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The genius of constitutional monarchy

22 May 2018

3:41 PM

22 May 2018

3:41 PM

George Orwell famously wrote that an English intellectual would rather be caught stealing from the poorbox than be seen standing to attention for God Save the King. Such intellectuals must have had a terrible time last weekend when much of the nation’s gaze was fixed on the wedding of two young people who are part of an institution we think of as quintessentially British.

The newlyweds have shown early commitment to those qualities we celebrate as particularly British: duty, charity and the service of others. Whether it is the two tours in Afghanistan served by Prince Harry, or the charity work that the couple has embraced, the hallmarks of the monarchy reflect the nation at its best. And this couple, in particular, reflect people from diverse backgrounds coming together to build a future.

These characteristics are admired throughout our islands — for the monarchy belongs equally to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a binding force; in many ways it is the golden thread that runs through the constituent parts of this United Kingdom. The think tank Policy Exchange’s latest poll shows that the monarchy and the Union both remain remarkably popular in this modern age. At last year’s general election, which many thought the most divisive in decades, the Union was one issue that received overwhelming endorsement. In the UK as a whole, more than 90 per cent voted for a unionist party. In Scotland, nearly two-thirds did the same, while in Wales, the nationalist Plaid Cymru received just 10 per cent. In Northern Ireland — always more divided than then rest of the UK — the firmly unionist DUP saw its vote share increase by 10 per cent: double that of Sinn Fein.

At this time of political turmoil, with Brexit looming and Westminster divided, these figures are a source of comfort. ​Moreover, ​constitutional monarchy is a uniquely successful form of government in terms of bridging the gaps between the past and the present. That bridge is both monarchy’s purpose and its means of existence. To survive, a monarchy must constantly evolve in order to retain consent, and we can see in the wedding last weekend how astonishing the change under our longest reigning monarch has been.

In this context I am grateful to the historian Andrew Wilson who quoted the French philosopher Simone Weil who died of tuberculosis in Kent in 1943. In her book “The Need For Roots” she wrote that Britain was exceptional amongst European powers in maintaining “a centuries-old tradition of liberty guaranteed by the authorities”. In London for the Free French she was amazed to discover that the chief power under the British constitution lay in one who is in fact powerless, the monarch. She thought that it was constitutional monarchy that explained why Britain had maintained its traditions of liberty, while Germany, Russia, France and other countries who had lost their monarchs had also lost freedom.

When Weil was writing, in the middle of World War Two, the King and Queen were working flat out to comfort and sustain the country in its defence against the bombs of fascism. Indeed the couple and their two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, who spent most of the war protected in Windsor Castle, were crucial to sustaining morale. “I know, as do all our people, that we are fighting evil things, and we must face the future bravely,” wrote the then Queen. “I shall try with all my heart to help the people. If only one could do more for them – they are so wonderful. One thing I realise clearly, that if one did not love this country and this people with a deep love, then our job would be almost impossible.”

And then in a phrase eloquently echoed in St George’s Chapel last Saturday by the American Bishop Michael Curry, she wrote: “The only hope for this world is love….”

The philosopher Roger Scruton has described our monarchy in a happy phrase as ‘the light above politics which shines down on the human bustle from a calmer and more exalted sphere’. The paradox of the monarchy is obvious in the coronation. The Queen was anointed in the presence of God. But she also swore a solemn oath to obey the elected representatives of her people. That is the kernel of the ceremony and of constitutional monarchy.

Last weekend, Robert Tombs, author of the superb book, “The English and Their History” wrote in praise of the monarchy, pointing out that its web of human contacts, beginning with the Queen and now extending through Princes William and Harry, extends around the globe. Two billion people are said to have watched the wedding around the world. Two billion!

Thus the monarchy defines the United Kingdom around the world. An international poll in 2014 showed the Queen to be the most admired woman in the world. Without her devotion to the Commonwealth, it would hardly exist. And now Prince Charles has been accepted as her successor as Head of the Commonwealth and Prince Harry and his bride have pledged to carry on nurturing the organisation.

At home as abroad, the Queen’s devotion to the Kingdom and its unity has been clear since she pledged to the nation lifelong service (and to the Empire, now Commonwealth) on her 21st birthday in 1947. She has, of course, never been able to express an opinion on any political change, including devolution or regional parliaments – but before the referendum on Scottish independence which, one imagines, caused her real anxiety, she felt able to say that she hoped the Scottish people would consider their choice very carefully. The Scots did so.

The concept of service or duty is key to the monarchy. Everyone agrees that the Queen has been selfless since she came to the throne in 1952. So was her father, King George VI. He died of lung cancer in 1952 as the result of smoking too much. One courtier told his own son at the time, “As a result of the stress he was under, the King used to stay up too late and smoked too many cigarettes – he literally died for England.”

Even as clear eyed a historian as Andrew Wilson accepted this might be true:

“Everything he did was for England. Everything his daughter and heir, Princess Elizabeth did, and has done, has been ‘for England’, or as we should now say, for Britain and the Commonwealth. The peculiar emblematic existence of the royal family, the iconic role to which their political impotence has assigned them, makes the rhetoric true.”

Wilson is right. When it works well, when you have excellent queens and kings – as we have had since Queen Victoria – who are brought up to be devoted to the wellbeing and unity of their country as no elected or appointed President is ever likely to be – you can see that there is a real genius in constitutional monarchy.


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