Paul Larkin of Boston dropped by the queen’s birthday parade, hoping to add a spot of pageantry to his tour of Britain. Perhaps he would even catch a distant glimpse of a royal.
Suddenly, there was Her Majesty herself.
“We just wanted to see the queen, and she was right there in front of us,” the 32-year-old financial manager said.
Awe-struck tourists at this year’s 67th birthday festivity for Queen Elizabeth II weren’t likely to notice that the celebration was considerably scaled back from its usual level of grandiosity--a symptom of lean times for most of the world’s 27 remaining monarchies.
In this case, it was simply a matter of dwindling manpower. Reduced British troop strength has severely shrunk the pool of troopers used for ceremonial occasions, most noticeably musicians and the queen’s household cavalry.
But the venerable institution of monarchal government faces far more serious problems than understaffed parades.
“Western European royalties don’t have much of a long-term future,” said Stephen Haseler, a professor at London Guild Hall University. “It’s a feudal institution, and people are increasingly wanting a more democratic head of state. Most young people find royalty an old-fashioned link to past empires and things.”
In a book, “The End of the House of Windsor,” Haseler argues that royalty is an extreme expression of nationalism and that nationalism may be on its way out as the world moves toward regional economic alliances such as the European Community.
Recent stirrings of monarchal sentiments in such newly non-communist states as Romania--where citizens debate restoring the old royal family to power--are only exceptions that prove the rule, Haseler said.
“The post-communist world is seeing a revival of nationalism in Eastern Europe. But when they think about it, I don’t think they’ll want to live with a monarchy.”
Brazilians recently considered dusting off their country’s old crown and giving it to the 80-year-old great-grandson of the last emperor. But in April, almost 7 in 10 voters chose the risk of more instability rather than a restored monarchy in their rebellion-scarred, century-old republic.
In Western Europe, trappings of rank and privilege that once surrounded royal families of Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden have been systematically stripped away by government economy drives--or voluntarily by the royals themselves.
Though all still live in great comfort, most European royals have unpretentious lifestyles that are mere shadows of the ones their ancestors enjoyed.
Many drive their own cars. Spain’s King Juan Carlos I rides his motorbike in public. Dutch Queen Beatrix and her German-born consort, Claus von Amsberg, have become known as the bicycling royals.
Even in Asia, where respect for royalty tends to be as ingrained as respect for elders, monarchies are under pressure to tighten their royal belts.
In 1989, many Japanese debated whether the state should pay for Shinto rites surrounding Emperor Akihito’s ascension to the throne.
The restoration of Norodom Sihanouk to the throne of Cambodia in September was more a matter of the 70-year-old monarch’s personal popularity than a desire of Cambodians to bring back an archaic, expensive system of government.
Another Asian king, Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, has endeared himself to his subjects by tirelessly promoting rural development projects, traveling across the land and often becoming personally involved in irrigation and other water projects.
A former engineering student, educated in Switzerland, the Thai king is a jazz musician. He has jammed with the late Benny Goodman and has written more than 30 tunes, including one for a Broadway musical, “Peepshow.”
Earlier this year the nine hereditary rulers of Malaysia, who take turns serving as paramount ruler, agreed under political pressure to constitutional amendments that would sharply limit their legal immunity from some crimes, including assault and non-payment of debts.
The action resulted from a public outcry over the erratic behavior of 60-year-old Sultan Mahmood Iskandar Ismail. The ruler of Johore state and his son have been accused of numerous rapes and beatings of commoners.
Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, a tiny sultanate surrounded by Malaysia, has dropped his playboy image as the world’s richest man in an apparent attempt to become a more responsible model of a modern Muslim ruler.
In the Middle East, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, the 13th emir of Kuwait, provoked an outburst of popular resentment when he and other royals resumed their lavish ways after the 1991 Persian Gulf War debilitated his country.
In Bhutan, a small Himalayan country that nestles between China and India, the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, recently set an example of austerity by moving from his palace to a cabin and trading his Mercedes for a Toyota.
The most elaborate monarchy left in the world, Great Britain’s royal family, is under growing pressure to scale back.
Various scandals involving Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s offspring have spurred public debate over possible abolition of the British monarchy.
“My conclusion is that the monarchy in Britain is not on its way out, but it’s been gravely weakened,” said Geoffrey Smith, veteran political columnist for the Times of London. “Public opinion is such that they will take every means to hold spending on the royal family in check.”
Smith says he believes the monarchies that survive the 21st Century will be those that are useful symbols of national unity, avoiding controversy and scandal--a requirement the younger generation of British royals thus far has conspicuously failed to meet.
“The essence of monarchy is that it is above the battle,” Smith said. “As soon as the family is embroiled in controversy, its principal asset is undermined.”