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Monarchy's relevance, expenses divide British

| Friday, April 29, 2011

Henry VIII never had TMZ reporting on whichever of his six wives he was divorcing or beheading. When Edward VIII renounced the throne in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, he didn't have to worry about a sex tape going viral on YouTube.

With an estimated 2 billion viewers worldwide, Prince William and Catherine Middleton are not afforded that privilege. Their wedding, which could be happening live as you read this story, will be photographed, videotaped, streamed, tweeted, blogged and Googled. Tourism officials predicted an extra 600,000 visitors in London today, taking the crowd total to about 1.1 million and bringing in up to $80 million.

For better or worse, the newlyweds could be the first generation of Windsors who are celebrities first, royals second.

The world is a different place than it was in 1981, when the public swooned over the wedding of William's parents, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. It may have been the beginning of the end for what royal mystique remained. The couple's very public estrangement and divorce played out in tabloids, tell-all books by insiders and self-serving personal television interviews. Any skeleton in the royal closet became fair game. "The People's Princess" brought Buckingham Palace kicking and screaming onto the pages of People magazine.

Betsy Gleick, executive editor of People, says the couple is still a cut above movie stars and other celebrities.

"As Americans, I think, we're interested in this wedding because it's royal," Gleick says. "Here at People magazine, we love a good celebrity wedding, to be sure, but there's no venue like Westminster Abbey. The richest, most famous celebrity in America can't throw a wedding like this one."

After Diana's death in a car crash in Paris in 1997, Buckingham Palace's initial refusal to comment publicly was denounced as bloody-minded. Queen Elizabeth II reluctantly broke royal precedent by discussing what she considered a private family matter in a public television address.

Digital technology has finished the job that Diana started, says Robert Thompson, founding director of The Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Royals can no longer live at a polite remove, he says.

"When they got married, CNN had only been on the cable for 13 months," Thompson says. "Paparazzi is one thing, when all they could do was show up with a camera. Now everybody is a deputy paparazzi with a cell phone."

When British royalty share the same magazine covers as the Kardashians and Charlie Sheen, it begs the question: Does the British monarchy matter anymore• While popular, Queen Elizabeth II is essentially a royal ribbon cutter, critics say. How can Britain justify spending an estimated $32 million for security when the country faces severe budget cuts?

"The British monarchy -- it's more or less toothless," says Frank Farley, a former Londoner and psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, who includes public policy and leadership among his professional interests. "It does have power of a certain type, influencing public opinion and consuming enormous amounts of time and money."

Farley was born in Alberta, Canada, where a photo of the queen hung in every classroom. When he and his friends went to the movies, a picture of the queen on horseback would appear after the words "The End" appeared on the screen. The audience was required to stand, he says.

"I don't think democracy will have finally completed its role until monarchies are gone," he says. "We're sort of genuflecting to the wrong ideas and ideals in this thing. When you have such clear examples of hereditary transmission of wealth and influence as the monarchy has, it distorts people's concepts of achievement and how to get ahead."

A recent poll by the Guardian newspaper showed that 47 percent of the British public thought the monarchy helped unify the country, while 37 percent thought it was divisive.

The crown has made concessions to the times. The queen now pays taxes. Her Royal Highness is even on Facebook. William and Kate are said to understand that increased public accessibility, a precedent set by Diana, will be an essential part of their duties.

"I think there's certainly some interest in trying to make some of the more arcane aspects of the royal family more up to date," says David Miller, a professor of Irish history at Carnegie Mellon University. "I'd be very surprised if there was any serious movements to make the United Kingdom the United Republic. I don't see that on the cards."

Australians have wrestled with their relationship with the royal family. About 45 percent voted in a referendum in 1999 to scrap the queen as head of state. A former British penal colony, the country attracted immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, which over the centuries fought on-again and off-again against the English throne.

American commoner Bonita Veraldi of Pleasant Hills, who disdains British royalty by virtue of her Irish ancestors, did not plan to rise early this morning to watch the future princess walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.

"Personally, I'd rather watch paint dry," Veraldi says. "My opinion is that this monarchy has seen its day. What does it cost the country in salaries and upkeep• It's not like they need the money. There's no more countries to conquer and pillage. And do we need blow-by-blow accounts of their wrecked marriages?"

The British crown has survived much worse. After the English Civil War, which raged from 1642 to 1651, strongman and commoner Oliver Cromwell temporarily abolished the monarchy. In 1936, King Edward VIII sparked a constitutional crisis when he renounced the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

"I would argue that there's a lot of times they've lost mystique and they seemed to recover," says Joe Coohill, a professor of 19th-century Britain and Ireland at Duquesne University. "When Queen Elizabeth first came to the throne, people talked: 'This is a youngish girl, newly married. She's not up to the job.'

"Well, of course, 60 years later, she's still on the throne."

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