single square mile of territory and with only 68,000 tax-averse residents, Monaco is little more than a money laundry with a brothel and casino attached. In 2021, the New European newspaper described Monaco as “a melanoma on the French Riviera,” a “glittering square mile of riches, glamour and some of the most ostentatious displays of depravity anywhere on our planet.” In Monaco, “anything goes — except for the payment of taxes.”

There has been a king in England for a thousand years. The royal houses of Denmark and Morocco may be older. The imperial family of Japan, tracing its installation to 600 B.C., is older than them all. But only Charles rules more than one state. His Majesty’s realms are 15 in number. They include numerous island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific (the Bahamas, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and so forth), but he is also on the bank notes in major states such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

An arc of constitutional monarchies survives on Europe’s western edge: Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden. Europe also has its micro-monarchies. Monaco is less than a mile square. Lichtenstein, hiding its financial services in the fold of the map between Austria and Switzerland, is only 600 miles square. Luxembourg, doing its best not to be noticed between Belgium, France, and Germany, is 800 miles square. Charles’s estate around Balmoral Castle in Scotland covers 2,428 square miles. This is enough to accommodate Monaco, Andorra, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein in a kind of royal safari park — and with plenty of room left over for the deer.

The other European monarchies have surrendered all their pomp and become hereditary civil servants. The Windsors are the last European monarchy to have kept their cash and land along with their crowns. Forbes magazine values The Firm’s collective value at $28 billion, give or take a palace or two. Most of this is in assets, not cash, and most of it belongs to the Crown, not the king. Should Charles need cash, he cannot sell Buckingham Palace ($4.9 billion) or Kensington Palace (a bargain at $630 million). But he will probably not need cash, as his mother left him an estimated $500 million.

Britain Coronation

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla travel in the Gold State Coach following their coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey in London, Saturday, May 6, 2023.

(Piroschka van de Wouw/AP)

The biggest chunk is a corporation called the Crown Estate, valued at $19.5 billion. In 1760, King George III agreed to manage the family’s land holdings on behalf of Parliament and transfer all surplus revenues to the Treasury. The current arrangement is more transparent. In 2020, the Crown Estate generated 475 million pounds, or just under $600 million. The Treasury refunded about a quarter, 86.3 million pounds, or just over $100 million, to cover the Crown Estate’s running costs. The Sovereign Grant, as it is called, includes paying the staff, maintaining the property portfolio, heating the castles, running the public relations offices and the airplanes, and generally keeping one in the style to which one is accustomed. The Windsors are the world’s biggest welfare claimants.

If Charles were to stop his subjects in the street and demand their cash as well as their loyalty, each Briton would pay 1.29 pounds ($1.61) into the Sovereign Grant. A Salted Caramel Mocha from the Starbucks near Buckingham Palace is 3.30 pounds ($4.16). One of these is a bargain. The economic argument for keeping the monarchy in business is inarguable. Not only are Charles & Co. a cheap date, but they are also the greeters for the fastest-growing sector of the British economy. Tourism now constitutes nearly 10% of Britain’s GDP. By 2025, the government’s VisitBritain website claims, the tourism sector will be worth over 257 billion pounds, or $323 billion, and employ more than a tenth of British workers.

The Crown is a licensed partner of Parliament, but the royals are the face of Britain. Parliament makes the laws and raises the taxes, but the royals embody legitimacy, the essence of authority. As the coronation showed, the third pillar of the state, the Church of England, confers ritual mystique and divine license.

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When the officiants produced the gilded swords and holy spoons, Charles looked bemused, like a man who did not understand all the implements that came with his Weber grill. At one point, he donned a single glove, as if paying tribute to the late “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson. The generally theatrical atmosphere was augmented by the presence of random celebrities, including a gaggle of servile nonentities from British TV; Katy Perry, looking regal in a lilac hat modeled after one of the rings of Saturn; Lionel Richie, his expression frozen in the death rictus of a hamster; and John Kerry, rouged like Dirk Bogarde in the closing scenes of Death in Venice.

As with all family gatherings, the seating plan was tricky. Four presences loomed over the proceedings, and two of them actually attended. Least bothersome was Andrew Parker Bowles, Camilla’s ex-husband and the father of her two children. Charles and Camilla continued their affair throughout their marriages to other people. This drove Princess Diana mad, but Parker Bowles seems to have embraced the role of cuckold royal with gusto. He attended cheerfully in the cheap seats.

