Thursday, December 06, 2012

Culture Shock 12.06.12: Congratulations, royal watchers, it's a Windsor!

The announcement of a royal pregnancy in the House of Windsor comes at an auspicious time for a realm in the grip of fiscal austerity.

This is not exactly the way it happened.
However indulgent British "austerity" may be — government spending cuts have been trivial while taxes have been hiked, repeating the fairytale of virtually every nation enacting "austerity" measures — austerity is largely a state of mind. And what can lift the spirits of Her Royal Majesty's subjects more than the prospect of a new heir?

Yes, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, and her husband Prince William are expecting. This is particularly good news for British tourism. The royal family and its royal residences are among Great Britain's major tourist attractions, to the princely sum of more than $800 million a year, while the cost of running the royal household last year was a mere pittance by comparison, roughly $52 million, according to figures from The Telegraph and Monday's exchange rate.

Tourism is big business in the U.K., so this is all very important. And as anyone who has ever run a tourist attraction knows, you have to keep the attraction fresh to keep the visitors and their gift-shop purchases rolling in. Those souvenir replicas of Big Ben and Union Jack T-shirts don't sell themselves.

A British royal baby is the equivalent of Six Flags adding a new roller coaster. You have to install new attractions to keep the tourists coming.

And most of the English-speaking world is entranced. First a royal wedding complete with ridiculous hats out of a rejected Monty Python sketch, now a baby! It's almost enough to make up for Kate's revealing run-in with the paparazzi just a few months ago. The way large numbers of us latch onto celebrity — any celebrity — it's clearly part of human nature. And say what you will about Elizabeth II and her sprawling family, at least they do typically display some measure of class, that heir-do-well Prince Harry excepted. Yet even his tawdry tabloid trysts are to be preferred to the antics of the houses of Hilton, Lohan and Kardashian.

Poor Harry. Baby makes third in line for the throne, pushing him to fourth, for which there is no payout. (This also applies to the other game of thrones, the queue for the royal washroom.)

Now I understand many of you are fed up with your fellow Americans' obsession with royal watching. You're thinking, "Didn't we have a revolution so we wouldn't have royalty?"

Simply put, no. We had a revolution over taxes that were less than what Englishmen in England were paying at the time to subsidize our defense. The real financial burden of empire is always born by the imperial power, not the colonies, as economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has observed.

Besides, constitutional monarchy has its advantages. Chiefly, under constitutional monarchy the offices of head of state and head of government are separate. You have a head of state, the monarch, in whom you can invest your national sense of worth, then you have a head of government, a president or prime minister who runs the place, if not all that well. That allows you to freely ridicule your head of government when he deserves it — which is pretty much all the time — while not running down the personage who is the face of the nation.

In America, our head of state and head of government are combined in one office, the presidency. So no matter how much the president might deserve to be tarred and feathered, we're always told we must "show respect for the office." This, I submit, is unhealthy for democracy.

Certainly I've never heard anyone from Britain say we must show respect for the office of prime minister. And who'd take it seriously if they did? Tony Blair held the post, for Pete's sake.

So, welcome Britain's new blue-blooded baby. One day he or she will help the British people take their minds off the clown occupying Number 10. It is an honorable fate.

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