British royalty and ‘soft power’

The era of absolutism, imperial dreams and monarchic intrigue may be decisively over in the West, but the splendor of the royal age lives on still. Thousands still line the streets of Windsor and wave the Union Jack to watch the spectacle of royal weddings, taking in the pomp and pageantry with smiling faces – millions more watch it on their TVs.  Meanwhile page upon page of lifestyle magazines are still dedicated to every single detail of royal life across Europe. Especially in the United Kingdom, the brand of the nation – its culture, its values, and symbolic identity – is kept alive in the royal family.

Beyond being a cultural touchstone, the royal currency still finds takers across the world; the family has acted as a vehicle of British “soft power” unlike any other. Monarchs might not be playing the Great Game - the 19th century competition between Imperial Russia and the British monarchy for influence and wealth in Central Asia – anymore, but the battle for influence and clout is still raging in the region in a miniature approximation of it. “The United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans, too) we’re now back in the thick of playing the Great Game,” Prince Andrew said on November, 2008 during a luncheon in Kyrgyzstan, and not many will disagree with this statement. The British monarchy has retained some importance in the world of global politics, and is unique in doing so. Today where the UK cannot coerce or pay their way to favorable diplomatic relations, it can rely on royal soft power to lead the way.

Nowhere is this power more effective than in the Commonwealth of Nations - a group of 53 states, all of which (except for two) were formerly part of the British Empire. Although the purpose of the Commonwealth has morphed considerably over the decades, now it is a voluntary association of nation states that rely on shared history and culture to promote common bonds and notable ideals, here the memory of imperial rule still remains, as does the significance of a royal visit.

Therefore since the swift independence of British colonies following the Second World War, the royal family has been especially active in fostering friendly relations with its former territories. It was on one such tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 when Princess Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England. On January 31st King George VI bid farewell to his daughter and the Duke of Edinburgh, who were leaving the UK to embark on an extensive tour of the Commonwealth that would include visits to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Before their return – while the royal party was in Kenya – the king succumbed to his long-running illness, forcing the 25 year old Elizabeth to take up the mantle of Queen. One she has kept almost 7 decades later.

More recently, it was the young dynamic duo of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – Harry and Meghan – who undertook a ten-day tour of southern Africa. The highlight of the tour was when the couple visited Nyanga, a township in Cape Town that is infamous for its violence, and took time to soak in the culture in a performance that impressed many in the region. Meghan’s declaration that she was there as “a woman of colour” resonated with the South African community that still bore the scars of Apartheid; making the tour a resounding success in terms of British-African relations.

But positive public relations and cultural exchange and promotion are not the only engagements of the royal family. Their soft power has been used for strategic purposes too. The 2008 Kyrgyzstan visit, where Prince Andrew recalled the Great Game, was also attended U.S. ambassador Tatianna Gfoeller and a group of British business executives, all seeking to supplant Russian and Chinese influence and smooth the entry of British companies into the region.

Similarly the Gulf monarchies – the only real monarchies left in the world – still ascribe to the interpersonal relations between sovereigns that dominated diplomatic relations in the centuries before. Here a royal visit can lend prestige to a monarch seeking to retain control over his country, and as such the British royal family has been lavishly welcomed in the Arab Peninsula.

The utility of maintaining a royal family on the state’s expense in the age of rational spending and mass democracy has been put to question many times in the British Isles. The rising republicanism in the UK and a diminishing economy may force the House of Commons to do away with the institution entirely. The question of succession also haunts the halls of Westminster; will the British royal family be able to maintain the same prestige and influence once Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the Commonwealth and its most enduring icon, is no more?

While the UK, and other European royal families grapple with these questions, Pakistan, and indeed the world, can still witness a living relic of a majestic past – a royal visit from the age when kings and emperors held absolute sway.

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

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