Royal Flush

Liberal objections to the British monarchy overinflate its symbolic significance

Perhaps it was just as well that the summary execution of bin Laden swept those nuptials off the front pages so quickly. The wise insist that mankind can only bear so much reality. Maybe his fantasy intake is best rationed too. Still, one could not help noticing just how much so many enjoyed it all — unselfconsciously, happily and peacefully — while the fun lasted. Possibly one million were there. Only about 50 got themselves arrested. Compare that to the average Cup Final Saturday. Twenty million Britons watched it on TV. They can’t all have been Tories. These were joined by some two billion foreigners. They can’t all have been Americans.

Why? One reason is that monarchy, a supposedly ancient institution, actually sits perfectly well with modernity. Ask the Swedes. It is also compatible with liberty (the Dutch), and even a bulwark of democracy (Spain). True, the world prefers our allegedly archaic version. But only Britain’s home-grown intelligentsia finds any problem with that. You know the arguments.  Our monarchy is old-fashioned. It exacerbates our social divisions. It preserves a childish vision of ourselves.  And you will have heard all the usual complaints about the occasion itself. Wasn’t the expense unjustified in these straitened times? Weren’t that motley crew in the Abbey painfully unrepresentative of contemporary Britain? Finally, isn’t there something unhealthy about a nation of couch potatoes lounging low in such vicarious jollification.  

But this is all nonsense. Our present regime is a constitutional monarchy only in the most banal sense of that term. It was correctly exposed as a disguised republic by Montesquieu nearly three centuries ago. Under that disguise, it has never stopped changing: read, modernising. Bagehot dreamed of a purely dignified monarchy in the 1860s. That wish was granted during the reign of George V. His son was made rudely aware of the fact. But Edward VIII’s successors ably demonstrated how a hereditary head of state can serve as a mechanism to separate symbolic pre-eminence from executive authority, no less how to detach high ceremonial standing from continual and divisive elections. That is why this country is less fractious than France and much less divided than Ireland.  

Of course, the hereditary principle implies fruitful marriages. That is why we celebrate them. It also explains why their celebration entails nothing more than a simple recognition of the political continuity that biology ensures. Thus I can confidently predict that William and Kate will do little to prop up the democratic deficit that now afflicts the House of Lords. In the same way, their successful succession will have few consequences for the marginal tax rate under any future Labour government. No constitutional reformer, nor committed socialist, need ever fear our monarchy. Those foreigners don’t. This is why they love it so much. For when the English made monarchy safe for themselves, they also demonstrated how it might be made tame — adorable rather than awful — for the rest of the world.  

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