Reader Request Week 2023 #8: The British Head of State

Just in time for tomorrow’s coronation, this question from Miles B:

I’m British, and I’m curious what you (Americans in general, but obviously you in particular) make of the way we determine our head of state?

For those of you who might be unclear about this, the head of state of the United Kingdom is the reigning monarch, who as of this moment is Charles III. The monarch’s political responsibilities as the head of state are real but at this point (and for a while now, really) rather circumscribed; rare is it when the UK’s monarch has directly inserted themselves into the political machinery of that nation. Their duties are more ceremonial and, dare we say it, promotional; the monarchy is a boost for tourism in the UK and (mostly white) people (not formerly or at least recently part of the British Empire) see it as a quaint and mostly harmless thing for the UK to have. Awww, look, you have a King! That’s fun!

My own opinion about the UK monarchy is: Well, I wouldn’t have one, and from a democratic point of view the general idea of royalty and nobility is absolute nonsense, and I certainly wouldn’t choose my head of state on the basis of heredity; ask the Hapsburgs why. It’s just as easy to elect some largely harmless older person to be your head of state and be genially colorful but otherwise unobtrusive; lots of other European countries seem to do that just fine without promising that person’s oldest kid that they’ve got the gig when mom or dad kicks off.

But it’s not my country and not my business, and if the UK wants to keep trundling on with this sort of nonsense, and it seems clear that they do, and equally seems likely they will do through the current Prince George of Wales at the very least, then far be it from me to keep them from doing it. Go ahead and waste millions of pounds carting a 74-year-old man around in a buggy and then piling him in a church with a bunch of old robes and headgear featuring jewels pilfered from other countries, and then carting him back to his palace if it makes you feel good. You do you, UK. It’s your thing. You’ll probably be doing it again soonish in any event.

I can’t say how most Americans feel about this whole thing, but if I had to guess, I’d say we mostly consider the British monarchy as entertainment, and have done for years now. Every generation we get a new set of royals to enjoy, complete with their scandals and nonsense, and it’s mostly benign and pointless fun. Before there’s a rush to the comments, let me note that the Royal Family is not, in fact, just benign and pointless in the UK and elsewhere; they’re billionaires sucking down revenues from some of the choicest plots of land on the planet (for starters) and the family has a history of bad political and social positions and choices. But that’s not our problem here in the US! Here in the US, they’re kicky fun!

So, yeah. Not how I would do it, but it’s not up me, so you do your bad self, UK. Enjoy your new king, for as long as you have him.

— JS

39 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2023 #8: The British Head of State”

  1. Yes, we (by which I mean the citizens of the US collectively) have the same fascination with the royals as we do with our own celebrities who are famous for being famous rather than having done anything important or worthwhile. Seems like an expensive way to get people their drama fix (I mean, seriously, Jerry Springer found more interesting personalities at a fraction of the cost), but not my circus, not my monkeys.

  2. Of course, I couldn’t read that without hearing this echoing in my head:

    Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony … You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you! … I mean, if I went around saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

  3. Royals are reality television. Though admittedly the last few years have turned into Heroic Sussexes vs. Racist Royals, and the people remaining in the royal fold being pretty jerky. There used to be more of a mix between “the dull and the dazzling,” but the royal family sure haaaaaaates the dazzling ones and does their best to drive them out, one way or another. It’s fascinating how bad they are at being rich and famous and how non-charismatic most of them are. It’s like watching amateur hour reality TV compared to, I dunno, probably Kardashians who know what their lines are.

    What can I say, it amuses me.

  4. I’m pretty sure the new King is better at his job than the last several PMs the British have had.

  5. This is the most apt (as well as darkly funny) take I’ve seen on the topic of how Americans look at the Coronation of King Charles III. I personally am amused by the inordinate fascination that some (and I emphasize that “some”) Americans have with the Royal Family, its members, its “glitz,” and, yes, its scandals.

  6. I really thought that Charles had caused such scandal that had been put out to pasture and William was up next. And it would have been refreshing to see William assert himself into politics. I imagine he’d make Parliament and #10 have quite a bit of hand wringing.
    That would make for some true britcom

  7. Considering how long Charles’ parents lived, I think he’s got a reasonable shot at 20 years or so. They might even have paid off his coronation by the time William goes through the process.

  8. You don’t actually need a living monarch to have monarchy-themed tourist attractions. Just ask the French.

  9. My views on the Royals changed a lot when I visited London in Sept. 2019. We went to see an exhibit of da Vinci’s drawings that the Royals own. (this was to commemorate the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death) As I wandered the Queen’s gallery I couldn’t stop thinking about how these should be in a museum so people could see them regularly rather than when they decided to let some of them out of storage so the “little people” could see it. They own many ‘priceless’ pieces of art – which is yet another way they aren’t so benign or pointless… (and pay no estate taxes on them when a new generation takes over)

  10. What can I say, I like the tradition. I’m Australian, so it’s not strictly mine, but wherever you live, there’s royalty and nobility, and they might as well be born into it as scrubble up to it through merchant banking and real estate. But then I grew up on King Arthur and the knights of the round table.

