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The Royal Are More Royal Outside Britain

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Apr 26 2011 (IPS) - Quite a treat Britain has on offer for the world these days. Or who would ever have been talking – in this day and age – about a prince and princess riding in splendour into a world of pageboys and palaces.

The royal wedding comes in the great royal tradition, and it’s actual enough for undeniable legitimacy. That’s at the heart of the treat – we can slurp over the feast of this royal vocabulary and summon an old world excitement where royal is for real. And we wait for the day when Britain will wrap that tradition in exquisite ceremony to showcase before the world.

And showcase it will, to an estimated two billion who will watch. Doesn’t Britain know that royalty doesn’t just stay royal and be; royalty sells.

The world is fascinated, probably more than Britain itself. “I think the international view is still based on the fairy tale view that has diminished considerably in the UK,” Dan Leighton, senior researcher at the London-based think-tank Demos, tells IPS. “We’re not quite sure what to make of them. Externally it’s an important aspect of how we’re perceived, but internally, what the royal family are for in the 21st century is very uncertain.”

What sells abroad is the grandeur of the choreographed ceremony – and for this there is not a remote second best to Britain. The country doesn’t have much of an economy left to speak of, but it can do royal weddings as none else can.

“There’s a part of this that is the big glossy soap opera,” says Leighton. “It is hard to underestimate how many people from abroad, particularly America, still see it as a part of the fairy tale soap opera.”

Support for the royalty in Britain has remained high. Over several surveys in recent times, only about 16 percent of the British oppose it. It might just surprise many outside the country that one in six Brits don’t want the royalty at all. But a minority that is, and likely to remain so.

“There’s no doubt that lots of people in Britain like the royal family,” Dr. Tim Leunig from the London School of Economics tells IPS. “It makes them feel good, they think we’re not a republic, we don’t have Mr. Berlusconi in charge of us. So one thing great about the Queen is that all the other alternatives seem to be much, much worse.”

The royal are born with the virtue that they can never be politicians – royalty never contests an election. The price to pay for keeping royalty free of politics is a small one: by the highest estimates the taxpayer pays on average no more than a pound a year to keep the royal in their palaces. “It isn’t going to make any difference to how well off people feel they are,” says Leunig.

But there’s a great deal more to royalty than simply something the British suffer because it would be too expensive to erase. They are a picture of a grand continuity, even if that grandeur is something of an illusion, or at the least a truth out of sync with the harder truths of the day.

It would in any case be far more expensive to remove royalty. The monarch (add that to the quaint royal vocabulary on offer) is also the head of state, of the Church of England, of the Commonwealth, of the armed forces. It’s figured that constitutional changes that would make Britain a republic would take 18 months of legislative process. Why bother. As Leighton says, “there are far more important things to do.”

And yet the debate within Britain whether the royals should be kept or not never quite goes away, hard as that may be for the rest of the world to understand. Those old enough to have lived through World War II seem mostly quite earnest about royalty. Nobody really knows how seriously the young will eventually accept royalty.

“There’s a mix of indifference and ironic attachment to it for the younger generation,” says Leighton. “For those above their sixties with some recollection of the world war, there is some degree of deference to the mystique of the royal family. For the younger generation it does not seem to do an awful lot.”

That’s where it will count how far, and how long, the young William and Kate – eventually Queen Catherine – can hold on to a place in the imagination of the young as royalty. And just how far they can bring palaces, and themselves, closer to the young like them.

The spectacle of pageantry and ceremony will be such a saleable story of an image of Britain around the world. But the royalty, the new young royalty, first carries the burden of selling that story at home. William and Kate will of course have to keep their marriage going – and that’s not always been the royal tradition. But, they also perhaps carry the burden of keeping royalty itself going.

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