The Reign Explained
by Peter Whittle; Social Affairs Unit; 91 pages.
In the middle of May, Queen Elizabeth arrived in Ireland, the first British monarch to do so since the Emerald Isle became a republic in 1922. Royal visits tend to be symbolic affairs—with the sovereign visiting health clinics, greeting well-wishers, laying wreaths at war memorials—and this one featured all the typical fare. Yet the queen’s journey to Ireland, a onetime component of the United Kingdom, whose six northern counties are still part of the U.K. and the cause of much violence in recent decades, was redolent of something more than symbolism. At a banquet in Dublin, she articulated a message of unity in the way that only a monarch—who, by virtue of her station, sits above the give-and-take of everyday politics—can do: “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past,” she said, “I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all.”
Spoken by Elizabeth II, these words were probably more meaningful to the Irish than had they come from, say, David Cameron. For as even the most strident of Irish republicans could attest, the queen’s trip was more than a series of ribbon-cuttings and photo ops. Even Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army’s political arm, Sinn Féin, told the BBC that the visit of the British sovereign was “sincere . . . a page in a book, and we need to write the next page and the next page and keep the process moving on.” Not long ago, of course, the BBC would have been prevented from airing Adams’s voice. That Gerry Adams would praise the British queen in an interview with the BBC is a symbol not only of how less troublesome “the Troubles” have become since the Good Friday Agreement, but also of the queen’s unique and unparalleled role as Great Britain’s head of state.
Several weeks before her visit to Ireland, Elizabeth was occupied with another royal event: the wedding of Prince William to his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton. Given the pomp and circumstance surrounding the ceremony, it provided republicans with easy fodder to make their case against the Windsors in particular and constitutional monarchy in general. How could a modern, racially diverse, 21st-century democracy countenance such an old-fashioned, inherently aristocratic, institution? Well, as an estimated two billion television viewers worldwide attest, whatever practical power these arguments possess has little effect: People are fascinated by royalty, and the British value their constitutional monarchy—even as celebrations might have been dampened by the biting austerity measures instituted by the Tory/Liberal Democratic coalition.
A cost-benefit analysis of monarchy, however, is not what Peter Whittle concerns himself with in Monarchy Matters, a monograph in defense of the institution published by the Social Affairs Unit, a conservative British think tank. Republicans and monarchists can throw numbers at each other disputing how much tourist revenue the royal family draws, but constitutional monarchy is too important a component of British culture to be defended on the level of the pecuniary. It ought to stand or fall on its own merits as a system of democratic government. And even the most steadfast of American constitutional republicans will find Whittle’s case persuasive—certainly not as a formula for our own country, but as something that clearly works for Great Britain and the Commonwealth.
The most important function that a monarchy serves is an ineffable one, embodied by the rituals that the queen performed during her visit to Ireland: It provides a unifying figure around which the nation can rally, and through which it can represent itself abroad. “It became clear to me, living as I did in the U.S. through the horror of 9/11,” Whittle writes, “just how deeply compromised a partisan figure such as the American president can be when it comes to fulfilling his role as the focus of a nation’s loyalty or as the expression of its pride.” It wasn’t long before President Bush went from having 90 percent approval ratings to defending himself from accusations of war crimes. Such mood swings are to be expected in a democracy—Whittle cites Winston Churchill’s landslide 1945 defeat, the same year he had finished saving Western civilization—since elected officials are accountable to voters, and citizens are free, indeed expected, to express whatever views they like about them. But amidst the rancor, venality, and corruption that inevitably accompany politics, it’s useful to have a respected figurehead who rises above it all, someone around whom the country can rally in times not only of national success but distress. A more tangible benefit of the British monarchy, as well, is the positive role it plays enhancing Britain’s international profile. Germany’s head of state is the president of the Federal Republic. Do you know his name?
And for all the talk about how the monarchy is a racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic institution that encapsulates the rigidity of Britain’s class system, respect for it cuts straight across societal lines. You could even argue that the monarchy—by furnishing a head of state not subject to populist whims—plays a positive role in negating and discrediting the ugly impulses of “blood and soil” that have haunted European history. Monarchy is a valve by which nationalist passions—good and not so good—can be funneled.
It’s worth noting, for example, that far-right nationalist movements pose more of a threat in European countries with republican forms of government than those with constitutional monarchies. Take France and Hungary, where nationalism is on the rise. In Hungary, an openly fascist party with its own paramilitary wing won 17 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections, and is the third largest party in the country. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, of the neo-fascist National Front, is beating Nicolas Sarkozy in French opinion polls. In Britain it is inconceivable that the xenophobic British National party would ever attract anywhere approaching such support. The same goes for Spain, home of the universally admired King Juan Carlos, who played an instrumental, some might say essential, role in that country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, and helped avert a military coup in 1981.
Of course, much of the case for the British monarchy rests on the performance of the present occupant of the throne, who will be celebrating her Diamond Jubilee—60 years as sovereign—next year. Elizabeth II has enjoyed approval ratings that any elected official would kill for—usually hovering around 80 percent—throughout her reign, and so singular a figure is the queen that “she is seen as distinct” from the monarchy, Whittle writes, effectively becoming “an institution in herself.” This near-unerring performance as sovereign, however, presents as much a problem for the monarchy as it does a defense: Would the Prince of Wales command such public approval? If he abdicated the throne in favor of William, as some advocate, would that not discredit the hereditary principle?
Queen Elizabeth has ruled for so long—she has met weekly with every prime minister, a dozen in all, since 1952—that the notion of Great Britain without her is inconceivable to most of her subjects. But even the prospect of her absence doesn’t appear to faze Britons who, when polled about their attitude towards the monarchy as an institution, continually offer overwhelming approval. Which, in the end, is the most important reason for why “monarchy matters,” and one that belies the democratic pretensions of the antimonarchists: The people want it.