Opinion

Arthur I. Cyr: Britain’s royal birth part of a greater national story

Arthur I. Cyr More Content Now
Posted: May. 14, 2019 12:07 pm

“Meghan Markle has officially given birth to a baby boy!” That gushing statement is how “Town and Country” magazine in the United States begins an article on the arrival of the newest member of the British royal family, early in the morning of May 6.

The baby weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces. For those unwaveringly committed to the European Union, make that 3.26 kilograms. The infant has the rather sizable name, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor.

American Meghan Markle became the Duchess of Sussex with marriage to Prince Harry last spring. Our pervasive media ensured that news travelled ’round the world. The focus of domestic and international news, entertainment and just general media on this particular family’s events is pervasive, pressing and - for some involved - prying.

Nevertheless, all those personalities, extravagant costumes, and courtly ceremony undeniably generates an intensely interested international audience. The storybook dimension draws both political and apolitical people, and at least undeniably the news usually is positive - and undeniably not fake.

For many, this is all so, so unnecessary. After all Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state of the United Kingdom - which includes Northern Ireland as well as Britain - has little direct governing power.

However, the British monarch does have residual constitutional powers, including the formality of actually appointing a government following a general election or other, sometimes unanticipated shakeups at the top of the nation’s political system. The public role of the queen or king may be largely symbolic, but that can become important psychologically or politically in a time of national crisis or tragedy, including war.

Last spring also included a birth in Britain’s royal family. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to a son, named Louis Arthur Charles. The baby boy weighed 8 pounds, 7 ounces.

Meanwhile Britain’s government, following the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, has since been involved in a lengthy, agonizing effort to do so. Rather than a fairy tale of royal romance and parenthood, this bizarre ordeal has seemed more like “Alice in Wonderland.”

Over four centuries ago, namesake Queen Elizabeth I was forcefully in charge of the British Isles. Those were brutal times, and losing a power struggle could cost your life.

Elizabeth modernized Britain by generally respecting the law and Parliament with prudent leadership. She stabilized politics and government following the tumultuous reign of her father Henry VIII.

Today, royalty and representative government have important complementary functions. As Walter Bagehot described in his 1867 book “The English Constitution,” Parliament handles the practical “efficient functions” of governing while the monarchy handles the largely ceremonial “dignified functions.”

The important ceremonial functions address the collective emotions of the people at large regarding government. In the 1930s, King Edward VIII generated great controversy when he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, also an American. In that different earlier time, the fact that she was not British generated extensive concern and debate. She also had been divorced twice. In general, notoriety followed her activities.

Vastly more important, Edward was sympathetic to Nazi Germany, as well as being personally highly erratic. Berlin considered him a strategic asset, in both generating domestic support and eventually helping control Britain in a conquered Europe.

Finally, Edward did abdicate and marry his American. After the war began, successor King George VI proved an invaluable partner of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

This history puts current seemingly endless British debate regarding Europe in appropriate context.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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