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What the House of Windsor Does

What mere laws cannot: They personify the universal struggle to live with dignity.
September 19, 2022
What the House of Windsor Does
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Midjourney)

In the days of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, culminating in her funeral today, commentators have attempted to sum up her remarkable seventy years as monarch of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the Commonwealth realms, crown dependencies, and overseas territories. She and her family have provided—through fictional portrayal and actual drama—a living soap opera, generating the kinds of problems that only the truly wealthy can get into, and always under the klieg lights of modern media. The lives of the House of Windsor have been vastly entertaining, but is this all we’ve gotten—or all we will get—from monarchy?

Yes—and no. To the extent that Elizabeth had formal power, it was over her family (“Yes, you will be summering in Balmoral, and we don’t want to hear another word about it”) as she guided an unruly brood through to adulthood and beyond. She was always perfectly calm in public, impossible to rattle (even while being shot at), always ready with the right word, the right expression—the essence of reassurance as the “clattering train” of modernity threatened to go off the rails. No matter how bad the day was, she—a child who lived through the Blitz and the at times ignominious end of an empire—was there, a comforting presence to remind her nation and the world that every problem eventually passes, and that hope is just around the corner. The motto of her reign could have easily been “Hang On.” During Margaret Thatcher’s administration in the 1980s, a speech was prepared for the queen to broadcast in the event of imminent nuclear war; the prepared remarks called on people “up and down the country” to remain calm and look for ways to help their neighbors. Elizabeth was a monarch suited to the stresses of the apocalypse.

Now we have King Charles III, very much his father’s child—irritable, demanding, irascible, growling at the servants, and prone to intervene a bit too freely in affairs of government. His public flights of self-expression are guaranteed to entertain for whatever years God gives him on the throne, providing a glimpse of an autocratic temperament contained by a constitutional system. As I said, this will be good fun to watch. But I would also argue that these imperfections are as much a part of the “dignified” role the British monarchy plays in governance as the perfectly spaced cutlery at a Windsor Castle state dinner. Here’s what I mean.

The Windsors are a tetchy bunch, afflicted by a selfishness and ill temper that is supercharged by an extraordinary level of entitlement. In other words: human beings, but on steroids. Like royalty across the ages, they tend toward chronic marital unfaithfulness, often the product of the unhappy arranged marriages and public pressures that go along with the lives they lead. Of the marriages of Elizabeth’s children, only the youngest, Edward and Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, have lasted.

The rest of the royal family lagged the world when it came to formally ditching unhappy unions, but they have more than caught up, and in so doing, they have likely brought reassurance to countless millions that a failed marriage doesn’t mean a failed life. It is possible to begin again. Even figures like Andrew, a “royal” screwup if ever there were one, help demonstrate what family does when one of its number publicly shames and embarrasses not just themselves, but the entire “firm”: provide consequences and support. The Windsors, as a family, are modeling for British society how to muscle through when tested by the strains of modernity and human frailty, and they are doing so in real time under constant observation. These stresses, channeled through the starchy, formalistic, and anachronistic rituals of monarchy, model how to hold an imperfect and sometimes troubled family, and society, together.

The monarchy’s lack of formal political power is almost beside the point. Laws are comparatively weak instruments, and few people ever “feel” worked upon by them. They are also clumsy, lacking in nuance and understanding of individual circumstances, and costly to enforce. Laws create all sorts of negative externalities and unintended consequences. Culture, tradition, and norms, on the other hand, surround and constrain us constantly, subtly, and often invisibly, shaping our behavior and fitting us for the constant exchange that life in a complex, dynamic society requires. Without manners, customs, values, and, most importantly, self-command, democracy wobbles. When we talk about the “service” monarchy performs, the “value for money” exchange between British taxpayers and their sovereign, it’s this: acting out before a sometimes bewildered public exaggerated forms of civil behavior, getting along under trying circumstances, and offering public acts of piety, comfort, and forgiveness. If you will forgive a tautology, self-government in a democratic system begins with governing oneself. The “dignified,” it turns out, is indispensable.

Of course, it’s yet to be seen whether King Charles is up to the task before him, but I’m optimistic. He cannot and will not be another Elizabeth. For seventy years, Elizabeth leaned forward as a mother to the nation—encouraging, celebrating, admonishing, hushing, binding up wounds, all while helping to midwife modern Britain through to an acceptance of its new, diminished but still important role in the world. Now “father” will have his chance.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he researches workforce development and criminal justice issues.