Daylight Withers the Windsor Magic

GEORGE F. WILL

June 25, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- In 1932, when George V gave the first Royal Christmas Broadcast, he coughed, and Britain sighed contentedly. ''A king who coughs is a fellow human being,'' reported The Spectator for any readers in doubt about that.

Today a mesmerized world sees enough of the Windsors' divorces, extravagances, assignations, embarrassing photographs, suicide attempts, press leaks, paternity suits, etc. to know that royalty are just like the rest of us. Swell.

This batch of lumpenroyalty -- Faulkner's Snopeses gussied up for a pageant -- are cruel to each other and contemptuous of the public that is footing the bill for their coarse lives. They are demystifying monarchy more rapidly than any republican could dream of doing.

Republicans have traditionally relied on turgid arguments about monarchy being a retrograde reliance on parental figures for political cohesion. But today the case against Britain's disheveled Royal Family can be stated briskly:

For people in the magnificence business, kitsch is bad business, not just bad taste. If you are (adopting Walter Bagehot's dichotomy) part of the ''dignified'' rather than the ''efficient'' aspect of the state, you don't dare be tacky. If your job is to leaven ordinary lives with elevating spectacle, be elevating or be gone.

Time was when monarchists defended monarchy by claiming that the vice that defines it is actually a virtue: ''Of course it is irrational -- it's supposed to be.'' That is, monarchy would not have its supposed power to provide social glue, its magic to fuse the nation into a family, if it relied on the thin gruel of reason. But today the fissionable Windsors, that no-longer-nuclear family, are giving bourgeois morality even more of a bad name than the bourgeoisie is giving it.

Britain's royalty, with their mistresses and illegitimate children (William IV, who died in 1837, had 10 by one actress -- a sort of monogamy, I suppose), has a record that would cause blushes in a brothel, but until recent decades the press averted its gaze. When in the 1930s the Prince of Wales was besotted with Baltimore's Wallace Simpson, Britain's press kept quiet, thereby encouraging his ruinous sense of invulnerability. However, those who live by publicity, as the Windsors have lately chosen to do, and as a modern monarchy probably must, can be fricasseed by it, particularly when the monarchy is invested with religious gravity.

A few decades ago an Archbishop of Canterbury, asked about the Windsors theological tastes, said, ''They're all Low Church. It's because they come from abroad.'' The Sovereign is ''defender of the faith,'' whatever that means this month in the politically trendy Church of England. It means precious little in England, where mosques are apt to be more crowded than Church of England services are.

A lot of the Sovereign's subjects are from abroad. The Windsors know what that is like. The name Wettin, the family name of Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Victoria's consort, was changed to Windsor in 1917, when things German were in bad odor.

The world could use a few stodgy, boring, transplanted monarchs just now, if they could be unifying forces in the shards of what once were Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Monarchy is a residue of mankind's primitive past, but in parts of Europe's backyard, mere primitivism would be a distinct improvement on barbarism.

For the unenthralled, meaning for grown-ups, the only justification of monarchy is mere utility. But Britain does not need its monarchy for any practical purpose. It is said the British masses like it and so should have it. That sort of non sequitur did not wash when the subject was gin, and it begs the important question: Does monarchy help or hinder Britain's attempt to like what it ought to like?

The British must decide if the monarchy, a ''link to a glorious past,'' encourages a retrospective cast of mind and is a subliminal endorsement of snobbishness and class hierarchies. If it makes a glorious future more difficult to achieve.

The monarchy costs sacks of money (it is hard to say exactly how many scores of millions of pounds). It is a sound investment only if the crown really does pull in tourists by the planeloads. Perhaps the British don't mind a governmental system justified by the sort of business thinking suited to the management of a theme park.

Getting rid of the monarchy might be more fuss and distraction than it would be worth. That, essentially, is the remarkably tepid defense The Economist today offers: The institution is too trivial to waste time talking about. But as Walter Bagehot, The Economist's great 19th-century editor, said, ''Above all things our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it. . . . We must not let in daylight upon magic.''

The magic is gone. When the current occupant of the throne is done, they should turn off the lights at Buckingham Palace.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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