If the British royal family can't even dazzle Americans, the monarchy is truly up a creek and Britons who think its demise won't matter except to snobs and tourists are in for a shock; the monarchy is central to British democracy.
Britons talk about the royals as if they were a long-running sitcom about to be canceled. In fact, if America has a big comfy family-sedan-style democracy, Britain's is a supple upscale sports model that can outperform any government on the road. We're not going to trade ours in; it suits us perfectly. But we ought to understand Britain's, for the pleasure of admiring some gorgeous governmental machinery and to understand what the queen is actually for.
Make no mistake, the royals are in trouble: Prince Charming remarried in March and hardly anyone anywhere bothered to tune in. Recently, the conservative National Review praised the restraint, dutifulness and dignity of the queen, and suggested that she will soon be booted out the door.
Many admire QE2, but almost no one seems to like her. Maybe it's worth recalling that in 1952 when she took over, Winston Churchill was prime minister for the second time, and he immediately fell in love with her platonically. She was young and (arguably) pretty. Anyway, a woman who could captivate Churchill must have been formidable; he did not captivate easily. In one of their last photos together, he gazes at her with rapt, wistful diffidence.
In public, the queen apparently sees it as her duty to be dignified rather than cuddly. People do need rocks to lean on as well as teddy bears to hug; but ours is the Teddy Bear Age.
Whether or not you warm to the queen, you should understand the institution. But don't expect the British to explain it to you. They have a history of obfuscation.
The 19th century English journalist Walter Bagehot got things rolling. He wrote that the monarchy's "mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic." (It's just too wonderful to explain; so don't ask.)
Modern Britons are less reverent but they harp on the same theme: The monarchy's main business is entertaining the public. Britons don't like talking (or thinking?) about its role in British government.
But, in fact, the queen's main business is not to wow tourists; it is to exude stability. She helps the government seem stable so it can be turbulent without worrying anybody (too much). Ordinarily, stability and flexibility work against each other. The monarchy lets them coexist.
Take Prime Minister Tony Blair, newly reelected: He is entitled to a five-year term. But whenever he likes, he can dissolve Parliament, call an election and get himself another five years. There are no lame-duck PMs: Blair is not term-limited. And if he should lose interest or popularity, he can hand
his job to the colleague he chooses whenever he pleases.
Of course, the House of Commons can dissolve him too, can force his resignation whenever it wants. His own party can do the same. And in a national unity government (like the one during World War II), the PM can gather all major parties into the Cabinet, creating a new super party that can claim allegiance from its members in Parliament and endorse candidates in elections.
This extraordinary flexibility works well because of the queen. She is the ballast that helps keep the ship of state from capsizing no matter how much goofing around takes place on deck. (No need for ballast to be brilliant or exciting.) It's a law of organization that VPs come and go, but the top dog's disappearance makes the organization stagger.
That decapitated feeling is no good for a nation's mood or currency or economy. But with the soothingly familiar queen always on duty, Britons generally feel stable. And the feeling of great stability permits the reality of great flexibility. That is the monarchy's invaluable contribution.
Many nations try for the same benefits by electing a ceremonial president to a long term. But the queen has no party background; no one's ever voted for or against her; her term goes on and on. In comparison, a ceremonial president is a mere hopped-up politician.
Britain's constitutional monarchy is like Queen Elizabeth: seems inscrutable; works
beautifully. But let's not trade in our republic.
American government is transparent (anyone can understand how it works) and so are we. Britain's government is opaque, and so are the British. Some things work out perfectly.