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Trying to modernize the British monarchy is a lost cause

The royal family derives its power from upholding tradition and resisting modern life.

After 70 years on the throne, 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth II died Thursday, marking the end of a remarkably popular reign that began shortly after World War II. She remained as well liked as she did, in part, because of her famously reserved public profile. But in her final years on the throne, a few high-profile scandals shrouded the British royal family in controversy. One of them was a scandal over the family’s alleged racism.

There’s no way to make the royal family a meaningfully progressive enterprise without in some way displacing its essence.

That episode — in which Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, accused the royals of racism toward her unborn child and the palace responded with talk of appointing a “diversity czar” — exposed the absurdity of attempts to reform the monarchy. Now, as the British use the occasion of Elizabeth’s death to consider whether they wish to carry on with the tradition of monarchy indefinitely, they’d do well to remember that one of the characteristics of the monarchy is that it can’t be culturally modernized.

In 2020, Markle and Prince Harry stepped away from their official duties as senior members of the royal family after having experienced what Markle described last year as acute isolation and anger over enduring racism. Markle, a Black American actress, had been hounded as an encroaching outsider by the reactionary and racist British tabloid press as she joined the family. In a widely watched interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said she felt the royal family failed to adequately defend her from those vile attacks. She also said she was shocked by alleged concerns from an unnamed royal that her and Harry's child might have a dark complexion.

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In response to Markle’s revelations, the royal family engaged in a ridiculous pantomime of antiracism activism. Last year Buckingham Palace promised a “listen and learn” exercise and the appointment of a “diversity czar.”

A diversity czar? The royal family is an institution that works primarily through mixing the bloodlines of hyper-elite white aristocrats. I’m not sure hiring more butlers of color to serve white royals would do the trick if one’s concerns are equity and antiracism. (As it turns out, the diversity czar idea was reportedly dropped.)

But one must take a step back and consider the cosmic futility of accusing British royals of racism. The British monarchy is, historically, one of the greatest engines of white supremacy the world has ever seen, having overseen the expansion of the most populous empire in global history and having enthusiastically supported slavery. Today the monarchy's outwardly more enlightened diplomatic and philanthropic relationship with the Commonwealth provides cultural and legal cover for British Empire 2.0, whereby Britain is able to extract resources from postcolonial nations on hugely favorable economic terms. Domination of the Global South is baked into the monarchy's DNA, and asking it to become a space for more equitable behavior isn’t just quixotic — it’s asking the wrong question.

The royal family derives its power from upholding tradition and resisting modern life. While it can evolve in some ways, there’s no way to make it a meaningfully progressive enterprise without in some way displacing its essence. Because the monarchy is a bastion of hyper-elite connectedness, it may appall the public, but it should not surprise the public, that in recent years the royals have been revealed to have had alleged ties to Jeffrey Epstein’s sordid child trafficking rings. Or that they're also being investigated over allegations of corrupt acceptance of massive financial donations from abroad.

“Monarchy is a cast of mind blocking reform,” Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote in February of the British monarchy. “Monarchy is a feudalism of the imagination that stamps approval on inheritance, inequality and privilege, all growing rampantly right now.”

Toynbee’s preferred solution is to abolish the monarchy. That seems unlikely in the near future, given how polling suggests the monarchy still commands majority support in Britain, and the social reality that, even among some progressives, the royals stand for a kind of national British identity that transcends political matters.

But as Britain undergoes significant re-evaluations of the meaning of British identity, social equality and democracy, it seems the country could head in the direction of sustained skepticism of the monarchy. It's already heading in that direction, and it seems more likely given that Queen Elizabeth, specifically, was the source of much the public’s affection for the monarchy and that scandals and controversies have swirled around several of its other members. But whether the monarchy survives, is abolished or peters out, one thing we know: Trying to modernize it to satisfy current-day sensibilities is a lost cause.