As Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle tie the knot in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Palace, thronged by notables and well-wishers, a stark contrast is painted between what we have seen today and the harsh sadness on a little boy’s face 20 years ago as Harry followed his mother Princess Diana’s funeral procession. A child’s life has become a man’s life and the cycle begins again.
A Royal wedding in the U.K. is a huge event that involves not just the happy couple’s festivities, but also street and house parties across the nation. Even those not lucky enough to attend in London dress up, dust off favorite hats, and raise a glass to young love and the continuation of an institution that has provided the backbone of British history.
And across the pond in the United States, our American cousins are tuning in, purchasing commemorative plates (many of the commemorative plates have been sold to Americans), and getting into the spirit of celebration. Much of the excitement arises from the fact that the bride is a California native, with American celebrators in London telling the BBC that her story was like a fairytale.
Yet in these days of glaring inequality of wealth and privilege, how is it that the Royal family still has the power to rally the nation and the Commonwealth behind them? What better time to examine the enduring legacy of a monarchal system that many contend should be thrust aside in favor of a more egalitarian system?
Political Safety Valve
There are a large number of Brits who would gladly abolish the whole concept of royalty and monarchy; most notable among them being the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition party Jeremy Corbyn. They would replace the family with a presidential system and take the palaces and lands into public ownership. In fact, Corbyn could be accurately described in Britain as a Republican Socialist (not to be confused with American Republicans).
Yet the family endures. The reason for this is that the queen, as head of state, historically retained the power to dissolve parliament, and this was the best tool against tyranny that the United Kingdom possessed. Politicians and Prime Ministers serve at “Her Majesty’s pleasure” and, in theory, could be removed in an instant.
The Royal Prerogative is the mechanism by which the Queen (or King) can exercise power over parliament. Since the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), monarchs and parliament have had an uneasy relationship, often with parliamentarians using uncooperative tactics to hinder or forestall “rights of succession” to the throne. But the prerogative was a seldom-used tool; if it weren’t, the likelihood of Britons demanding a Republic would have come long ago. The last time it was used to its full power was in 1834 when William IV removed Lord Melbourne from the post of Prime Minister and gave the opposition the opportunity to try and form a government with a parliamentary majority (they failed to form said majority and Melbourne was returned to office).
Through a series of parliamentary Acts, the power of Royal Prerogative has been watered down over the last two centuries. The ruling monarch retains certain entitlements, but without the power to enact decisions free from a parliamentary vote. In the words of the 19th-century essayist, journalist, and businessman, Walter Bagehot: “the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy … three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”
Even with such denuded powers, the monarchy still has a place in modern British national life. When Britain went to war in 1914 and 1939, it was not for the governments of the day that the men of the nation went to fight (nor the women of the nation step up to become the bedrock of the nation’s industry and war effort), it was “For King/Queen and Country.”
The lineage and history of England as a united nation has existed for over a thousand years; began under King Egbert of Wessex in 827, this concept of a country joined has been what defines us a nation. And this still exists today.
A Prince Among Men
But what of Prince Harry? He is sixth in line to the throne, and as such, is extremely unlikely to ever be king. What relevance does he have to modern Britain? The young prince’s path is somewhat easier than that of others who may well become kings and queens; he has carved his own path, and it is a path that many across the globe admire.
The Invictus Games is an internationally acclaimed event that in many ways parallels the Paralympics, but is reserved for former military personnel and veterans who have become disabled in the line of duty. It is a truly inspiring event that was created by Prince Harry, and one to which he devotes much of his time.
When a soldier is injured, for example by a landmine, few people realize that it is not just extremities that are damaged. These devices are specifically designed to destroy genitals, leaving brave military personnel with more than just physical injury. Prince Harry works tirelessly with these unfortunate veterans, listens to them, and tries to help them come to terms with a life that few of us could possibly imagine. He provides them opportunity to feel pride and victory once more, and to understand that they are not the forgotten, dirty secret of war. Few would argue that the Prince’s life is a wasted effort.
A Fairytale Ending
The wedding has captivated the world; audiences will tune in to see the pageantry, the crowds, and of course, the clothes. But what really pulls in the viewers is not the royal lineage, nor the displays of regalia, but the story.
At heart, these are two young people about to share their act of commitment and love with the world. Boy or girl, we grow up with tales of handsome princes falling in love with beautiful young “commoners.” To see a fairytale played out in real life is a temptation too much. For one day only, let us put aside exhortations of privilege and excess, and raise a toast to a noble young man and a talented young woman as they embark on a life together that is filled with duty, service, and perhaps, a little love.