Prince Harry and his fiancée Meghan Markle are set to be married this Saturday at noon GMT (so 7 am Eastern and 4 am Pacific in the US) at Windsor Castle some 21 miles west of London.
Many US networks, including ABC, BBC America, CBS, CNN, E!, Fox News, HBO, NBC, PBS, and TLC, will air the ceremony live, with some coverage beginning two or three hours earlier, and a number of outlets, including the New York Times and PBS, are live-streaming on YouTube:
The wedding will be a truly massive public spectacle. When Harry’s brother William married Kate Middleton in 2011, an estimated 300 million people watched, and retail spending in the London area grew by about £107 million ($145 million) that April. Given how much more pervasive web live streaming and mobile devices are than they were seven years ago, and given an expected increase in US visitors to the country because Markle’s an American, the viewership and economic figures could be higher this time, though probably not as high as the billions of viewers and billions in economic growth some credulous observers have predicted the wedding will generate.
Any event that big is bound to generate a massive backlash in turn, or at least calculated indifference. A YouGov poll commissioned by the anti-monarchy group Republic found that 66 percent of Britons say they’re not interested in the event, and 57 percent thought the royal family should pay for both the wedding (which it is) and the security costs (which taxpayers are largely covering).
Going even further, a small but vocal minority of Britons — about 17 percent as of 2016 — advocate abolishing the monarchy and adopting a republic. And British republicans are extremely passionate about it; during William and Kate’s wedding, I was studying in the UK, and a few of my classmates burned the Union Jack in one of our college’s courtyards.
It’s an understandable impulse. In the modern era, royal families can feel like anachronisms at best and colossal, offensive wastes of money at worst. And they offer an uncomfortable point of commonality between democratic countries that protect civil liberties like the UK and absolute monarchies that commit grotesque crimes against their own citizens and neighbors, like Saudi Arabia.
But constitutional monarchies and absolute monarchies have about as much in common as actual republics like the US, Ireland, and France do with dictatorial “people’s republics” like China, Laos, or North Korea. Indeed, there’s some evidence that constitutional monarchies, especially well-entrenched ones like the UK or Sweden or the Netherlands, can be more responsive to voters and more inclined to resolve issues by election than by elite manipulation.
I’m not a Briton, and if the people of the UK want to get rid of their monarchy, that’s their prerogative. But here are a few reasons why they might want to keep the Windsors in their castle — or at least feel a bit less embarrassed about having fun watching the festivities on Saturday.
Monarchies are more democratically legitimate
Generally speaking, in a parliamentary system, you need a head of state who is not the prime minister to serve as a disinterested arbiter when there are disputes about how to form a government — say, if the largest party should be allowed to form a minority government or if smaller parties should be allowed to form a coalition, a dispute that occurred 10 years ago in Canada.
That head of state is usually a figurehead president elected by the parliament (Germany, Italy) or the people (Ireland, Finland), or a monarch. And monarchs, in my opinion, are better.
Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor general of Australia did so in 1975, it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated. Nothing like it has happened since.
As Margit Tavits at Washington University in St. Louis once told me, “Monarchs can truly be above politics. They usually have no party connections and have not been involved in daily politics before assuming the post of the head of state.” But figurehead presidents have some degree of democratic legitimacy and are typically former politicians. That enables a greater rate of shenanigans — like when Italian President Giorgio Napolitano schemed, successfully, to remove Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, due at least in part to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entreaties to do so.
Napolitano is the rule rather than the exception. Oxford political scientists Petra Schleiter and Edward Morgan-Jones have found that presidents, whether elected indirectly by parliament or directly by the people, are likelier to allow governments to change without new elections than monarchs are. In other words, they’re likelier to change the government without any democratic input at all:
Worse, Tavits, in her book Presidents With Prime Ministers, finds that directly elected presidents make the public less politically engaged, depressing turnout in parliamentary elections by about 7 percent. Even indirect elections can be extremely polarizing, she finds, and tend to produce presidents who rule in ways that subtly benefit their parties.
If you’re going to have a parliamentary system of government — and you should — a monarch is a much better way to go than a president.
The cost of monarchy is low
Opponents of the British royal family often point to its expense as a reason to abolish it. Republic, the anti-monarchy group, estimates that the royal family costs £354 million ($477.5 million) a year. By contrast, an earlier report by Republic estimated that Germany’s president only costs £26 million ($35 million) a year.
But by Republic’s own admission, monarchies don’t have to be that expensive. Spain’s monarchy, according to Republic, costs only £8 million ($10.8 million) a year, considerably less than the presidents of Portugal, Finland, and Germany. In fact, the monarchies in Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden all cost less than the German presidency as well. Monarchy can be done on the cheap.
That said, it’s not clear if cheaper would be better in the UK context. Unlike, say, the Spanish monarchy, the UK monarchy has an exceptionally powerful, and profitable, brand. Even conservative estimates, like one putting the tourism value of the monarchy at £500 million ($768 million) a year, suggest the monarchy pays for itself. More narrowly, the $145 million that the 2011 royal wedding is estimated to have generated in retail spending more than covered taxpayers’ cost of securing the event.
That’s a quite small economic boost, to be sure. But it puts a lie to price-based criticisms of the monarchy.
The British monarchy is not an anachronism. It is not a waste of money. It makes British democracy more responsive to the concerns of citizens at little or negative cost to British taxpayers. It’s okay to watch their ceremonies, and it’s okay to think they’re fun — because they are.