Essential Politics: The enduring power of the British royal family

People gather in front of flowers on the ground
People gather in front of flowers for the late Queen Elizabeth II at Green Park, near Buckingham Palace in London, on Sept. 13.
(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

I did not realize until last Thursday that I have long anticipated the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

I am not British. She did not have an obvious influence on my daily life. But for me, she was the only constant when it came to the United Kingdom and global politics. So when the royal family last week announced her death, I was stunned by the stark reactions and the coverage — and I realized that it was not what I had previously envisioned.

Although I expected many in the United Kingdom would intensely mourn her death, I did not realize how the power of ceremony would dominate American news coverage. (I literally cannot escape coverage of the queen’s death on cable news or online.)

Perhaps I did not expect this because when former American presidents die, the mourning period is less intense. Talking heads eulogize the man, social media are either happy or sad, the funeral gets news coverage and the nation moves on. But when Britain’s longest-serving monarch died last Thursday, a 10-day mourning plan commenced. The whole thing got me wondering about the power of ceremony and why so many people care so much about a royal family whose formal political power is essentially nonexistent.

Hello besties, I’m Erin B. Logan. I cover national politics and the Biden-Harris administration for the L.A. Times. Today we are going to talk about power, tradition, the future of the royal family and why it matters to Americans.

Why all the ceremony?

The plans following the death of the queen are extensive. They include a vigil at St Giles’ Cathedral, floral tributes and the queen lying in state at Westminster Hall, where her body is expected to be viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

The once top-secret “Operation Unicorn” and “Operation London Bridge” had been planned for decades, Brooke Newman, a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University, told The Times in an interview. Newman said “the firm” has carefully managed the official grieving and mourning period for royal family members stretching back to Queen Victoria. For Elizabeth, “they have been planning for this moment since the day she took the throne in 1952.”

The mourning period is particularly important for the royal family because the U.K is losing its monarch, but also welcoming a new one. In a time when monarchies in the West seem to be nearing extinction, this 10-day period could influence how long the monarchy lasts.

“The royal family knows that they are anachronistic in the 21st century,” Newman said. “They want to be seen as one of the few successful monarchies in the modern world and the one that has lasted the longest and the one that has continuity.”


They can do that by asserting the only power they have left — ceremonial power.

“The way the royal family can inspire loyalty and awe is through theater,” Newman said. “They know they don’t have any political power. They have ceremonial power and they don’t want to let that go.”

Queen Elizabeth II speaks to a visitor at Windsor Castle on Wednesday.
(Steve Parsons / Associated Press)

Why this power matters

The relationship between the monarchy and the Commonwealth under King Charles III will be of special interest to experts. Many countries that were once violently exploited and colonized by England have already broken ties with the crown. Last November, Barbados removed Elizabeth as its head of state. Other Commonwealth realms, particularly in the Caribbean, seem eager to leave and shed remnants of their colonial past.

Many of these countries have held off ending their relationship with the British monarchy for a variety of reasons, including symbolic affection for Queen Elizabeth. But now that she’s dead and Charles, with whom they do not have a deep connection, is king, other countries may begin to cut ties with the monarchy, Newman said.

The Commonwealth is not a particularly powerful institution. But it bolsters the ceremonial power and importance of the royal family. The United Kingdom, however, is a powerful entity and is headed by Charles.

The U.K., which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, remains a major player in European politics. If the itch to shed ties with the crown reaches a country like Scotland, which has long had factions eager for independence, both the monarchy and the U.K. itself would be weakened, Robin Archer, a political sociologist at the London School of Economics, told The Times. And a weaker, smaller U.K. could have consequences for the United States, too.

“In the face-off between the United States, its allies and sort of the new East — Russia and China — the weakening of the U.K. would not be helpful,” he said.

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The latest from across the pond

— The flood of sorrowful memories and admiring tributes for the late Elizabeth II recognizes her multigenerational effect as both a woman and the queen, Times writers Jaweed Kaleem and Tracy Wilkinson reported. But the respect and love she engendered as an international figure do not necessarily extend to the monarchy, which costs a fortune to sustain and comes with a bevy of arcane and perplexing traditions that help define Britain but often seem anachronistic. A rising tide of anti-royal sentiment thrusts the British throne into precarious territory, particularly when her successor happens to be her less popular, socially awkward son, King Charles III.

