Tag Archives: House of Commons

A Primer on the British Royal Family

coatbritI’ve said it before, but it bares repeating–I am not a ‘royalist’.  My interest in British culture does not really extend to the comings and goings of the Royal family.

But it seems remiss to run a blog about English culture and not mention the birth of a new future-king.  I have no reaction to babies (except slight fear) so I won’t be filling this blog post with cooing over little George’s adorable hands or feet.  I thought I would, in the wake of a lot of misinformation, answer some questions about how the whole monarchy thing works.

Starting with the most basic of information:

What does The Queen do? Is she actually in charge?

Over a long period of time, starting probably with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the monarch of England has lost more and more of his/her power.  Anyone who has taken a high school history course knows that the middle classes and the gentry take more and more power away as time goes on.  Today, The Queen’s position is almost entirely ceremonial. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, which means the real power lies in Parliament.  Even in Westminster, there has been a gradual shift of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons.  Today, most of the work is done and decisions made by the HoC.  Peers with ambition have been known to give up their hereditary seats in the HoL in order to run for a seat in the HoC–anyone who has seen What a Girl Wants with Colin Firth will remember this plot line.

The Queen conducts ceremonies related to Parliament and to the PM, but she rarely has any influence on the laws passed. On the other hand, the PM has regular meetings with The Queen, so she gets to make her opinion known when she wants. Primarily, The Queen acts as Head of State, representing Britain in official capacities.  If you need more info on what she does and why, here is an article on her role.

What is primogeniture?

Male primogeniture is an obnoxious policy that was incredibly popular in Europe for the majority of the last millennium. Basically, it means that the oldest son of a couple will inherit the vast majority of the property or wealth, and in the case of title he will be the only one to inherit a title.  The law was originally used to stabilize the transfer of power from one generation to another.  With monarchy, this is incredibly important.  There have been countless wars (or threatened coups) when the line of succession was not always clear.  A famous example is Henry VIII. His only (legitimate)  son died at 6 years old. Henry was already dead, so suddenly the question of the next monarch was entirely open for dispute.  I repeat, this is a dangerous thing.  Henry had changed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one, establishing the Church of England. After Henry’s son, Edward, died, his daughter Mary I took over for 5 years, and tried to wipe out all of the Protestants during that time.  After that, Elizabeth I became queen and changed the country back to a Protestant nation, which it has remained since.  Lots of turmoil, just for lack of a son.

So a son is important.  Basically, the most important thing you can do as a monarch is have a son ready.  Not just monarchs; anyone with land to leave behind worried about having a son.  Take another look at the first episode of Downton Abbey for more on this theme.  Ideally, couples should have two sons; one would inherit, the other would be ‘the spare heir’.

Two years ago, the UK decided to abandon male primogeniture and go with ‘absolute primogeniture’. That means that if Kate had given birth to a baby girl, that girl would be Queen one day–regardless of any future brothers that might come along.  Given that three of the UK/England’s longest reigning, most stable, and best monarchs have all been women, I can only say that it’s about fucking time.  Of course, maybe I should shut up. England has had female monarchs and female PMs.  Where’s our female president?

What is the line of succession?

Remember what I said about stability earlier?  The most important thing is having a line of succession, so now we have elaborate lists of who would take over in case of disaster.  (See the much-forgotten 1990s John Goodman film King Ralph for more on this. Bonus appearance by a very young Camille Coduri, aka Jackie Tyler from Doctor Who).

Because the change in primogeniture rules only affect those born after the law was changed, it’s still a big list of dudes for the most part.  Here’s the top 10

1- Prince Charles (oldest son of the current monarch)

2-Prince William (oldest son of Charles)

3-Prince George (only son of William)

After that, you go back a step.  So if The Queen, William, and the baby died, it would be

4-Prince Harry

If all of them died (which would be totally ridiculous nowadays, but not unheard of back in the time of bubonic plagues) then we go back to find more children of The Queen. These people really aren’t well known in America at all.

5-Prince Andrew/Duke of York (the spare heir; second son of The Queen)

6 & 7 – Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Andrew’s daughters)

8-Prince Edward/Earl of Essex (The Queen’s third son)

9&10 – Edward’s children James and Louise.

