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Prince William and Kate Middleton royal wedding: Do monarchies still matter?

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The British monarchy, arguably the most renowned in the world, provides the glue that holds together the country's parliamentary system. Real power resides with the elected Parliament and the prime minister. Queen Elizabeth II remains above the political fray. Her role is ceremonial. Yet she carries out important functions, including opening each new session of Parliament. Public support for the monarchy usually remains solidly around 70 percent for keeping it – although there was a noticeable dip in the immediate aftermath of Diana's death. The country was convulsed by it. For some, grief turned to anger at the royal family, which was seen for a time as cold, remote, and somehow uncaring about Diana's death. The discontent was tamped down only when Queen Elizabeth II took to the airwaves the day before the funeral and spoke from the heart about Diana and her impact on the family and the nation.

Queen Elizabeth II has reigned since the 1952 death of her father, George VI. Her political views are closely held. Her power, if she has any, comes from her position as a unifying figure as well as her weekly meetings with the prime minister. She has been consulted by every one of them on a weekly basis, going back to Winston Churchill.

All that pomp and ceremony does cost money, although the monarchy has supposedly slimmed down over the years, matching the country's new age of austerity.

British taxpayer support of the monarchy was $57.8 million in the year that ended March 31, 2010, according to Buckingham Palace. Others say the true cost is higher – with antimonarchist groups estimating it is at least three times greater. On the other hand, the royal family reports that it is patron to about 3,000 charity organizations; and Prince Charles's philanthropic umbrella group – The Prince's Charities – is the largest multicause enterprise in Britain. It alone raises $161 million annually.

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