Sunday, May 24, 2015

Monarchy and the Importance of National Symbols

Queen Elizabeth II
Much of our tour has focused on the center of the British political system: the legislature and Parliament. Today, we took the train to Windsor from Paddington Station to see a less powerful, but symbolic important, part: the Monarchy.

No, we did not have an audience with the Queen. I don’t have that kind of pull! But we did visit Windsor Castle, parts of which date to the 1100s and is the oldest continuously inhabited royal residence in the world. The Queen and her family spend weekends here, and was likely there when we visited, resting in advance of her speech on Wednesday.

I’ve seen other palaces in the Europe: Versailles, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace, and the Hapburg’s Schonbrunn palace in Vienna. All are impressive in their own way, but Windsor Castle tops them all. It is impressively decorated and outfitted without being over the top. It also demonstrates just how powerful and rich the Imperial Empire once was. One room was covered in exquisitely gilded carvings and contained an enormous Malchite vase. Mahogany, silver, pearls, rubies, saphires, and wall paper of the deepest reds and greens were in evidence throughout. 

Inside Windsor Castle
Before we entered the grounds, I asked my students to consider the “worth” of a monarchy to the United Kingdom. Why have one? It’s expensive—yes, the monarchy is sustained in part by the private revenues from the Windsor families investments and the admission fees paid to enter her various properties. But the monarchy is not self-sustaining and requires subsidies from the Treasury. Instead of all the pomp and circumstance of the Queen, why not transfer the symbolic powers to the Prime Minister or his Deputy?

The Norman Gate (with murder holes)
If I had to take a stab at my own question, I’d say that the monarchy is one of the few solid symbols of the British State left. The Welsh, Scots, and Irish—many of whom never considered themselves British—felt a stronger pull during times of economic prosperity and the heyday of Empire. With the decline of Britain as a global superpower, there is less British left for people to grab onto. People like to be part of something bigger and grander than themselves, and the monarchy—I think—helps citizens of the United Kingdom feel part of something beyond them.

Devolution and the much-anticipated transfer of further political power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland weakens the bonds of British national identity. But that’s not the only threat. Once Prince Charles ascends to the throne (and that will be sooner rather than later), it is less clear to me that the monarchy will continue to exhibit the sentimental pull of British hearts. With fewer and fewer emotional reasons to remain or feel British, one wonders if the nation can survive its current constitutional test as a unitary state.

In the United States, the symbolism of statehood is fused with the executive power of the presidency. But I think the Constitution serves as a closer example to a national symbol for many Americans because it is so hard to divorce the office of the president from its occupant. One wonders as views increasingly diverge as to the meaning of the Constitution if our own national unity is undergoing a similar stress test.

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