The recent kerfuffle over the Harry/Meghan interview demonstrates that the fascination with monarchy continues well into the 21C, even in a country that started a war rather than remain under the rule of a single man/family. It’s both bizarre and entirely natural at the same time.
After all, monarchies have been the predominant form of human socio-political organization over the past five thousand years, even after the size of these groupings got sufficiently large to require a fair amount of bureaucracy and infrastructure. As far as we can tell, the alternatives, usually oligarchies, with (very) occasional popular republics have been few on the ground until the last 100 years. The American experiment was not repeated outside the Western Hemisphere to any significant degree until the French completed their 82-year (1789-1871) revolution and settled down.
While the British (and later other second-tier European countries) maintained the monarchical form, they gradually transferred effective political power to (more-or-less) democratically elected governments. It wasn’t until a whole raft of monarchies blew themselves up in the second decade of the 20C (China, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottomans) that the republican form really took hold globally. Indeed, by 1920, there were hardly any real monarchies left of any size.
The monarchical form remained in many places and has only occasionally been ejected since then (Iraq, Iran, Greece, Albania, Spain (for a while), Cambodia). In most places, royal powers have been almost entirely eliminated and the primary function of the royal family is best interpreted, in the words of one observer, as a piece of “performance art.” In most countries, the family has “performed” their “art” pretty well, eliding the occasional scandal (Juan Carlos of Spain being the most recent exemplar). Encore performances by former royals continue to the amusement of aficionados of the obscure:
* Three claimants to the French throne (a Bourbon, an Orleans, and a Buonaparte) are still mucking about.
* The head of the House of Osman (who never lived in Turkey) “ruled” from 2009-2017, but his day job was as a librarian in New York City.
* The Tsarevich George Romanov just got engaged in January and it was thought appropriate to note that his fiancée (a nice Italian girl), was a “hereditary noblewoman.”
Outside of Europe, there are hereditary Rajas or Sultans in Malaysia, Kings and Emirs in various Arab states, the Emperor of Japan and a smattering of others (Bhutan, Lesotho, and Morocco). The Arab states are mostly dominated family oligarchies. Most keep a pretty low profile, but he current King of Thailand lives mostly in Germany and appears to be a fine example of a dissolute martinet.
In terms of other dynastic rulers (leaving the Bush family aside), we have the sui generis case of the Kim family of Pyongyang.
And then there is the British royal family, whose pomp, wealth, and column-inches matches all the others families combined (excepting the Sultan of Brunei). Without getting into the current set of personalities or heraldic quirks, the incumbent is currently Queen of sixteen commonwealth countries. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Victoria, who had more German than English blood (since diluted and polished with a couple of name changes). This highlights one of the great mysteries of monarchy: the significance of bloodlines. Here we are in the 21C, long past any adherence to the “divine right” of kings, yet multiple websites will give you the rank order of the 1200 or so current potential inheritors of the British crown (of whom, I’m sure, several are within six degrees of Kevin Bacon). As if. When covered with uniforms, slathered about with titles and medals, they have little to differ from the Masons or Scientology, cult-wise.
Other than the fact that they put on the best show in town (in terms of both ceremonies and tabloids).
One could argue that the British are the world champions of nostalgia and have carried on supporting the family even after their last great propagandist: Winston Churchill invoked their 1000+ year imperial continuity in 1940. One could argue that the Mountbatten-Windsor family is even more important, now that Britain is bereft of both empire and European integration. As a national symbol, with immense brand value (take that McDonalds!) they may well be worth the not inconsiderable sums paid by the taxpayers every year to support their operations.
However, if you include the amassed wealth held by the family (which is in addition to that held by the state (Buckingham Palace, Windsor Palace, etc.)), most of which was taken so long ago (by conquest, confiscation, and other exercises of royal power) that it has been effectively “laundered,” it is another story. A story that is hard to justify in the real world of hunger and unemployment that is daily life for many of Her Majesty’s subjects. No wonder that they have been quite good at eviscerating socialism.
There are certainly larger problems in the world, more glaring defects from common sense and morality than grasping after the evanescent remnants of royal and imperial glory. North Korean tanks, Thai elephants, the trooping of the Queen’s color guard—they’re all of a piece. Evidence of a widespread yearning for family and tribe (even as a spear-carrier), and for a connection to history. Royal families give their nations that not inconsiderable comfort of mythos in the face of a cold, rational, republican, bureaucratic world.
They don’t make any sense. Ah, well….