The Real Game of Thrones

With no political relevance, what keeps monarchs in the headlines?

Top Stories | Alice Miller | November 2013

In the TV series Game of Thrones, across a continent with more than passing resemblance to Europe, families battle to attain the Iron Throne. Drama, scheming, and no shortage of blood gushes in with each episode. The show’s popularity may be due to its violence, dragons, and a generous dose of nudity – but it may also have something to do with our fascination with kings and queens.

Today’s thrones, while less bloody, are still being watched. In 1952, the coronation of Elizabeth II was then the most watched event in television history. The wild media storm surrounding the UK royal wedding, royal baby and royal christening show that the world is once more in thrall to the wanderings of the Windsors.

On the continent, the King of the Belgians abdicated in July, and Europe saw Philippe ascend the throne. And in April, millions watched Wilhelm-Alexander become King of the Netherlands, after Queen Beatrix abdicated to make way for her son.


What are you here for?

There are seven remaining monarchies in the European Union: Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. All are constitutional monarchies, where the monarch doesn’t influence state politics.

Holland’s monarch used to wield some political power in appointing the formateur, who creates the governing coalition following an election – but parliament removed that power last year.

Today, across the EU, the monarch’s role is primarily beaming for pictures and slicing ribbons.


A disreputable old bunch

In between ribbon-cutting, some of the royals don’t quite exude honour. The Swedish King, who is 67, is known for his drinking and fondness for strip clubs. During the recession while his constituents struggled, the King of Spain, aged 75, took a safari trip to Botswana at the cost of €10,000 a day.

And some suggest that Albert II of Belgium, who abdicated this year aged 79, did so because of a rather sticky paternity problem, when a woman claiming to be his daughter appeared, causing turmoil in his marriage with the queen.

We’re still glued to the monarchy’s movements, but with the loss of political power, a sovereign’s slippage has low stakes: less Wagnerian grandeur and more petty soap opera.


A royal return

So what are we watching them for? Even the major American papers all gave their front page up to Britain’s royal tot. A New Yorker correspondent wondered why America still cared. He reasoned that, after Princess Diana’s death, the monarchy seemed doomed – and Americans "can’t resist a good comeback story".

Despite myriad claims in and out of Europe that they are obsolete, anachronistic, and expensive in a time of austerity, the monarchs do keep coming back. Not only that, they tend to be warmly received.

In Austria, President of the Austro-British Society Kurt Tiroch delivered a special three-litre bottle of cuvée for the royal baby, His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, complete with a label displaying a photo of the newborn prince with his adoring parents.


The empire strikes back

For the Habsburgs, their coming back has been of a different kind, given the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed nearly a century ago. In 1919, the Habsburgs were banned from Austrian territory until they renounced their claim to the throne, which Otto von Habsburg did, very reluctantly, in the 1960s. Otto, crown prince of the empire before its collapse, was the last living member of the Habsburg monarchy and was given a state funeral when he died in 2011.

However, his descendants are still influential in European government and diplomatic positions, and no one has forgotten that von Habsburg was one of the architects of today’s great "empire" of 500 million: the European Union. He and his son, Karl both served as members of the European Parliament in the 1990s. In 2011, the Habsburgs were granted permission to run for office again in Austria.

Otto’s youngest daughter Gabriela, born in Germany and raised in Switzerland, wasn’t allowed to enter Austria until she was in her 20s. With four native languages and at least three others near fluency, she has lived a life beyond borders; she told The Vienna Review in 2012 that her nationality was "European".

Today she is the ambassador of Georgia to Germany, meaning her official title is Her Excellency Gabriela von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduchess of Austria and Georgian ambassador to Germany. Pushed to forge her own identity, she needn’t depend on antiquated titles; she has said she doesn’t accept her family titles – they are unearned – and prefers the ones she has earned herself.

Still, even for the Habsburgs, the residue of empire is never far away. As observed by Professor David Luft, who has written about the Habsburg monarchy, today there still appears to be a "mythic element" in discussions of the Habsburgs and Vienna. He notes that connotations still lurk of "Franz Joseph’s mutton chops and Sissy’s hair".

They may never be rid of the mutton chops, but the Habsburgs have been forced to shake some of their royal fetters. In contrast, we see the UK’s Prince Harry struggle with his royal role – distant from a throne that is itself distant from any practical application – as he stumbles from Afghanistan to Antarctica.

In 2008, when he was in Afghanistan helping to fight the Taliban, Harry told the press that he hadn’t had a shower in four days, hadn’t washed his clothes for a week, and: "everything seems completely normal ... I think this is about as normal as I’m ever going to get."


The Queen meets YouTube

For us commoners, part of the attraction of the monarchy is not its drama, but its reliable staidness, its position, as the British government puts it, "above party politics", and "not in question". Particularly at times of uncertainty, such as the current financial crisis, some find solace in the monarchy’s longevity; the line of the Habsburgs, although now without a throne, reaches back to the Holy Roman Empire.

But today the monarchy represents an uneasy combination of an antiquated institution and a modern world. You, dear reader, are perhaps unaware that the British monarchy has a YouTube channel. But don’t drop everything just yet. There are reasons, I’m afraid to report, that this information hasn’t gone viral.


Everybody stares

So, is the monarchy dying out? Right now, topping the pop charts is a single called "Royals", written by 16-year-old pop wonder Lorde. The song is less about royals exactly – unless you associate royals with "gold teeth, grey goose, tripping in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room" – and more about the tremendous gap between "them" and "us".

This is what we relish in the monarchy, their elevated, antiquated, formal stature, their absolute otherness. They’re no longer a political force, but they’re celebrities of a unique kind. English novelist Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Booker for her novels about the court of Henry VIII, has long considered the status of the monarchy.

But eventually she stopped asking whether or not we should have one – as she wrote in the London Review of Books – because this was essentially the same as asking whether or not we should have pandas.

"Some people find them endearing," she wrote, "some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage."

And now – when we can use our phones to watch Buckingham Palace via YouTube – it’s easier for us to peer in than ever.

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