  11. I agree in this with my father, who thought it helped the British public treat their real government as civil servants—he was particularly impressed in 1945 when Churchill was turfed-out as P.M.. He (in this wise, at least) fortunately did not live to see the first Trump Presidency, but I can easily imagine his believing, as I do, that a noticeable part of that portion of the polity who worship that ‘orrible littul man would be better-off worshipping someone with an even more obviously unearned position in society but much less likely to influence government.

    That is, borrowing language from the theists, I would hold that some people have a king-shaped hole in their souls. Some fill it with a fictional deityor deities, but many of those are still not satisfied and need more to fill it. Better that as much distance as were possible be maintained between the hole-fillers and actual power.

  12. To be fair though, John, as a Brit I’d rather have a benign olf buffer like Charles as my head of state, than an elected disaster like Trump…

  13. To be fair though, John, I’d rather have a benign old buffer like Charles as my hereditary head of state than an elected disaster like Trump

  14. I’d have to look long and hard to find a less engaging topic than royalty in the 21st century.

  15. Interestingly, the most compelling argument for keeping the monarchy here in Australia is to point at the US Presidential system and say “well we definitely don’t want THAT!”

    Heredity seems less troublesome than duelling rich old folks in a reality show loosely called an election.

  16. Without a royal family you can’t have lots of nobles, and it was those nobles who can safely take time to make inventions, get involved in serving their country (save the swamp!) or add colour by being eccentric.

    And it was they, already rich, who during WWII could risk their navy career by being independent and daring. These observations aren’t originally mine, I found them in the memoir of an aviation engineer, Neil Shute, in his memoir Slide Rule.

    Back to the royal family specifically: While not everybody equally loves the same public art, they remind me of what the army said about the dashing cavalry: “Adding a bit of colour to what would otherwise be an unseemly brawl.”

  17. I always wanted Australia to be a republic (UK monarch is still our head of state) and voted that way in the referendum. Nowadays though, I’m not so sure – if the choice is between a Charles or a Donald …
    Unlike the Brits, we at least don’t have to pay for it!

  18. All the Commonwealthers tutting about how at least [monarch] isn’t like electing That Former President are forgetting that being a a king is exactly and at times literally what TFP was shooting for. Luckily, we had peaceful means of removing him from power.

    One thing John doesn’t mention – and I think it’s because it’s so much part of US culture that we hardly notice it – is that the rejection of monarchs is part of the founding mythology of America. The idea of hereditary royalty being bad, outdated, and anti-democratic is hammered into us at a very early age. If you asked any American to sing the “No More Kings” song I would lay very good odds that they would know exactly what song you meant and could at least hit the chorus, and those odds go way up for anyone over a certain age.

  19. “I certainly wouldn’t choose my head of state on the basis of heredity; ask the Hapsburgs why”

    Fortunately even that isn’t as bad now, since national alliances now aren’t formed by marriages between their royalty.

    You can choose your head of state on the basis of heredity, while their choice of spouse can be essentially unconstrained, which will keep inbreeding to a minimum and let lots of fresh genes into the bloodline. No need to make junior marry a minor duchess from Naples in order to secure access to a port.

  20. @Cindy Ferguson:

    “these should be in a museum so people could see them regularly rather than when they decided to let some of them out of storage so the “little people” could see it.”

    I have bad news for you about museums and how much of their own collections are kept in storage.

  21. Having royalty does give the UK one advantage over the US — the ceremonial head of state and the leder of the government are separate. In the US we expect Biden to not only run the government but also do all the ceremonial things, ranging from Mourner in Chief, On-Site Shaker of Head at Natural Disasters, receiving championship sports teams, pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, and all the other things that are times sucks.

    I will note that the UK royalty does have a tradition of their males actually serving their country in front-line dangerous military roles, instead of limiting themselves to tweeting tough while going big game hunting to demonstrate they’re manly men that Josh Hawley would approve of.

  22. Every time this topic arises here in Australia there are a vast number of people who claim that we’re better off with a monarchy than with the kind of system that gives you [US President they most dislike (this predates Il Douche)]. And sure enough it’s happening here too.

    I disagree (the US system at least provides for the possibility of removing a President and limits their terms) but that doesn’t matter. There are more than two ways to get a head of state. Lack of imagination is no excuse for monarchism.

  23. Just as an aside, odd numbered Charles’ are Bad Juju for the English.

  24. @Chris E:

    Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss is quite the decade-plus in elected heads of government. Looking a bit like the worst of both worlds, tbh.

  25. As a Brit (although when asked I define myself as European… because Brexit) I agree that the whole thing is utter nonsense, and somewhat vulgar.

    Having said that, I am rather proud of having served in the only British Army regiment with two crowns on its cap badge – the Royal Green Jackets.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that America has developed it’s own form of royalty: The Kennedys, Bushes, Trumps, Kardashians, Guggenheims, Sacklers, Gettys, Rockefellers etc

  26. Just a comment on the costs, todays coronation has apparently cost 50 million UKP and it’s the first one for seventy years. The typical bill for the inauguration of a US president runs to 100 million USD and you have one of them every four years.

