In the mid-1960s, writer and educator Grace Paley gave a lecture entitled “The Value of Not Understanding Anything”. Among the pieces of wisdom on writing that she inculcated on her audience was this: arguing against those who advise aspiring writers to write on what they already understand, she said “I would suggest something different… what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?”. Taking her advice to heart following my return from the UK, I chose to write about what seems to be an inseparable part of the British culture which I found inexplicable: the obsession with the royal family.
I began questioning this phenomenon first when Christmas photos of Prince George went viral on social media. My curiosity would have quickly dwindled had Prince George (or the royal family) not popped up again and again on newspaper stands that I passed by in London. But as British media outlets continued at length to idolize Prince George, label every item of clothing he wore “cute”, and monitor the size of Kate Middleton’s tummy before, during and after she gave birth to her daughter, I could not help but think there must be a reason why the royal family is so popular in Britain.
Of course, in questioning this phenomenon, I had personal reasons of which I am completely aware. First, as a keen observer of domestic and international politics, I am aware that the official British narrative on how the system works, as David Cameron would have us believe, is as follows: if you work hard, you will be rewarded. A nominally meritocratic system. Interestingly, the royal family is not incorporated into this system; monarchs rule by hereditary right, not hard work. Second, as a citizen from a Third World country that has suffered considerably under French and British imperial rule, I feel confused when I hear someone venerate the very system that did that. Third, examining statistics that appear in the news every now and then about the huge amount of British taxes that goes towards sustaining the royal family, I find it baffling that so few people complain about where their hard-earned money goes.
So ruling out meritocratic value, philanthropic contribution, and economic utility, I could lazily fall back to the easy explanation for many cultural idiosyncrasies, namely exceptionalism, British exceptionalism. Nineteenth-century British journalist Walter Bagehot would have undoubtedly agreed with me. In English Constitution, he perfectly sums up why the monarchy is central to the British identity:
“The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people … “People yield a deference to what we may call the theatrical show of society … The climax of the play is the Queen.”
The British monarchy is popular because of the sentiments of pride and uniqueness that it arouses in the hearts of the people it represents, sentiments that are nostalgic for an era in British history that is long gone.