Boomer Voices: What’s the British Monarchy Worth?

Having lived in London decades ago, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs still watches the British monarchy with a little extra insight and a little extra interest. As he writes as a Boomer Voice, the recent funeral of the Queen’s husband Prince Philip gave him a fresh glimpse.

I didn’t mean to watch it. Honest.

But yesterday morning when I heard choral music from the next room, I wandered in to ask my wife why she had the TV on so early in the day. She never does that. Neither do I.

Queen Elizabeth II sits alone at the funeral for her husband.

But she had tuned in to see the funeral service at Windsor Castle outside London for Prince Philip. Or, to leave no title unturned in the proud pomp of the United Kingdom, most Exalted Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, upon whom had also been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Grand Master and Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom, One of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal in the Army and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip some years ago.

And husband, of course, of Elizabeth, the Queen of the Kingdom, Head of the Commonwealth, and Defender of the Faith.

Pomp is a hallmark of the Royals. Pomp, and protocol, and privilege.

As a young correspondent with ABC, I saw it up close, because along with Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters and two other correspondents, I was part of the live broadcast almost exactly 40 years ago of the lavish London wedding of Charles and Diana. It was ill-fated, of course, but we didn’t know that at the time. Rather, all we saw was a fairy tale, the scope of its splendor and the sweep of its staging and the extent of its audience never seen before, and never since, and possibly, as the monarchy continues to lose its luster, never again.

The wedding in 1991 of Charles and Diana.

But on that magical day, the monarchy made some sense. No matter that the feverish excitement was for the charismatic young blonde who charmed every citizen who saw her, rather than for the uncharismatic king-in-waiting she was marrying. What did matter was, it provided distraction from racial riots that had just rocked several British cities. It boosted an economy still recovering from dysfunction and recession. It gave pride to a culture being fast overtaken from across the Atlantic. It made the Queen’s subjects feel like part of something special.

For that day, as the center of attention for three-quarters of a billion people who watched from around the world, they were.

Greg Dobbs

Yesterday was yet another episode of the pomp, and protocol, and privilege that the Royals keep alive, for weddings and funerals alike. The extensive array of Philip’s medals, swords, and sashes; the angelic choir of St. George’s Chapel; the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry; the Buglers of the Royal Marines; the solitary bagpiper and his graceful ballet as he receded from the service.

But as I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder, what did Philip, what did Charles and Diana, William and Kate, Harry and Meghan, achieve to earn all this?

Either they were born into their unparalleled privilege, or they married into it. Yes, to varying degrees, most of the royals have represented their nation with duty and dignity. First among them, Elizabeth herself. Some have raised substantial sums for praiseworthy charities. A few have risked their lives in wars. Most have abided the onus of the endless glare of the spotlight, and the endless grind of public appearances. Prince Philip once called himself “The world’s most experienced plaque-unveiler.”

To be sure, on top of his 22,000+ solo public appearances on the behalf of the Crown, Philip did more work than just unveiling plaques. He undertook programs to further education, and science, and the future of his nation’s youth. But all those titles? Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and Lord High Admiral and all the rest? Some were bestowed on him, as they are on other royals, whether he worked for them or not.

Mind you, as we saw in post-mortem revelations about Diana, and in the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry, and if nothing else, in the TV series “The Crown,” even the most privileged life isn’t always the happiest life. People are people, whether luxuriating in the royal chambers at Buckingham Palace, or raking muck from the royal stables in Buckingham’s backyard.

But still, unlike the stablehands, the Royals get to live their lives of pomp and protocol and privilege. And pearls. And ponies. And palaces. Which don’t come cheap.

The late Prince Philip.

British taxpayers just last year spent almost $100 million to support the extended royal family— for staff, for security, for castles, for carriages, for maintenance. If I still lived and paid taxes in London, as I did 40 years ago, I wouldn’t be real happy about that. Knowing that the family’s net worth is put as high $88-billion, I’d say, you keep your crowns, I’d like to keep my money.

Granted, the allure of the Royals as a tourist attraction brings in upwards of $2-½ billion for the nation’s coffers, so maybe it’s a good bargain anyway. But the issue isn’t just money. It’s principle. Namely, the principle that people should be revered, and remunerated, for what they’ve accomplished, not what they’ve inherited.

Yet they are the objects of opulent adulation. It was obvious this past week as thousands of Brits, some probably stretching their household budgets, bought bouquets and made the trek to Buckingham Palace to leave them with a mountain of flowers at the front gate… even though the Queen, grieving more than 20 miles away at Windsor Castle, wasn’t even there.

To adulterate Mark Twain, reports of the monarchy’s death might be greatly exaggerated.

Flower memorial on the lawn outside Windsor Castle.

For a few minutes between events during Charles and Diana’s wedding, Peter Jennings and I had a little time on the air that we had to kill— mindful that we were killing it in front of millions of viewers— and he asked me my opinion of the royal family’s legacy. The first thing I thought of, which in a live broadcast means the first thing I said, was, “Having a legacy for the next generation.” It seemed safe in the context of that royal wedding. In the wake of more recent estrangements and scandals and controversial cold shoulders that sometimes look like a centerpiece of royal relationships, it seems less safe today.

Catherine Mayer, the author of a biography of Prince Charles called “The Heart of a King,” yesterday wrote of the prospects almost surely now facing the royal heir when, after waiting 70+ years, he eventually becomes King: “Public sympathy for the personal loss that must precede his coronation would tide him over.”

But right now, as she wrote, it is Elizabeth, not Charles, who carries the burden of continuity: “It falls to a freshly bereaved widow to use her platform for a reset. Public sympathy will be on her side, but time and wider trends are not.”

In opinion polls, the majority of British citizens still say they want the monarchy. At the same time, a growing number are asking, what have the Royals done to deserve their privilege? How much longer will we support it?

It’s a cliché, but never more apt: only time will tell.

3 Comments

  1. Great piece, Greg. I’ve never really understood the fascination with the Royals here, or even where they rule. And for that matter, I’ve never fully understood what they even rule over, or what it is that they actually do. Thanks for a glimpse inside the monarchy in its time of grieving.

    1. Hi Alan; ditto Greg, great piece for those of us who haven’t lived there; thanks.
      As I understand it, these days they don’t rule, although almost everyone born there defers to them; I think mostly by custom. The Queen is “head of state” while the Prime Minister is “head of government”, which functions very much the same as ours in the USA. With the caveat of “on behalf of and by the consent of the monarch”. (quotes pulled from Wikipedia) It works for them because it has for centuries, but I think they should should “get off the dole”, as we say.

  2. Great piece -it’s sad when any family member dies, and I am sure that is the same for the Royal family. However, the whole concept of a Royal Family and the Monarchy in totally antiquated and should be unacceptable in a true democracy. I like Jerry Sienfeld’s take on the monarchy – “I know why you Brits want to keep the Monarchy – ” it’s because you like to play dressup” .

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