Royalty may just be a good thing to have around, as silly as it is. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached as I’ve watched the avalanche of media coverage rolling down the magic mountain that is the British Monarchy the last couple of weeks. Harry and Meghan took their abrupt leave of the royal family and its prerogatives, with no advance notice to the Crown. To some in the UK establishment, Harry is a selfish brat whose only fitting title is persona non grata; his wife isn’t even persona but simply one of those subhumans called “commoners of color.” And look at the appalling commotion they’ve caused! When they said “see ya” to Windsor World, they set off a great, fantastic carnival of reporting, gasping, snickering, tsk-tsking, photo-snapping, auspice-reading, finger-pointing, parodying, and psychoanalyzing, all topped off with Buckingham Palace’s official statements, which fell somewhere between grumpy blessings and soft-core fatwas. A pageant of the absurd.
Surely every nation worthy of the name has a healthy enjoyment of the absurd. The British lead the pack; they are the world’s foremost devotees and curators of the weird and the whacko. Think Monty Python, Mr. Bean, and Dr Strangelove. Think the slightly deranged headlines of the tabloids. Think the willfully peculiar place names (or maybe you haven’t been to Great Snoring, Crackpot, Catbrain, Bitchfield, or Titty Ho?). In the realm of national political life, absurdity has had its way with the UK often enough—never more so than in the painfully ridiculous drama of the present day (Brexit), enacted under spectacularly buffoonish direction (Theresa May and Boris Johnson). Yet the Brits maintain a reputation as a dignified and sober people, certainly more so than we do on this side of the Atlantic.
A big reason for this, I believe, is the Monarchy. Not its grandeur but its absurdity. Remember that the Royals, up to their booted knees (or, more to the point, their sporran-dangling midsections) in scandal and libidinal liberties, are not professional entertainers like the cast of The Office. They are the representatives and living personifications of the nation. The Queen, not the Prime Minister, is the head of state. Her image, the imprimatur of the Crown, and other expressions of royal primacy are everywhere—on currency, on post boxes and stamps, on the names and signage and letterhead of every public institution and office, in the rituals of government, in the ancient acts of physical self-abasement in Her Majesty’s presence, in the very oaths of loyalty taken by members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the other services requiring members to put their lives on the line.
The upshot is that the Royals have a special status in all things, including their prominent function as bumbling laughingstocks, charlatans, and cut-ups. In this role, too, they enjoy a kind of official sanction—they stand apart, at the top of the caste system of clownish reprobates and extra-marital canoodlers. Beneath them, all others engaged in similar sneakiness and hypocrisy, notably top politicians pulling capers, look déclassé by contrast. A Prince with a wife and children can have his Camilla on the side and even be outed as her aspiring sanitary napkin, yet suffer only some raucous ribbing from the comics. Mere cabinet members and other MPs and public figures, the hoi polloi of bad deportment, are in for rougher treatment and have a lower survival rate. They just come off looking mean and ugly even if they do sometimes manage to navigate a scandal’s grungy waters without falling in and vanishing (as BoJo was able to put the affair with Petronella Wyatt in the rear-view mirror and, so far, subsequent shenanigans as well). It isn’t too much to say that, when it comes to the British population’s need to be kept agog and amused at the sins of the mighty, the Royals possess a noblesse oblige that other delinquents can only dream of.
I am an American and a committed believer in our republican form of government. I won’t deny, though, feeling some envy at this special advantage the British enjoy with their Monarchy. Over there, the Royals hold the license on sleaze and dopiness; everyone else is a poacher and is regarded as such by the great mass of people, helping to curb such things outside the Palace. That dynamic looks awfully appealing in America’s current polluted ethical environment, brought to us by the Trump administration. If Trump, who has none of the intelligence—much less education—of even mediocre British political leaders, had entered politics in the UK, he would not have lasted a single news cycle. As a non-Royal, his egregiously stupid, crude, and absurd way of conducting himself would have landed him in the political obituary section before he could say “covfefe,” “my generals,” or “bad hombres.” And that obit would have pulled no punches in the interest of being “fair and balanced.”
George Angell, January 2020