Last month, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 70th year on the throne. She is the first British monarch to serve this long.
For the rest of the year, there will be ceremonies marking this important anniversary in Britain, the Commonwealth and elsewhere around the world.
Britain played a pivotal role in World War II, when the Anglo-American “Special Relationship” was truly forged. The alliance between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the centerpiece.
At home in Britain, Churchill and King George VI developed a close partnership, vital to national unity in a desperate struggle. Then-Princess Elizabeth worked driving a truck during the war.
Ceremonies are important, and here the British excel. Their monarch has residual ruling powers, including the formality of actually appointing the government following a general election or other, sometimes unanticipated political shakeup.
In the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Philip spoke at UCLA, greeted by an Army ROTC student honor guard that included me. He arrived in a closed Rolls Royce so enormous that he stood before exiting. Philip shook hands and talked with us young men, a classy, kind gesture.
The public role of the queen or king may be primarily symbolic. Nonetheless, that can become important in a time of national crisis or tragedy, especially war.
Britain’s government, after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, embarked on a complicated, painful effort to do so. In contrast to the heroic, historic stand against Nazi Germany, this bizarre ordeal became more like “Alice in Wonderland.”
Over four centuries ago, namesake Queen Elizabeth I was forcefully in charge of the British Isles. Those were brutal times, when losing a power struggle could cost your life.
That Elizabeth modernized Britain, managing Parliament with prudent skill. She stabilized politics following the tumultuous reign of her father Henry VIII. She confirmed influence in Europe, effectively balancing the nations of that continent.
Today, the Crown and Parliament have subtly complementary roles. Walter Bagehot, long-time editor of the influential weekly magazine “The Economist,” described the situation brilliantly, with enduring insight.
The world has changed greatly since Bagehot’s analysis appeared in 1867. However, his fundamental insight remains very valid today. Parliament handles the practical “efficient functions” of governing while the monarchy handles the largely ceremonial “dignified functions.” Americans can envy the lack of an “imperial” presidency there.
Fundamentally important is that the British, unlike the Americans, have no written constitution. Parliament is effectively supreme, though the nation in October 2009 did formally establish an American-style Supreme Court.
The important ceremonial functions address the collective emotions of the people at large regarding government. In the 1930s, King Edward VIII generated great controversy when he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, an expatriate American. In that different, earlier time, the fact that she was not British generated extensive public attention and debate. She also had been divorced twice. In general, notoriety followed her.
Vastly more important, Edward was sympathetic to Nazi Germany, as well as being personally extremely eccentric and unstable. Adolf Hitler and others at the top of the Nazi regime in Germany considered him a strategic asset, eventually to help control Britain in a conquered Europe. Finally, Edward abdicated to marry his American.
History underscores the importance of Britain’s royal family. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reinforces the special relationship. Nothing fake about these realities.
To learn more, see Walter Bagehot’s “The English Constitution” and the film “The Darkest Hour.”
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.