Meghan Markle will never again be permitted to eat shellfish in public.
Maybe that’s a small price to pay to be wed to your true love. But as the Americans who set their alarms on Friday night rouse us in time to watch this decade’s fairy-tale wedding of Markle and Prince Harry, we might also consider what drives this continued idealizing of an anachronistic British institution that blesses a very small group of people with immense wealth on the basis of divine right. The shellfish rule just scratches the surface.
I enjoyed the pomp and sparkle of Britain’s royal family long before I moved to the U.K. for graduate school in 2003. As the child of a British mother growing up in the U.S., I regarded Queen Elizabeth and her family tree with the vague interest you’d accord to distant relatives. My interest became vaguer once I learned that I was unlikely to marry either William or Harry because my father was Jewish. But over nine years living in England — I moved back stateside in 2014 — any faint curiosity curdled into a real dislike.
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I enjoyed the pomp and sparkle of Britain’s royal family long before I moved to the U.K. My interest became vaguer once I learned that I was unlikely to marry either William or Harry because my father was Jewish.
The royal family, and worship of the royal family — because that is truly how this fandom should be described — is part and parcel, if not at the root, of much of what is bad about British society. The United Kingdom is a beautiful and diverse and funny country, filled with a wide array of intelligent, interesting and kind people. But it also can be a bitter, small-minded place that is limited by unyielding and antiquated ideas about class and social mobility. And why wouldn’t it be, when everyone’s social worth can technically be calculated by their proximity to a family whose influence was originally granted by God (with the help of a few inter-family executions and overthrowings).
You need only spend time with a certain echelon of middle-class British people discussing their schools and mortgages to understand how something like Brexit could happen here: At its worst, Britain is a nation of haves who are firmly determined to rule over the have-nots, regardless of the reality of their merits or circumstances. And why shouldn’t they? That’s what they’ve been taught from the top down.
In other words, the monarchy is intrinsically illiberal, and so, at the moment, is the U.K. And thus as we celebrate a biracial American woman becoming a royal, thousands of legal immigrants — some who qualify for citizenship — are being threatened with deportation. As we discuss the price of Markle’s sure-to-be-stunning dress, purchased by the partially taxpayer-funded family, thousands of ill people in Britain are being turned away from hospitals — surgeries postponed, life-saving screenings cancelled — because there’s not enough money to run them properly. As we look at photos of the country pile that the Queen is giving Meghan and Harry as a wedding gift, more than 300,000 people in Britain are homeless. And as we debate the merits of the couple’s royal-tradition-breaking wedding cake, a record number of British people are turning to food banks to survive.
Some might say that’s cruel to critique the details of a wedding — if you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? And the royal family did not itself create problems like homelessness or medical inadequacy. But don’t forget, these just aren’t any old rich people: they are rich people who receive tens of millions of dollars each year from British taxpayers. And while some count the Queen’s relative lack of political involvement as a positive — as if it’s an accomplishment to not express a public opinion about Brexit — the protection of this un-progressive institution comes at huge cost to British people.
Pinning hopes on Markle as a transformative addition are fruitless as well. Though she’ll no doubt cause many products to fly off shelves, she’s already had to diminish her involvement in a number of activist organizations in order to adhere to the family rules, reduced instead to shaking hands with so-called “commoners” and watching children play Jenga. Princess Diana, arguably the most transformative royal, achieved most of her humanitarian work after she’d split up with Prince Charles and could eat shellfish in any company she pleased.
Now, Markle is an adult woman, and so is Prince Harry, and they seem like fine people who are really in love. I hope they’ll be happy together, just as I’d hope that any two people I don’t know who choose to get married will enjoy it. And indeed there is nothing wrong with enjoying a diverting love story between strangers, or watching a fancy wedding to admire the outfits (and I’m sure the outfits will be amazing). But if you’re an American waking at the crack of dawn to pin on your fascinator and raise a glass to the happy couple in front of your television, I’d urge you to remember that this global celebration of the marriage of two wealthy people is not an event that happens free of context.
Strip away the pageantry and the lovely accents and we’ve more in common with the British than we might think.
King George III went to war with the founders of the United States of America because they objected to their unfair treatment under the reign of the monarch. As the next true American princess says her vows this Saturday, our country is being overseen by another leader who seems keen to put his family in charge of everything — despite their lack of qualification or merit — to award disproportionate power to the rich over the poor and to use his position to enrich his own estate, sometimes at the hands of the taxpayers. Strip away the pageantry and the lovely accents and we’ve more in common with the British than we might think.
Jean Hannah Edelstein is a British-American writer who currently lives in New York.