The Daily Telegraph
Constitutional monarchy keeps tyranny at bay
For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth was at the helm of this remarkable system. Thank God for that
Few figures are known by everyone, everywhere in the world. Queen Elizabeth II was one such person. American presidents sometimes come close, but none have been as enduringly popular or as instantly recognisable as the Queen.
She was far more, though, than the world’s most famous woman. She was the defender of the most effective system of government that has yet been created: constitutional monarchy.
No system has proved as effective as a bulwark against tyranny. The United States has its solutions – dividing power between the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches – but none have proven as enduringly successful or popular as the model pioneered in Britain.
America’s tripartite division is, perhaps, insufficient: a fourth branch is necessary, for psychological and social reasons. Someone independent (and worthy) needs to carry the symbolic burden. Those who clamour for the dissolution of the great drama of the monarchy, so well played by the late Queen, risk destabilising the societies they claim to support.
Every country needs someone to shoulder the symbolic burden of the state. If that person is not a monarch, set up explicitly to manage that role, the responsibility (and temptation) tends to fall on the head of state – the leader of the executive branch.
Why is that a problem? Because the proclivity for pharaonic leadership makes itself manifest; because the temptation to dynasty re-emerges; because the role of president or prime minister and, simultaneously, star is too much of a part for any one person to play without significant and often deadly moral hazard.
In the US, a remarkable and free country, the president can too easily slide into the role of tsar – and not just the president, but the “first family,” with the wife an ersatz queen and the children princes and princesses. All people need someone to look up to as a model for emulation, but it’s useful to separate those who could formally fulfil that role from those who make the administrative and practical decisions. Everything in its proper place – that’s something Queen Elizabeth knew very well.
For 70 years, she ruled over not only her people, but also her prime ministers. It is a very good thing to have someone elected to what would otherwise be the highest position in the land still be required to defer to something else, something superordinate and higher – if not God, at least the Queen, at least a Queen such as Elizabeth II, a dutiful, careful, judicious steady hand at the wheel, someone capable and willing to perform that complex function. It meant her prime ministers did not have to do so, and were also unable to.
The monarchical system therefore fulfils a vital psychological (spiritual) and social purpose, and it is also of huge practical utility. The Americans are a great and attractive people, not least because of their remarkable tendency to mythologise and dramatise their culture – political and individual. Britons have the same propensity: to play out a great story – and the monarchy can play the leading part, just as the late Queen did so well. That’s a great benefit culturally – and economically. Who can deny the tremendous attraction of the traditions of Britain to the tourist trade – to those who can come to this great island and watch the drama unfold, in the pomp and circumstance that make the country so interesting (particularly when allied with the ability to satirise and make light of that same tradition).
It will be difficult to sustain the monarchy in the absence of the stalwart, Elizabeth II. I sincerely hope that King Charles III, after waiting so long in the wings, will rise to the occasion, and that Commonwealth countries recognise and appreciate what they have in the shared historical, philosophical and cultural bonds that unite them, grounded in the miraculously valuable principles of English common law and the great democratic traditions of individual sovereignty, so remarkably allied as they are with monarchical tradition.
I hope this appreciation is managed in an unapologetic and forthright manner. We should all remember, in the aftermath of the death of our great monarch, that it was Britain and its traditions and freedoms that produced the industrial revolution that has made us all wealthy beyond the imagination of our forebears, and it was this country that fought the long battle to make slavery untenable not only on the political and economic fronts, but also clearly wrong morally.
Slavery was universally practised as far back into history as we can see, and as widely as any other economic practice. Abolition was the exception and, while abolitionist sentiment emerged in other jurisdictions, no country did more to enforce the strictures against slavery on the international scene than Britain.
Free men and women living under a symbolic monarch, guided by a distributed system of governmental, artistic and entrepreneurial responsibility: that’s a great system, and a gift from Britain to the world.
The Queen had her hand at the helm of that remarkable system for 70 years. Thank God for that. And God save the King, for all our sakes.