It's the Queen's 60th Anniversary: Why Is Britain Still a Monarchy?

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The British royal family is an expensive anachronism and little more.

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Queen Elizabeth visits the Dersingham Infant and Nursery School in Dersingham on the 60th anniversary of her rule / Reuters

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the British throne, which occurred upon her father's death in 1952. Happy anniversary -- or Diamond Jubilee, as it is known -- Your Majesty. Now: what exactly are you still doing there, anyway?


Nostalgia and the royals' tourist appeal aside, there's something a bit jarring both to logic and to liberal democratic sensibilities about what the queen stands for. After all, British "citizens" are still at least nominally, and arguably legally, considered "subjects." The United Kingdom's Home Office and the passports it issues reflect the country's switch in 1949 from the language of subjecthood to citizenship, and thus make a distinction between "citizens of the United Kingdom" and "British subjects." That's not a particularly pretty distinction, since the latter is mostly a leftover of the country's imperial era.

As a privately funded theme park, the royals have real potential

But as plenty of experts have pointed out, there is no piece of paper that officially designates Brits as "citizens." And if a magazine-length article can be written under the headline "Are we subjects or citizens?" as the BBC did in 2005, whatever scraps of citizenship clinging to Britons can't be all that substantial.


The financial side of the British monarchy is no less quirky. Governing for payment is standard, but the queen reigns, which appears mostly to mean visiting things. Strange as this looks from a practical standpoint, it's even stranger in theory. In 2012, why would the people of a Western state pay someone to subjugate them? That Britain is Western matters here not so much because of values but because of history. The British state was arguably the first in the region to be organized along the principles of an explicit social contract; it's the heir to the English Magna Carta in 1215 as well as the Glorious Revolution, where, for the first time, monarchs -- King William and Queen Mary -- were brought in to accept a crown on the subjects' own terms. Yet, in a twist that continues to fascinate historians, William and Mary paved the way for remarkably conservative stability in the ensuing centuries. France, as the trope goes, had a political revolution, Britain had an industrial one. And here the two countries are today, France heading into the final stretch of a presidential election, while a not insignificant portion of the British economy gets poured into preparations for a June-weekend Diamond Jubilee of a figurehead queen, who Britons never explicitly agreed to support.

Though the March 2011 financial report on royal finances proudly announced a 19% decrease in the Queen's official expenditure over the course of five years, is this really much solace? Her family will still spend £32.1 million, quite a lot of money. Remarkably, UK education secretary Michael Gove reportedly also wanted the public to donate a £60 million royal yacht to Her Majesty for the 2012 celebrations, although the details of that proposal are disputed, and private donations were mentioned as well.

Downing Street nixed the public funding idea, fortunately. Prime Minister David Cameron did declare early Monday, though, that "Today is a day to pay tribute to the magnificent service of Her Majesty the Queen." Her "experience, dignity, and quiet authority," he also mentioned are indisputable, but "pay tribute" seems a bit too atavistically close to home for comfort, and Brits don't have as much tribute to give up as they used to. And "magnificent service"? No one doubts the queen keeps a pretty punishing schedule of standing in formal ceremonies and visiting schools for a lady her age -- but there are a few palaces and a lifetime source of income in the deal.

The royal wedding is over. Kate's and Pippa's dresses were fantastic, and the hats were fun. No argument there. As a privately funded theme park, the royals have real potential. The monarchy, so the crown defenders' argument goes, does indeed bring in cash for the country through tourism and from the Crown Estate. But the current set-up is bizarre, and the frenzied yearning for a U.S. equivalent among so many of my American countrymen and women last spring was puzzling. In the cold, clear light of this less glamorous royal event, the monarchy looks like exactly what it is: a major anachronism. Nothing more.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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