The Windsors run quite a racket. In exchange for cultivating an extravagant life of piffle, they manage to grab a king’s ransom of $300 million a year (£180 million) out of Britain’s public coffers—enough to make even Tony Soprano blush.
We in the States, descendants of rebels who declared a revolution against the British crown, are taught to believe that Britain’s monarchy today is about honoring tradition. The royals are supposedly powerless celebrities, sort of like the Kardashians or Paris Hilton with better manners.
But the royal family, known as the House of Windsor since 1917 when they de-Germanized their name, may no longer possess any seats in the House of Lords (since 1999), but they do retain certain powers. They can still legally choose the prime minister, dismiss ministers and governments, dissolve Parliament, refuse to agree to legislation passed by Parliament, dismiss the governments of the Commonwealth (more on this soon), pardon convicted criminals, declare a state of emergency, issue proclamations, command the army and raise a personal militia. When members of Parliament take the oath of office, they swear allegiance not to the voters who elected them, but to Liz Windsor and Co. They say:
I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
Not bad for a bunch of toffs who parade around in snazzy military garb and Shakespearean robes between gigs of breaking champagne bottles against boats.
As millions take to the streets across the Middle East to bring down monarchies and other unelected tyrants, Britain is celebrating the royal nuptials. The American media are in a tizzy and the Wedding Channel (yup, didn’t make that one up) is broadcasting tips on the proper way for a regal lady like Kate the Commoner to walk. Evidently, women are supposed to softly glide across the floor as if “a golden thread from heaven holds them up by their crown” and keep their arms “behind the seams.” In other words, walk as if you have nothing to carry, no place you need to be and all the time in the world to get there.
These periodic performances of fairytale feudalism are actually modern concoctions to bolster the waning fortunes and spirits of an empire lost (U.S. Congress, take note). According to David Cannadine’s The Invention of Tradition, at Liz Windsor’s swearing-in ceremony in 1952 the British state had to invent all sorts of “ancient rituals” and hire horse-drawn carriages from a movie production company in order to create the mirage that war-ravaged Britain—newly in hock to the Yanks—was still Great.
Keep in mind, the island nation off the coast of Europe is still known officially as the United Kingdom. Though its colonies all revolted by the sixties, the royals still nominally lead a Commonwealth of Nations that encompasses about one-third of the world’s population—54 nations in all—with India, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the rest committed to “free trade” and “world peace” since the Singapore Declaration of 1971. Naturally, the crown’s presided over quite a few wars since.
Alas, Queen Liz is only twelfth on Forbes magazine’s list of wealthy monarchs. The family’s net worth is estimated at about $577 million and though they’ve been forced to pay taxes since 1993, the fact that they essentially live on the dole rent-free in palaces with 285 apartments, 6,000 rooms and 1,000 people to slop out the toilets and change the bulbs renders their 30 percent tax rate a sort of quaint gesture.
Good thing Liz is always surrounded by hangers-on so as not to get picked up for vagrancy—reportedly, she never carries money. I suppose she only keeps tissues, butterscotch candies and a tiara in that ever-present purse.
Centuries of chasing foxes, dressing for tea and practicing sixteenth century elocution as the main day’s activities have naturally cultivated a family of dim-witted layabouts. Oxford University had to seriously lower the bar for Prince Charles and the current generation is venerated simply for being the sons of a secularly beatified woman, Princess Diana, who appears to be the first Windsor to notice homelessness and AIDS on her way to the hair salon where she spent six figures a year.
Prince Harry’s widely publicized Nazi uniform gag a few years back was hardly the first expression of royal racism. The imbecility and implicit racism of inherited position ensures an outlook on the world worthy of a Klansman. According to the British Socialist Worker:
In 1986 Prince Philip told a group of British students in China, “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”
In 1999, when touring an electronics factory, he pointed to a fuse box with wires spilling out of it and said, “It looks as though it was put in by an Indian.”
Princess Margaret walked out of a showing of the anti-Nazi film Schindler’s List, describing it as a “tedious film about Jews”.
When visiting Chicago she told the Irish-American mayor that the Irish were “pigs—all pigs”.
The Queen Mother used to describe black people as “nig-nogs” or “blackamoors”.
Ahh, tradition. We are now being treated to insightful tidbits like CNN’s Piers Morgan’s searing interview with Sharon Osbourne—live outside of Buckingham Palace—where she was asked what sort of traditional British cuisine would be served at the wedding. (Prawns with mayo on white bread?)
The Wall Street Journal answered the question about why such an anachronistic institution still exists: “Royalty is the most venerable embodiment of British tradition, tradition is the lifeblood of identity, identity generates social cohesion without resort to force, and social cohesion is the sine qua non of a viable polity.”
There’s some truth to this. Ruling classes the world over, especially in times of economic crisis, are desperate to fabricate a sense of unity between opposing classes. We are all supposed to be in this together.
In the States, they do it through sports, Hollywood and an incessant bombardment of pop culture inanities. In Britain, they get William and Kate. Here, we get Snookie.
I’ll be speaking this Saturday afternoon, April 30, in Boston at the LGBT conference: Momentum: Our History, Our Movement, Our Future.