—King Charles III arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday on the latest leg of his tour of the nations that make up the United Kingdom. A cheering crowd gathered to greet him in a region that is deeply divided over the British monarchy, the Associated Press reported. In the latest outpouring of affection since the Queen’s death Thursday, hundreds of people lined the street leading to Hillsborough Castle, the royal family’s official residence in Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast, the capital. The area in front of the gates to the castle was carpeted with hundreds of floral tributes.

—The U.K. was somber as it entered a 10-day period of national mourning for the queen, who died Thursday at 96 as Britain’s longest-lived and longest-reigning monarch, Times writer Jaweed Kaleem reported. A country that in some ways has grown accustomed to political, social and cultural upheaval was now forced to confront change in one of the few areas of national life that had long remained constant. On Friday evening, Charles strove to assure all those who held his mother in such esteem that he would carry on his mother’s tradition of service to her people.

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The view from Washington

— Biden administration officials are attempting to tamp down any overly optimistic expectations after Ukraine’s significant gains against Russia in recent days, Times writers Tracy Wilkinson and Eli Stokols reported. Ukraine claims to have retaken thousands of square miles of Russian-occupied territory in an offensive that began last week. Moscow acknowledged a “regrouping,” which others saw as a retreat. But in Washington, Pentagon, White House and State Department officials urged caution. They were reluctant to endorse a Ukrainian sense of triumph this early in the battle.

— Former President Trump’s legal team said in a court filing Monday that classified materials should not be excluded from the special master’s review of documents found during an FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate, suggesting that some of the documents may not be classified and that Trump may have the right to keep them in his possession, Times writer Sarah D. Wire reported. This is the first time Trump’s team has hinted in court that the former president may have declassified the documents while in office, though they never directly state that he did or did not. Trump has publicly made that argument but the U.S. intelligence community has indicated normal declassification procedures didn’t occur.

— A bipartisan group of senators pushing legislation designed to prevent a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol say a vote on the package isn’t likely until after election day, Times writer Nolan D. McCaskill reported. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the chamber would vote on a marriage equality bill in the coming weeks. The Senate must also work with the House, which returns from its recess next week, to fund the government by Sept. 30. And it’s possible Schumer could scrap the chamber’s two-week session in October to allow members who are up for reelection to campaign as the party hopes to expand its majority.

— From Don Lee: The IRS is getting a lot more money for audits, but for most people, there’s no reason worry that the tax cops are on your tail. In fact, it might make paying your taxes easier and better. Here’s what to know.

— Former federal appellate judge and attorney Ken Starr has died at age 76. Starr’s five-year criminal investigation of Bill Clinton explored fraudulent real estate deals, delved into the removal of documents, compiled evidence of Clinton’s sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky and led to the president’s impeachment. More recently, he helped represent Trump in his 2020 impeachment trial.

The view from California

— As much of the West continued to swelter in a record-breaking heat wave, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed a package of legislation aimed at protecting Californians from extreme heat, including establishing a statewide warning system by 2025 and conducting a study on the effects of sizzling temperatures on workers, Times writers Hannah Fry and Phil Willon reported. Under Assembly Bill 2238, the California Environmental Protection Agency will create a system to rank heat events, including severity and health dangers, to help local governments take action to protect the vulnerable. The warning system will be the first of its kind in the nation and will be modeled after similar alerts issued for wildfires and hurricanes.

— The governors of California and New York, both Democrats, have bills on their desks that would require companies to post pay ranges on job advertisements, Times writer Noah Bierman reported. Those two states — and their outsized economies and populations — could spur most larger companies to adopt the policy nationwide, advocates and experts say. All workers could be affected, but evidence suggests that more transparent pay practices are particularly helpful for women and people of color, who are more likely to get lowballed in salary negotiations.

— L.A. voters will determine whether the city’s 11th District continues to be represented by an outspoken liberal, with Erin Darling supporting many of the policies of outgoing Councilman Mike Bonin, or swings in the other direction, with Traci Park representing a more law-and-order approach, Times writer James Rainey reported. The temperature in the contest has been rising, as the two candidates, who live about one mile apart in Venice, depict each other as too extreme. Park describes Darling as an ideologue and deems his most prominent supporters “very far left.” Darling hits Park as too conservative, chiding her support of “failed Republican-backed recalls” of Bonin and Dist. Atty. George Gascon.

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