But the list goes on and on and on. Wikipedia has 49 people.  Again, stability is the key here. Better to have the longest list possible.

Could Kate be Queen one day?

The titles are a tricky thing, and a little sexist. When William is King one day, Kate will officially be called ‘Queen Catherine’, but her role would be described as ‘consort’.  When William dies, she will never be the monarch.  You can’t marry into the role. On the other hand, if William died and little George was not yet 18, she could act as a sort of advisor to the young king–that’s been done in the past, but I don’t know how it would be handled in the 21st century.  It will most likely be a moot point, because Charles isn’t even king yet, so William is unlikely to be king for a few decades at least.  Still, you never know.

When a Queen gets married (like this one), then her husband is never called the King. Prince Phillip (a Prince of Greek/Danish patronage) was given the title of Duke of Edinburgh upon their marriage, and was later titled ‘Prince of the United Kingdom’.  He will have no chance to reign if she dies, because you really really can’t marry into it.  Usually the Queen gives out titles to family members.  Will used to be Prince of Wales (as Charles is, as Harry is) but upon his marriage he and Kate became Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  Because, reasons?!  It isn’t always logical.

What’s with the names?

Baby George’s full name is His Royal Highness, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge.  I thought my name was a handful.  So, what’s with all the names?

Royalty generally have 3 or 4 names. I suppose this evolved in a time when showing your lineage was extremely important. Names are almost always family names.

Is his last name ‘of Cambridge’?  Sort of…The royals don’t really have surnames in the way we common plebeians do. Elizabeth and her descendents are all part of the House of Windsor. Phillip (Elizabeth’s husband) took on the name Mountbatten when he was in the British armed forces, so many of the descendents use the name Mountbatten-Windsor.  Harry and Will have often used Wales as a last name (their father is the Prince of Wales, and they were also titled Princes of Wales).  Similarly, George is George of Cambridge, because his parents are the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge.  When he’s older, I’m sure he’ll get his own Duchy/Earldom and his title will change. It’s all very confusing for those of us without an inheritance, but there you are.

Will his name be King George one day?

Monarchs choose the name they want to use, like popes. It’s called a Regnal Name. Queen Victoria’s actual first name was Alexandrina Victoria. Her son Albert Edward took the regnal name of Edward VII. Elizabeth II’s father’s name was Albert, but he chose George VI as his regnal name. We just have to wait and see what Charles, William, and George pick when it comes to their turn.  I may be dead by the time George takes the throne, come to think of it.  If they chose their real names, Charles would be Charles III, William would be V, and George would be VII.

Could William be the next king?

The Queen is not permitted to just skip Charles.  The constitutional law establishing succession would have to be changed, and I really don’t think that’s likely.  William will only be the next king if Charles dies before The Queen.

The monarchy is a tricky subject.  Sometimes it seems so ludicrous, so old-fashioned and out of touch.  Tons of money goes toward these people to just sit and seem stable and have children. On the other hand, they are all very active in charity work and all of the future-monarchs enlist in the armed forces.  And the tourist draw they bring in is pretty incredible.  Is it enough to make up for the money they use to live a pampered lifestyle?  Difficult to say.  Maybe not on your normal day, but think about how many tourists came to see the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, and the media frenzy over the new baby, and you start to see how it adds up to a significant amount of money coming in.

Same-Sex Marriage in the U.K.

Big Ben and Gay flagNormally, this is not a political blog, but something happened this week in the U.K. that I can’t resist commenting on. On the 6th, the House of Commons voted to allow same-sex marriage in the U.K. While this doesn’t make it a law yet (there is one more vote in the H-o-C and then a vote in the House of Lords), the large majority who passed the bill make me optimistic for its chances in the additional votes required.

Of course, civil partnerships have existed in the U.K. since 2005, so they have already been light years ahead of us in the U.S.  2005?  That’s one year before some idiots over here were trying to amend the constitution to define marriage as between men and women.  Gay couples have been able to have the same rights as married heterosexual couples for 8 years there, which is pretty damn impressive.  Especially when you consider that more of our states have prohibited gay marriage than allowed it (by a big margin).

