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What Does Royal Wedding Mean for Role of Monarchy in Britain?

April 29, 2011 at 5:29 PM EDT
Onlookers crowded London's streets and television viewers worldwide tuned into the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London Friday. Margaret Warner recaps the ceremony's significance with John Burns, London bureau chief for the New York Times.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the significance of today’s event, we turn to John Burns, London bureau chief for The New York Times.

John, there was a lot of talk in advance that the Britons had become kind of blasé about all this. It didn’t look that way on television today watch. What did this wedding mean for Britain today?

JOHN BURNS, The New York Times: It certainly didn’t feel blasé in the streets.

I’m not sure that there were a million people there. I think that might be a somewhat hopeful estimate. But this was the second of four — two four-day weekends. Much of London seems to have gone to the country or abroad. And it was a pretty good throng that turned out.

And, first of all, everybody had a terrific festival day. The aesthetics were wonderful. The bride was beautiful. The wedding was conducted virtually flawlessly. The music was beautiful. Who would be so dead in spirit as not to enjoy that?

But I think there was a larger, if you will, implication in all of this, which was that the monarchy has had a bad 30 years, not at all as bad as some of the passages it has had in the past, but still a tricky 30 years, divorces, indiscretions of all kinds, financial irregularities, above all, of course, the disintegration of the marriage of Charles and Diana.

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The queen has managed to, deservedly, stay above all of this and retains the enormous esteem of people here. But the monarchy’s future very much weighs, in my view, in the success of the marriage that we saw today. And they made a very good start.

MARGARET WARNER: And why does that matter for the U.K.? I mean, here is this very modern democracy. Why is the monarchy still in such a prominent place?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the simple answer is it works pretty well.

And I have a suspicion that it’s more than the celebrity and the hubbub that intrigues Americans about this. We have a head of state who is not involved in the political fray. The institution of the monarchy assures continuity and embodies, if you will, the state, the nation and the nation’s sense of itself.

Queen Elizabeth who has been on the thrown for very nearly 60 years, next year, has accomplished that with tremendous success. We have had two Elizabethan ages in this country, the first Elizabeth in the 16th century and this one. And I think she will go down in the history of the British monarchy as one of our great monarchs.

So, on its face, I think this country is, by default, a monarchist country. It works well. There is no reason to change it. It gives people a great deal of pleasure. It reminds us of who we are and of our history. And that loyalty, that fealty, if you want to call it that, has been sorely tested by the events of the last 30 years.

But I think there was a feeling that today might just be the turning point that everybody has been hoping for.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, today comes, of course, also at a time of incredible budget austerity, painful cuts. And many politicians, even the prime minister, said he hoped today would be a moment of I think he said joy and light relief in a painful time.

Did you — was there a sense of that?

JOHN BURNS: Well, it’s true. It’s true there is a lot of pain being inflicted by this austerity cut. The government has declared an across-the-board 20 percent cut in government expenditures over the last — over the next four years. Put another way, it means rolling the British economy back five or six years.

So in London you don’t feel this quite as strongly as you do in the provinces. But there’s no doubt that there would have been a lot of people out there today who found, in the day’s events, one day of relief from all of that.

There was some on the left wing, a complaint about the cost of the wedding. But if I tell you that the government has said that the all-out cost was about 30 million pounds — that’s between $45 million and $50 million — which represents about half the cost of one of the fast combat jets that Britain has deployed over Libya, I think it sort of puts it into perspective, a price I think that many would judge well worth paying for what we saw today and for what we may hope it portends.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is there any sizable resentment at the cost of just the monarchy in general?

JOHN BURNS: The cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer is presently about 40 million pounds a year. That is again between $60 million and $70 million. I would think that would be comparable with what many countries of this size pay to maintain their titular heads of state.

So I just sense in the general public there’s not much unhappiness about that. What there is unhappiness about is when we see extravagance and waste and exploitation of that taxpayer money. And there have been some cases of that, unnecessary uses of helicopters to go to golf games and so forth.

But on the whole I don’t get any sense of there being a sort of bubbling republican ferment. I think there has been a gradual erosion of support. Indeed, two of the principal left-wing newspapers in the country basically in the last five days have preached a republican message: Don’t be fooled, in effect, by what you see on the streets in the wedding. This is an institution that’s run its course.

But one of those left-wing newspapers, The Guardian, ran a poll on Monday, an ICM poll, where they asked a simple and really most basic question: Do you think the country would be better off or worse off without a monarchy? Worse off: 63 percent, better off: 26 percent, and the remainder unknown.

Most politicians, I think, in office, who got a 63-26 percent rate good against bad rating, approval rating, it’s the kind of approval rating that American presidents would die for. So I don’t think we’re on the basis — on the edge of a collapse of the monarchy. We may be on the — at the beginning of a new period, let’s hope, of stabilization.

MARGARET WARNER: So you are saying essentially that a lot rests on this young couple that got married today in terms of the future of the monarchy?

JOHN BURNS: Yes, God forefend there should be a repeat of what happened before. But with — with Charles and Diana, there was a tremendous sense of having been let down and having been, in a sense, deceived.

But today we saw a rather more mature couple of — a bride who is 29 years old. Diana was 19. Diana was a choice more or less Charles was driven to by a family that insisted at the time that he marry a blue blood who had no past, as they say euphemistically.

This time William has married an eminently sensible, normal, balanced 29-year-old who seems to be much more mature. And William himself seems to be an eminently sensible young man. So let’s hope that there are no — there’s nothing in the closet we don’t know about. There is no indication that we do.

As a matter of fact my own daughter went to school with Kate told me that the Kate you see is the Kate you get, that she was at school, west of London about 50 miles, the most perfect of all the young women. She was a terrific scholar. She was a terrific athlete. She didn’t go up on the roof and smoke cigarettes or drink wine.

And the headmaster of the school was interviewed at the Abbey today and said that, where Kate was concerned, he knew of no misbehavior. He said, in fact, if there were — he said, the 11th Commandment, don’t get caught, he said perhaps she observed that one. But in any event she never did get caught.

Kate seems to be eminently well-qualified for the huge task that lies ahead of her. And if they make a good marriage I think it will have an enormously stabilizing effect. This country doesn’t have a natural instinct to abandon an institution that has lasted over 1,000 years, with one brief break.

I think that, on the whole, people in this country feel, to use an American phrase, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It has been somewhat broke in the last 30 years and now there’s a feeling that it is on the mend.

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns from London, of The New York Times, thank you so much.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you very much.