It’s official. As of Friday morning, England has a new future queen – Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Formerly known as Kate Middleton.
In the weeks leading up to the Royal Wedding, there seemed to be a lot of outrage. Most notably, I saw a lot of discussions revolving around the questionable morality of celebrating an institution that openly reveres inherited privilege and power.
That last critique really made me reflect – and honestly, feel a bit ashamed. It’s a very good point, and not one that I want to dismiss lightly. I was genuinely interested in following the events surrounding the Royal Wedding, but I really don’t like to think that I was celebrating institutionalized classism.
So with that criticism in mind, I’d like to revisit the idea of “inherited power.” What is it that today’s British monarchs are actually passing along to their successors? Can we really call it power?
Do British Monarchs Hold Any Power?
Before we examine whether or not Will and Kate have any real power, we first have to understand what exactly power is.
First and foremost, the general consensus in psychological research is that there are five types of power – legitimate, expert, coercive, reward, and referent. What these words mean will become more clear as I explain them, but what’s important to realize right now is that power does not look the same on every person who has it. The type of power that Barack Obama has is vastly different than the type of power that Angelina Jolie has, though anyone could argue that they are both powerful people.
Legitimate power arises from filling a role that gives you socially sanctioned power over other people. Barack Obama has legitimate power because he is the leader of the United States. The catch, however, is that this type of power generally goes away when the title isn’t applicable anymore. If your boss is fired, you no longer have to do what s/he says. Once Obama is no longer the president, he won’t be the one who decides whether or not we go to war.
Back when the UK had an absolute monarchy and the sovereign reigned supreme (say, when Queen Mary I issued the Heresy Acts and executed Protestants all over England), the British monarchs had legitimate power. However, if Queen Elizabeth II woke up tomorrow and wanted to declare Philip Treacy hats illegal, she’d be out of luck. The monarchs no longer hold legitimate power in the United Kingdom.
The best way to understand expert power is that you get it by convincing others that you know your stuff. When you are a top doctor, lawyer, or general know-it-all, you have power over others because they trust and respect your opinions. If my grandmother told me I had some random disease, I’d laugh and walk away. If the famous (though fictional) diagnostician House MD from the Fox TV show House diagnosed me, I would believe him and feel concerned.
Do the monarchs have expert power? What would they be experts on? When people respect and pay attention to the British monarchy in general, is it because the monarchs are perceived to be ‘experts’ on leadership and government? Not really. They do not have expert power.
Now here’s where things get tricky.
Coercive power is what someone has when they rely on threats and punishments to get others to do things they don’t really want to do. Tyrants have coercive power. Angry mothers threatening their kids with no dessert have coercive power.
Historically, the British monarchy has had this in spades – just a few paragraphs ago I wrote about Queen Mary I (depicted in this portrait) threatening Protestants with execution. The British monarchy has even had a good deal of coercive power in more recent history, threatening Edward VIII that he had to abdicate the throne if he wanted to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936, and (many would argue) coercing Prince Charles into marrying the late Princess Diana rather than allowing him to marry the divorcee Camilla Parker-Bowles in 1981.
But if anything, the coercive power in those situations was power that the monarchy had over…its own members. Not British citizens. And in any case, it seems the monarchy has figured out that coercive power does not typically bode well for its wielders. Prince Charles was permitted to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall) in 2005, and Prince William was gleefully allowed to wed Kate Middleton this past week – with no serious opposition from the monarchy regarding her ‘common’ genealogy or the fact that she’d had other boyfriends. Especially since the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, the monarchy has generally let go of the “threats, punishment, and coercion” tactic.
So even though this appears to be one of the last strongholds to go, the monarchy definitely does not rely on coercive power anymore. In fact, Will and Kate’s very engagement and wedding seems to prove that when it comes to threats and punishment, the monarchy’s moved on to greener pastures.
Reward power and coercive power might be thought of as two different sides of the same coin. Reward power also depends on what the powerful person can bestow upon the powerless – but this time, those things are more like raises, promotions, or compliments. Your boss has reward power if he can get you to do things with the promise of a future reward (like the title of ‘Assistant [to the] Regional Manager.’)
Does the modern British monarchy have reward power? Not quite. Unless the ‘reward’ is an opulent wedding every 30 years, there isn’t much that modern UK monarchs can ‘promise’ Brits that would compellingly persuade them to do their bidding.
People with referent power don’t necessarily have any concrete influence over others at all – at least not due to titles like ‘president’ or ‘CEO.’ Rather, referent power is what we might also call ‘celebrity’ – people with referent power are revered and mimicked because they’re in the public eye and other people admire them. Angelina Jolie has referent power because when she adopts a Namibian baby, other people suddenly think it might be a good idea to adopt a Namibian baby. Jennifer Aniston has referent power because when she cut her hair for a TV show, thousands of women went to their salons and asked for the exact same style.
Based on how people have been commenting (and E! News Reporting) on the royals, the modern-day British monarchy does seem to have power – referent power. Essentially, the power that the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (i.e. ‘Will and Kate’) have over British citizens is more similar to celebrities than political leaders like David Cameron.
But Their Power Is ‘Inherited’ – Isn’t This A Bad Message?
Yes, members of the royal family only have referent power because they are born (or marry) into it. But it’s hard to argue that having parents with referent power doesn’t give anyone their own leg up on the referent power scale. After all, I don’t know many 5-year olds without famous parents who are regarded as fashion icons like Tom-Cruise-and-Katie-Holmes offspring Suri Cruise.
In fact, there’s always been quite a lot about power that’s inherited – but it doesn’t just happen in the United Kingdom. Despite the allure of ‘upward mobility’ and the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the amount of money that you can expect to make as an adult relates pretty strongly to the amount of money that your parents earned (Charles & Hurst, 2003; Norton & Ariely, 2011). It’s also hard to deny that certain families are given a ‘leg up’ when it comes to societal & political influence, even without an official monarchy.
Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, the last name that you inherit matters – being a “Bush” or a “Kennedy” will take you far in politics.
Finally, referent power is very similar to another concept – social status. Although power and status are technically different things, people with high levels of status became that way (by definition) because they were respected, admired, and well-liked by others – much like people with referent power. Typically, people achieve high levels of status by being extroverted and emotionally stable (Anderson et al., 2001), as well as knowing how to monitor and adjust their social behavior (Flynn et al., 2006). Achieving social status by having the right combination of personality traits doesn’t seem like nepotism or inherited privilege – but isn’t it? After all, all three of these traits are substantially heritable, meaning people inherit genes that determine how extroverted, emotionally stable, or good at self-monitoring they are from their biological parents. Some studies even show that within the population, as much as 50% of people’s individual differences in extroversion or emotional stability are genetic and inherited (Jang et al., 1996). Even when power isn’t inherited through official titles, we’re far from being born on a completely equal playing field.
“If I’m a king, where’s my power? Can I form a government, can I levy a tax, declare a war?
No, and yet I’m the seat of all authority, why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them.”
- King Charles VI, The King’s Speech
Colin Firth said it best as King Charles VI in The King’s Speech: The modern-day British royalty certainly has power, but it can’t really be called ‘legitimate’ anymore. Their power revolves around status, respect, and fame – more like David Beckham than David Cameron. Furthermore, if we’re going to criticize the Royal Family for nepotism, we might benefit from turning the lens back around on ourselves and re-examining the ways in which we all inherit things that make us more or less likely to wield power and status.
So let’s raise a glass to the newlywed royals, because it’s OK to enjoy the spectacle. After all, it’s just a little harmless celebrity.
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