  27. If there’s one thing we can say about human beings, it’s that logic and common sense don’t generally come into play when it comes to selecting and keeping our leaders/rulers.

  28. I’m pretty ho-hum about the UK royalty as entertainment – they’re about the same as the Kardashians, whom I pay no attention to. Both have some money, which is simply not enough to rate my attention.

  29. “these should be in a museum so people could see them regularly rather than when they decided to let some of them out of storage so the “little people” could see it.”

    I have bad news for you about museums and how much of their own collections are kept in storage.

    Not to mention the innumerable pieces of priceless art in completely private hands that are NEVER put out to show.

  30. I’m a European Briton, if I had my way we would be a republic, but I wouldn’t go down the American route. There are plenty of European countries who manage to have decent Heads of State without the involvement of politics, you could even say that anyone who had ever been elected for a political party or, to take it further, been a member of a political party would automatically be ineligable to stand. The only political function would be to break parliamentary deadlocks that could not be broken any other way – which you can be sure politicians would work very hard to prevent.

    I could write an incredibly long post about my reasons, but they mostly come down to their ill-gotten wealth – take Elizabeth I she invested in a little venture of Walter Raleigh’s and made so much money she paid off the national debt from her share of the profits of the first cargo! That cargo? Slaves, and they went on in that and other equally reprehensible activities for centuries, they are still nicking things now. For a surprisingly polite version of some of the highlights search for Frankie Boyle’s “Farewell to the Monarchy”.

  31. My first thought was – it really isn’t anyone’s business how Athena spends her money! But that said, I’m impressed with how you discuss money issues with her, which is something every kid needs to learn.

    I also like how you include Athena in your blog and let her express herself. I may not read every post she writes, but her posts makes me smile. Precious father-daughter bonding moments!

  32. With the nearly 33% of the wealth in the United States held by around 1% of the population, we really aren’t in much of a position to cast too many stones at British royalty — we have our own entitled nobility, they just don’t go by medieval titles. 😉

    (As has been pointed out, the British don’t currently have the Trump/MAGA problem that we do, so there is that.)

  33. I think the Jorts The Cat twitter account did the best job of summing up my feelings about the coronation.

    “That gumdrop is going to wear a hat “worth” 5 billion dollars while he sits on top of a magic stone. C’mon, please be serious.”

    Yup, pretty much.

  34. “the current Prince George of Wales”

    The current heir to the throne is William, Prince of Wales. His son George is next in line but his title is Prince George.

  35. @Anthony Cunningham: Wrong I’m afraid. The heir to the throne is styled “X, Prince of Wales”, the children of the Prince of Wales are styled “Prince X of Wales” or “Princess Y of Wales” as appropriate.

  36. As a Canadian republican currently stuck in the UK (retiring VERY soon, back to Canada), I’ve been giving this a lot of thought this weekend.

    As much as I despise the idea of a hereditary monarchy, and as much as this weekend’s celebrations cost, I think you’re wrong on a couple of points.

    First, re: “waste millions of pounds carting a 74-year-old man around in a buggy”. Though I think it IS a waste, this is the first coronation in over 70 years. It’s surely cheaper than your own business of an inauguration every 4! I think Canada has both countries beat, as our Governor General gets installed without anybody noticing…

    Regarding “it seems clear that they do [want to keep the monarchy]”, I’d say it isn’t at all clear. I think there’s an overwhelming apathy amongst most English [towards Charles — they’d have happily kept Liz for eternity], and a considerable dislike for the monarchy amongst Scots, Welsh, and Irish (though Ulster Unionists are probably the most devout monarchists in the British Isles).

    I totally agree with Mister Dalliard that we don’t need a monarchy for the tourism. If we kicked them out of Buckingham, Windsor, etc, there’d be so many MORE places for the tourists to visit. He’s also right that we could become a republic and not have a US style president.

    butimbeautiful: That monarchy IS strictly yours. Australia is a monarchy and Charles III is King of Australia. Just as he is the King of Canada. You, however, are likely to ditch the monarchy long befoer we can.

    Sean Crawford: “it was those nobles who can safely take time to make inventions”. I dare say there were a few, but for the most part invention came first, THEN enoblement. For any British invention by someone with a title, I’ll name ten who didn’t have one at the time.

    Me, I haven’t set foot outside my flat this weekend. “Not my king!”

  37. After reading Prince Harry’s memoir “Spare” I can’t view the royals as light entertainment anymore. They are despicable people to their own family, ostensibly in service to the monarchy itself. But it’s deep-rooted and ugly. They sell one another out to the press to hide their own foibles and say it’s just the way things are done. It’s cultish behavior and not in the least funny.

    Good on Harry and Meghan for attempting to break the centuries-old cycle for their own kids.

%d bloggers like this: