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Opinion: Long live royal humor

Royal fans wearing masks picturing Britain's King Charles III and Britain's Camilla, Queen Consort are pictured on The Mall, near to Buckingham Palace in central London, on May 5, 2023, ahead of the coronation weekend.
ODD ANDERSEN
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Royal fans wearing masks picturing Britain's King Charles III and Britain's Camilla, Queen Consort are pictured on The Mall, near to Buckingham Palace in central London, on May 5, 2023, ahead of the coronation weekend.

Britain's royal family cost taxpayers about £102 million pounds, or $130 million US dollars last year, according to the accounting paperwork for the Sovereign Grant, which funds their official expenses. Some might argue that money could be spent on health care, road repair, or buying every British citizen a chip butty.

But economists estimate the Royals actually bring more money into Britain's economy than they cost: in tourism, admission fees, and gift shop sales, like little corgi-shaped refrigerator magnets.

Americans had a revolution to be free of the British monarchy and imperialism, but join much of the rest of the world in following the royals' escapades, scandals, romances and feuds.

The ascension of King Charles III revived critiques of the British Empire's troubling history. But the royal family also received extraordinary outpourings of regard for Queen Elizabeth II when she died last year, and for Princess Diana in 1997.

"Of course, in the 21st century, royalty is all nonsense," Max Hastings, the British historian wrote this week for Bloomberg Opinion, "but it is relatively harmless nonsense that gives pleasure to many people."

A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the BBC showed 58% of Britons favor keeping the monarchy. 26%, many of them younger adults, support having an elected head of state, as in the US, France, or, for that matter, Russia, where Vladimir Putin was re-elected in 2018 with 77% of the vote.

You might imagine what leaders Max Hastings had in mind as he wrote this week, "There is no rational case for having a hereditary head of state...Yet wherever we look around the world at elected presidents, we thank our stars for denying such people the role of head of state in our own polity."

British monarchs have little actual power. And Britain's parliament could approve a referendum to abolish even that.

I think the UK has another way to keep monarchy in check, whatever its absurdities and crimes. It's the sense of humor Britons turn on themselves: from Jonathan Swift and Gilbert and Sullivan to Eddie Izzard. It's Tracey Ullman, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Amy Hoggart satirizing royals, Monty Python's skits about Upper Class Twits, and Charles Dickens writing in A Tale of Two Cities, "There was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England..." All japes delivered without fear that anyone who jibes at royals will be pushed from a window or imprisoned.

In fact, some British comics even get knighted. God Save the Clowns.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.