Nicholas Kristof: Long Live the King!

From a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof headlined “Long Live the King!”:

LONDON — With the thrill of coronation still in the air outside Buckingham Palace, it’s tempting for a Yankee to mock the British for the shop windows full of coronation plates and King Charles III coffee mugs. And how can we not roll our eyes when a slice of cake from the 2005 wedding between the new king and queen now sells for $1,600?

Yet I won’t indulge in mockery for two reasons. First, many of the tourists buying the souvenirs have undeniable American accents.

Second, I would never admit this in public — but I’ve come to think that maybe there are advantages to having a royal family.

Britain is, like America, so polarized that any political leader is loathed by a sizable chunk of the population, sowing conflict and risking violence. But with the monarchy, the U.K. is guaranteed a nonpolitical head of state who amounts to a unifying force.

“It helps to have someone who is above politics and can bring people together,” said Chris Patten, a longtime political leader who is now formally Lord Patten of Barnes.

A May poll found that 62 percent of people in Great Britain favored remaining a monarchy, compared to 28 percent who preferred a republic. Young people were somewhat less enthusiastic about royalty than older people, but that has been true for decades: As they age, Britons appear to become more pro-monarchy.

A monarch is not the only option for a nonpolitical head of state. Germany, Israel and other countries have non-royal largely ceremonial heads of state who can stand for harmony above the fray. President Isaac Herzog of Israel tried to do that this year to promote compromise, preserve democratic norms and calm the mass protests in Israel; he warned that the conflict could even lead to civil war.

But even the nonpolitical presidents like Herzog are often former politicians and don’t seem to have the healing power of monarchs. King Charles declined to be interviewed (when I requested time with him, I think his staff giggled). But I’ve occasionally interacted with other members of his family and with royalty in other countries — and it’s funny how even we Americans go weak-kneed over even a measly duchess or, say, a Tongan king.

When Japan gave up fighting in 1945 to end World War II, many in the Tokyo government bitterly opposed the decision. It was perhaps only Emperor Hirohito as the revered leader of Japan who could convince the army to stand down, even if his speech announcing surrender was royally elliptical: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

One study of 137 countries over more than a century found that monarchies perform better economically than republics over the long run. The authors concluded that this was in part because monarchs provided a national symbol of unity, reducing internal conflict and threats to property rights.

Kings can be expensive, of course, and it can seem ridiculous to provide public housing in the form of palaces to one family, while countless others are homeless. But in Britain, the royal family may pay for itself with tourism income, and constitutes a useful tool of foreign policy: Every foreign leader wants tea with the sovereign, so when prime ministers ruffle foreign feathers the royals can smooth them.

The royal family is “an integral part of our soft power strategy,” noted Arminka Helic, now the Baroness Helic, a foreign policy expert. Helic grew up in the former Yugoslavia and came to Britain only at the age of 24, but she says she still sees the royals as “the family to which we are all related no matter where we come from.”

I’m not advocating for royalty in America, even if we may be more perilously divided than at any time in a century. George III soured us forever on kings. Which raises the question: What happens when a bad (or mad) king comes along?

Britain dodged a bullet when King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, for he was a racist who was soft on Nazism, especially because he lived a long life, dying only in 1972. The United Kingdom hit the jackpot with Queen Elizabeth II and seems to have relatively reliable heirs in the form of King Charles and Prince William.

Thailand is less fortunate. When the last, much revered Thai king died in 2016, he was succeeded not by the king’s widely admired daughter but by his scandal-plagued son — who has spent a great deal of time in Germany with his paramours and once promoted his poodle, Foo Foo, to the rank of “air chief marshal.”

Bad kings are difficult to recover from. They’re one reason the number of monarchies has fallen from 160 in 1900 to fewer than 30 now.

But today’s constitutional monarchies like Britain, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands may benefit by turning to an apolitical family that, in exchange for palaces, will supply a nation with gossip, tourism and a bit of harmony.

So don’t tell a soul, but as I stand outside Buckingham Palace, I think: “God save the king!”

Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.

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