As an American, I have no position regarding the British Royal Family. We signed a paper in 1776 that settled this. But I’ve learned enough about English history to know this isn’t the first tiff within the Royal Family or the worst. Just be glad Prince Harry wrote a book and did a bunch of interviews, and he’s not strapping on armor and amassing an army to storm Buckingham Palace.
I’m interested in this royal drama because it shows us in real time an institution facing change and how it deals with it. Although the Windsors are a family, albeit one in desperate need of therapy (more on this later), they are an institution. Not only are they the foundation of the British government and the head of the Church of England, but they also set the tone for their entire society. The best of monarchs get entire time periods named after them, such as the Elizabethan Era and Victorian Age. And since England has tremendous influence, even in countries they didn’t colonize, the British Monarchy can set the values and cultural beliefs for the entire world.
In every organization, there is a conflict between tradition and change. “We’ve always done it this way” versus “Times are changing, and we must change with them.” If organizations lean too much towards tradition, they become moribund and unable to adapt. Plenty of companies have gone out of business because they refused to respond to a changing market. But if organizations become too fixated on change, they become unfocused and waste resources chasing after what’s new. Many trendy companies flamed out because trends moved too fast for them to keep up, or they spread themselves too thin to succeed at any one thing.
The British Royal Family clearly leans heavily towards tradition. They can point to a family tree that goes back nearly 1,000 years, live in castles and palaces centuries old, and perform rituals so ancient, they no longer have any practical purpose. Through this tradition, they offer the British people their main service: stability. Governments change, wars start and end, fashions come and go, but the Monarchy remains constant.
But the Monarchy isn’t unchangeable.
The world isn’t the same as it was in 1066, no matter how much Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan want it to be. You can look over the history of the British Monarchy to see how much it changed. Magna Carta, Parliament, the evolution to a constitutional monarchy. Want a more recent example? Edward VIII had to abdicate to marry a divorced woman. That’s how they wound up with George VI, Elizabeth II, and Britain not becoming a German province in World War II. Now, look who’s on the throne: A divorced King Charles III who’s married to a divorced Queen Consort Camilla. And remember that no one prevented Prince Harry from marrying a divorced American woman.
The institution of the British Royal Family has shown a capacity to change. The questions are if it has changed enough and if it can change in the ways it needs to.
We live in a world that is more integrated and more connected. We rub shoulders with people who are of different backgrounds, religions, gender identities, and sexual orientations. We may choose romantic partners who are a different ethnicity from us. It was inevitable for a royal to marry someone who isn’t white. Do they want to continue to Habsburg themselves through inbreeding? Some royal families have same-sex couples. What will a future king or queen do when the Prince of Wales says he wants to marry a man?
This is why the answers the British Royal Family give are so important. Can they use the current situation as an opportunity to reexamine their institution and its values? Can they learn from their mistakes, especially in its treatment of women and people of color? Will Prince William become equally open in addressing his own issues over his mother’s death and encourage a broader dialogue over mental health? Can they use their influence over the British press to promote a healthier and more inclusive society? Right now, plenty of forces around the world want to push the needle the other way and make society more hateful, restrictive, and destructive. The choices King Charles III makes regarding his family and his institution have wide-ranging implications.
The best institutions know how to balance tradition and change. They preserve enough of their standards to offer consistency and a clear vision while adapting to take advantage of new conditions and new opportunities. The British Royal Family can do the same. They can maintain enough of the traditions to give their subjects the stability they need while guiding them towards a more diverse and inclusive society. Their reactions to Prince Harry and Meghan haven’t been promising so far. But good institutions learn from their mistakes. Here’s hoping the British Royal Family does the same.