Toffs Across the Pond

My British-born mother leans slightly to the left of Noam Chomsky. Polite and refined, her well-trained stiff upper lip quivers in barely repressed rage at the mention of tax cuts for the wealthy and other policies that create an entrenched elite. Yet she is curiously bewitched by the British monarchy.

I realized as a child that the Windsors had oddly embedded themselves deep in my mother’s psyche when, while being roused from slumber, she whispered in a semiconscious daze that the Queen was coming for tea. The memory comes to mind ahead of the lavish extravaganza that promises to be the wedding of William and Kate. How it is that an anachronistic institution like the monarchy survives in the country that gave the world the Magna Carta seven hundred years ago?

The answer surely cannot relate to the merit of the bluebloods, as the recent batch has proven gravely wanting. There was Edward VII, a dim-witted ne’er-do-well with Nazi-sympathies who was spirited away to the Caribbean during the Second World War to avoid embarrassment; his brother George VI, who flouted ancient custom by preemptively endorsing the Munich agreement before it could be considered by Parliament and later embraced a policy of appeasement well into Hitler’s violent campaign; Prince Philip, husband of the reigning monarch, whose penchant for bigoted quips is well-trod; and, of course, the laughably obtuse Prince Charles.

Such a pantheon of buffoonery is proof-positive that bloodline confers no special blessings. Still, the monarchy endures. Might the institution’s firm grip on the public’s imagination—just a fifth of Britons are republicans—have something to do with the sovereign’s role as a personification of the state and titular head of the Commonwealth? Maybe. But other countries like Italy and Israel also have ceremonial figureheads, but they are elected, not bestowed by birthright.

Perhaps the explanation is more pedestrian, having to do with the royals’ supposed usefulness as tourist attractions. Nope. Johann Hari observes in The Independent, “We are told that the Windsor family is great for tourism. In fact, of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain, only one is related to the monarchy—Windsor Castle, at number 17. Ten places ahead is Windsor Legoland. So using that logic, we should make a Lego man our head of state.”

What, then, could possibly explain the persistence of the British monarchy? Maybe that other great British institution, the class system, has something to do with it. That system, of course, is not what it was. George Bernard Shaw once said, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” No longer. But neither has the class system disappeared.

A casual survey of England’s governing elite suggests as much. Prime Minister David Cameron descends from King William IV, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has Russian aristocratic blood, and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is an heir to a baronetcy. Oxbridge “toffs” (upper class stiffs) also occupy many top perches of the Foreign Office. Empirical evidence may support the notion of a class-bound society. A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that pedigree, defined as having a university-educated father, counted for 62 percent of wage differentials between equally educated males. “Education is not as important for social mobility in Britain as for other [European] countries,” observed the OECD’s Romain Duval. “Class…is the most likely explanation.”

That the durability of the class system in the UK is mirrored by the endurance of the British monarchy is no coincidence, as the latter is a barometer of the former. Were Britons to finally cast aside a centuries-old arrangement premised on notions of inherited virtue, the monarchy would also be discarded. But such ideas still have currency, and therefore so does royalty.

Of course, every society has a class system. Our national myths tell us otherwise in America. We are conditioned to think that in the land of the free personal initiative alone determines success. But in fiction there is fact: our belief in the perfection of our meritocracy reveals a very real and deep-seated egalitarian ethos. We may not be what we think we are, but at least what we would like to be is what we should be. The same cannot be said of our English cousins.

As for my British-born mother, I suspect she might just put down the latest edition of Nation to watch the royal wedding. Perhaps she’ll even invite the Queen over for tea.

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