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Cyr: Prince Philip's passing is part of a greater story

Arthur I. Cyr
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Arthur Cyr

The death of Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the age of 99 is generating worldwide attention, notably in the United States. Philip personified continuity of important institutions, and relationships, in a turbulent time. Queen Elizabeth II and he were married for 73 years.

Britain played a pivotal role in World War II, when the Anglo-American "Special Relationship" was truly forged. The partnership between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill was the linchpin. Then-Princess Elizabeth worked driving a truck during the war.

In the 1960s, Philip spoke at UCLA, greeted by an Army ROTC student honor guard that included this writer. He arrived in a closed Rolls Royce so grand that he stood before exiting. Philip shook hands and talked with us, individually.

Ceremonies are important, and there the British excel. Their monarch does have residual ruling powers, including the formality of actually appointing a government following a general election or other, sometimes unanticipated political shakeup. The public role of the Queen or King may be largely symbolic, but that can become important in a time of national crisis or tragedy, including war.

Britain's government, following the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, embarked on a complicated, painful, seemingly endless effort to do so. Rather than the fairy tale world of royal relationships, travel and splendor, this bizarre ordeal became more like "Alice in Wonderland."

Over four centuries ago, namesake Queen Elizabeth I was forcefully in charge of the British Isles. Those were brutal times, when losing a power struggle could cost your life.

That Elizabeth modernized Britain, managing Parliament with prudent skill. She stabilized politics following the tumultuous reign of her father Henry VIII. She confirmed influence in Europe, effectively balancing the nations of that continent.

Today, Queen and Parliament have subtly complementary roles. Walter Bagehot, long-time editor of the influential weekly magazine "The Economist," provided insightful analysis of the government of Great Britain in a manner now universally accepted.

The world has changed greatly since Bagehot's book was published in 1867. However, his fundamental insight remains very valid today. Parliament handles the practical "efficient functions" of governing while the monarchy handles the largely ceremonial "dignified functions."

Fundamentally important is that the British, unlike the Americans, have no written constitution. Parliament is effectively supreme, though the nation in October 2009 did formally establish an American-style Supreme Court.

The important ceremonial functions address the collective emotions of the people at large regarding government. In the 1930s, King Edward VIII generated great controversy when he wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, an expatriate American. In that different, earlier time, the fact that she was not British generated extensive public attention and debate. She also had been divorced twice. In general, notoriety followed her.

Vastly more important, Edward was sympathetic to Nazi Germany, as well as being personally highly erratic and unstable. Adolf Hitler and others at the top of the Nazi regime in Germany considered him a strategic asset, both through generating domestic support and eventually helping control Britain in a conquered Europe.

Finally, Edward did abdicate and marry his American. After war began, his successor George VI proved an invaluable, influential partner of Britain's wartime government.

History shows the continuing real-world importance of the British Royal Family, and helps put Brexit in proper context.

Learn more: Walter Bagehot, "The English Constitution," and "The Darkest Hour" film starring Gary Oldman.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War" (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.