Prince Harry looked like thunder and did not stay for the family photograph. Having resigned from royal service, he was placed in the third row in Westminster Abbey, along with the disgraced Prince Andrew. Meghan turned down the invitation, claiming that as little Archie’s fourth birthday fell on the day of the coronation, she would be at home in Montecito, organizing a party. No one in Britain believes this. If you want to give Archie a memorable birthday, flying to London to see grandpa crowned in mock-Byzantine splendor beats a cake and a magician.

Diana was nowhere at all. Her name was not mentioned. If she was missed, and her sons surely missed her as they saw Camilla crowned, no one said anything. The monarchy is bigger than the monarch. The monarch, as King Henry VIII demonstrated rather too extensively, is bigger than his wives. The institution rolls forward like a steamroller, massively heavy and slow. When Diana died in 1997, the public blamed Camilla. The other woman had to go into hiding for two years. Last Saturday, she completed her replacement of Diana, and all anyone said was that her hair looked nice.

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Armed police were everywhere on the day, but the only shots were fired in the badlands of East London, where police were obliged to dispatch two pit bulls for resisting their owner’s arrest. The neighbors watching from their windows said nothing as the man was tasered and pinned to the ground but objected vociferously to the gangland-style slaying of his pets. A similar care for the underdog explains the chorus of complaints that followed a preemptive swoop on members of the anti-monarchist group Republic. Bundled off as they unloaded from their buses in central London, they were held until the balcony scene was over, then released without charge.

The police claimed that some of Republic’s members were carrying the kind of materials you might use should you wish to attach yourself to a royal carriage or the emperor of Japan. Republic claimed that the chains and ties were for securing bicycles. Even the conservative press felt that the police had overreached themselves. It is unsporting to persecute an eccentric minority. Later in the day, the remainder of Republic held a small protest. Unlike the much larger crowd in Westminster Abbey, the Republic protesters were uniformly grubby, bitter, middle class, and entirely white. The coronation was uniformly glamourous, cheerful, classless, religiously plural, and racially mixed.

APTOPIX Britain Coronation

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla on the balcony of Buckingham Palace watch the Royal Air Force Red Arrows fly over after their coronation ceremony, in London, Saturday, May 6, 2023.

(Petr David Josek/AP)

Unlike the Republic rally, the royal rally was designed for the future. This is especially impressive because the designers are happier in the past. On the afternoon before the coronation, I went to inspect the crowds camping out along the processional route. Near Buckingham Palace, I found myself squashed against a royal flunky who was escorting an American guest. I knew he was a royal flunky because he was wearing a crumpled black suit with a dusting of dried egg and dandruff and holding forth like he was in a Noel Coward comedy.

“You, of course, elect a George III every four years,” he trilled. “Our monarchy, meanwhile, has continued to evolve.” It was rude of him to say it. No one likes to be reminded of their misfortune. But what he said was roughly accurate. George had extensive executive powers, including a veto. He could propose legislation and appoint his own ministers, but he could not govern without Parliament and did not control the purse strings. The American presidency inherited those checks and balances. The powers of the U.S. presidency are frozen in Article 2 of the Constitution, but the British monarchy has adapted itself to the reduction of its powers and status.

Britain’s monarchy has survived the 20th century. Will the U.S. survive the 21st? In polls, Americans keep saying they expect a civil war soon or a semi-amicable “national divorce.” If the U.K. sheds Northern Ireland or Scotland, it will make little difference to the Crown. If the U.S. loses a single state, let alone a big one such as California, then there will be no U.S. If the emotional temperature of politics is lower in Britain than in France or the U.S., it is because the monarchy absorbs the heat. This is the positive case for hereditary privilege. The negative case is Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

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The royals may sound like toffs, but their real constituency is no longer the aristocracy. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 made the middle-class vote the arbiter of elected government. The monarchy has tracked that trend, mirroring the ostensible uxoriousness of the middle classes, vacationing in the British Isles as the middle classes tended to do even in Charles’s youth, and imitating a modern nuclear family for the television cameras.

Britain’s middle classes are increasingly liberal. This is an electoral problem for the Conservatives, but it is the modern monarchy’s opportunity. Charles, a pioneer of lifestyle liberalism, has been waiting for his people for years as they slowly disentangled themselves from Thatcherism and plastic bags. They are his people: environmentalist, organic, hippy-dippy, multiculti. He is their king, and Prince William and his wife, Kate, are their kind of people, too. A monarchy, if you can keep it.

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