"When Britain wins a battle, she shouts 'God Save the Queen.' When she loses, she votes down the prime minister." -- Winston Churchill
Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister who found himself thrown out of office after his heroic duties had been accomplished, clearly understood the role of the royals. So do Laure Boulay and Francoise Jaudel, a pair of French gossip columnists. Their book, "There Are Still Kings," shows that being royal is the supremely privileged human condition.
It not only means never having to say you're sorry. It means never having to stand for election or reelection; never having to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for a day on the assembly line; never having to lose sleep with a colicky child; never having to worry about the mortgage payment; never worrying that little Jimmy with terrible SAT scores is not going to get into a good school or that Uncle Ralph with all his drinking, gaming and chasing after the well-turned ankle is going to end up on a heating grate somewhere.
In short, being royal in the 20th century is a dilettante's dream. Hard work for a royal, especially the well-publicized British royals, is making an occasional trip to Canada or Australia and mixing with the natives, or donning the arcane trappings of monarchy and riding in baroque horse-drawn coaches, limply waving to the excited multitudes.
Of course, there is all that wealth, with all those grand castles and estates. Queen Elizabeth II, for example, is believed to be one of the richest women in the world, with only a few bankers actually knowing the vastness of her personal fortune. In the case of the dowdy Elizabeth, a stern woman of neither physical beauty nor great intellectual bearing, if she were not the queen, she might easily pass as one of the charwomen at Harrods.
And her British subjects pay handsomely for maintaining this symbol of a time when Great Britain ruled a sizable chunk of the world. Her government stipend is about 3.7 million pounds a year; her consort, Prince Philip, draws some 179,300 pounds, the Queen Mother around 321,500 pounds, with comfortable stipends for the other members of the extended family. The British royals, as with most other royals throughout Europe, live well.
Perhaps all that good life, the gilded traditions with ladies-in-waiting, knights and the barriers of royal protocol, is what makes many more comfortable Americans look at all the titles and honors of British society with envy. It wasn't surprising that the wealthy Eleanor Annenberg curtsied to visiting British Prince Charles (not the proper thing to do as the U.S. chief of protocol, the title she held then).
Many Americans of wealth and power, who have made great piles of money selling pizzas or building publishing empires, seem to need something more to symbolize their importance and success. If only they could have a title or something to give them the respect and deference they so obviously deserve . . . But the founding fathers of this nation had had it with the autocratic tyranny of the European royals and nobles and wanted no such thing here.
Unfortunately, "There Are Still Kings" offers nothing new, especially in the section on England and on the equally well-publicized antics of the royal family of Monaco. None of the material, even about the lesser-known royal families, is titillating or scandalous, but because the latter get much less publicity and aren't as recognizable on the social circuit, some of the information about them isn't widely known.
The section on King Juan Carlos, the man who restored the Spanish monarchy, while not revealing anything new, is a readable summary of a significant historical event with international ramifications. What is evident, in the end, is that autocratic royalty, except in Monaco, no longer exists. Monarchy is, however, a gilded anachronism that is likely to exist into the next millennium as both an escapist amusement and as a contact with another, more elegant time.