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Robert Reich: Queen Elizabeth II And The Social Utility Of Royal Families – OpEd

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The death of Queen Elizabeth II is not a tragedy. Her life was long and noble, in every sense of the word. 

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That Britain mourns her passing itself signals something special about the relationship between the Brits and their Royal Family. For it is in fact their royal family – not just an archaic symbol of what remains of the British Empire but a living, breathing, soap-opera of a family that in the minds of many Brits symbolized modern-day Britain.

To those who say it’s bizarre for one of the world’s major democracies of the twenty-first century to cling to the fiction of royalty (and it is indeed a fiction – Queen Elizabeth II, and now her son, King Charles – have no tangible political power) I say this: It’s a relatively harmless fiction – and one that arguably meets the needs of people to gossip about, project upon, and vicariously live the lives of a storybook family that tries to be of service of the nation.

Here in America, many of us romanticize our presidents and their families, at least at the start of an administration. 

Remember Camelot?

But because our presidents head the executive branch of the government, the two roles – the projected glamor and the political reality – often get confused, leaving us disappointed if not disgusted. 

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After Camelot came Lyndon Johnson who pulled up dogs by their ears. And then, eventually, Donald (“when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything”) Trump.

Britain’s government may seem drab and boring (Boris Johnson to the contrary notwithstanding) but is at least free to do its boring best. 

Here, we demand that our presidents and their spouses throw formal balls and state dinners, decorate the White House like a castle, appear in person at every major national anniversary or memorial or funeral, and always symbolize the nation.  

I’m certainly not suggesting America have a royal family. Just that Britain’s infatuation with its own may have some social utility there that we Yanks don’t understand.  

May Queen Elizabeth II RIP.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at robertreich.substack.com. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

One thought on “Robert Reich: Queen Elizabeth II And The Social Utility Of Royal Families – OpEd

  • September 10, 2022 at 4:45 pm
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    I’m a Briton but in NO WAY infatuated with the royals. Broadly speaking, I endorse the Reich position, but I’d flesh it out somewhat. Even more importantly than saving the executive time that needs to be better spent, the Royal Family, especially but not only the monarch, deprives politicians of all types of the emotional capital that makes them most dangerous. From the Anglo-Saxon world, I’d offer Oswald Mosley in the 1930’s and Donald Trump today. This is structural: people from other countries can add their own examples. We can attack and satirise our powerful people without being unpatriotic or, perhaps more importantly, by being vulnerable to attack by others as unpatriotic. Though it could be seen as a kind of insurance policy which you hope will never be activated, I see this passive contribution by the Royal Family to the life of the UK as seriously valuable. It will be interesting to see which other states continue to avail themselves of this facility.

    As to what goes on inside the Royal Family it’s none of my business. For the record, I follow what I call the Samuel Brittan position. One of the pre-eminent financial journalists of all-time, Brittan was invited onto the panel of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. A question was asked concerning (Prince) Charles and Di (the late Princess of Wales. After a longer pause than normal, Brittan responded “I don’t know and I don’t care”, for which he received a round of applause. I continue to applaud.

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