If you’re wondering why there would be a big push for gay ‘marriage’ as opposed to a ‘civil partnership’, CNN had an interview with an adorable couple that had been together for 25 years. They already had a civil partnership, but they wanted a marriage because they wanted their relationship to be celebrated and recognized in a religious institution.  Here’s a video of them explaining why the difference is important.

On the Guardian website, I found another quote that points out something very important about the difference. I hadn’t even thought of this:

I believe a UK marriage is currently accepted worldwide, which has particular importance for visa applications, work permits and health and social security, when a couple moves overseas. A civil partnership, however, is binding only in the UK and certain other countries which recognise it. If David Cameron can ensure that all countries, no matter how intolerant their own laws, will recognise a UK marriage between a couple of the same sex, then he is indeed making history.
Chris Hosty

I think the most remarkable and beautiful thing about this vote passing (besides the huge majority that were in favor) is that it wasn’t across party lines.  David Cameron (the current Conservative party leader, and P.M.) along with the numbers 2 and 3 (Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary) all came out strongly in favor of the bill and its stance on equality.  Most of the Nay votes for the bill did come from the Conservative party, but its leaders have been brave and said what they think is right.  And that’s something to be applauded, regardless of how I feel about the rest of their politics.

You wouldn’t see a lot of that bipartisan support here.  I’m a liberal (if this blog didn’t tip you off), but I think anyone awake in America today can see that the Conservative party is aligned very closely with people with very strict notions about Christianity and a moral compass tied to those beliefs. This isn’t an issue about equality for them, but of their own ideas of right and wrong.  Jon Stewart pointed out some of the differences between the opposition to this measure in the U.K. versus the U.S. Watch it here.  With bonus Harry Potter references.

Of course, there are strong opponents in the U.K., particularly the Church of England. The new Archbishop of Canterbury strongly opposes the bill. Big shock there.  I would like to point out that the bill allows for religious marriage ceremonies in institutions that don’t object to the idea.  So if your parish doesn’t want to marry you, I guess they don’t have to.  The couple on CNN points out that they wouldn’t want the happiest day of their lives to be ruined by someone who was forced to take part, so this is no issue for them.  I hope there are enough enlightened vicars & etc. in the UK that this part of the law is not an issue for couples that want to get married.

One strong MP opponent said that defining marriage is not the place of the legislature…apparently it’s just the job of the church? Well, wake up guy, you’re in a country with a massive amount of immigrants from a ton of different countries. You’ve got every religion under the sun in a few square blocks of London.  For the Anglican church to determine what those people get to do is ludicrous; how would you feel if…Islam got to determine what you did? Or Buddhism? And what about the estimated 30% of UK citizens who don’t ascribe to any specific religion or are not religious? Why should the church determine what their marriages should be?  This is exactly the job for the legislature, because no one church can represent the UK.

David Cameron is also on the receiving end of some angry grumbling within his own party. Some are concerned that this measure will cost them votes in the next election.  I don’t see how that argument works out.  It’s a Conservative party, doing something that might attract liberal voters.  So they may lose some hardcore Tory votes but they will probably gain a lot more moderate liberal votes.

David Cameron, I am not your biggest fan, but I hope you tell them all to piss off. You’re doing the right thing. And it will earn you votes (which I think you’re smart enough to know) because people like me won’t think you’re quite as big of a dick as previously estimated.

Cameron has successfully rebranded his party by taking on issues like gay marriage and environmentalism.  The only openly gay lesbian MP in the Conservative party, Margot James, pointed out that the party had to modernize if it wasn’t going to go the way of the US Republican party and alienate moderate voters.  Smart lady.

I can only hope that some politicians and newsmakers in this country will look at the UK Conservative party and see that this sort of reasonable behavior does win respect and it does win votes.  It might be easier for me to say I hope the Republicans continue to implode via discussions about legitimate rape, and Democrats keep winning…but that’s not what’s best for the country. I’d like two logical and reasonable parties please.  For an example, look across the pond.