Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1
Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Aberystwyth, to open the new extension of the National Library of Wales, has predictably generated considerable furore in the local media, political circles and even the academe. The familiar siren’s song wails for the abolition of the monarchy and optimistically urges the introduction of a political system that is more ‘representative’ and more ‘relevant’ to the British state as it staggers towards the twenty-first century. Now is clearly the time to remind ourselves of the superiority of monarchy as a political form and its inherent qualities which are of benefit to us all (even here in Wales)!
Monarchy is the world’s oldest and most distinguished political institution. The Queen is a living symbol of our nation-state, embodying centuries of the diverse and varied histories of the peoples of the British Isles. As such, a Crown is infinitely easier to identify with than a political ideology or a written constitution, both of which are necessarily limited in their perspectives and social inclusiveness. The Queen is therefore representative to a degree that no politician can ever aspire since she personifies an historical tradition which is recognisable to all sections of the national community, irrespective of race, class or creed. She surely epitomises the ideal of a united kingdom. It was frequently asked why a Welsh person from “the arts, media or even politics” (1) could not preside over the Aberystwyth ceremony. Yet would it indeed have been possible to have found just such a person who was better known and more acceptable than our own monarch?
A monarch is trained from birth as Head of State. He or she accumulates a vast knowledge and experience of the country, its people and its government : there is little possibility that an under-qualified person may become King or Queen. Succession is predictable and clearly visible to all concerned. This degree of certainty in government undoubtedly engenders stability and continuity throughout the nation : rare commodities indeed in the modern political environment. There is in Britain no equivalent to the phenomenally expensive elections of the USA, where a new ‘Royal Family’ has to be chosen every four years. A constitutional monarch rules in concordance with the democratically elected government of the day. During her 44 year reign, Queen Elizabeth has worked with nine Prime Ministers of all political persuasions and has created thirteen governments. There is no possibility of confusion arising from a ‘split executive’, as has so often been the case in recent French political history. The words of David Curry, MP, aptly sum up the qualities of a constitutional monarchy :
“Monarchy is not a perfect system, but it is a less imperfect system than the alternative to it” (2)
The monarch identifies with no factional interest, making he or she infinitely preferable to an executive president who is invariably a former politician or senior bureaucrat. Enslaved by his former professional life and loyalties, the elected president often commands little recognition outside of his immediate political circle, never mind outside of his country. If one were to ask a German who is the British Head of State, it is almost certain that he would know it is Elizabeth II. Yet how many Britons could correctly identify Herr Herzog? The dignity and prestige of a monarch undoubtedly enhances the image of the nation. Our own Queen adds lustre to a variety of ceremonies, many of which would be dismissed out of hand as ‘irrelevant’ by an elected politician. American presidential elections frequently attract less than 50% of the electorate : a president may receive the mandate of no more than a quarter of the enfranchised population. Even in Britain a Prime Minister can rarely claim to command the support of more than half the electorate. The Queen, not having to grub around for the support of any one section of the community, invariably commands the widest popularity. While an elected president is interested primarily in acquiring and retaining political power, the monarch is concerned only with building on the strengths and achievements of his or her forbears and thus ruling in the common interest. The monarch is immune to the influences and temptations that all too often corrupt presidents with weak bases of power and short tenure of office.
It is often alleged that a hereditary monarch is necessarily antagonistic to a modern meritocratic democracy. History shows us that this is indeed not the case. By retaining certain constitutional powers a skilled monarch can dampen the enthusiasms of an over-ambitious politician or, conversely, can motivate the mediocre. If Kaiser Wilhelm II had remained German emperor in 1918, it is difficult to see how Hitler could have stormed to power. Indeed, it was King Victor-Emmanuel of Italy who brought down Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1943. The more recent example of Spain is illustrative of how a monarch can be a safeguard against military rule. Simon Sebag-Montefiore recently commented in The Spectator that republicanism is invariably a deluded form of optimism. (3) Even mature republics, such as France and the USA, still bear the scars inflicted by an unnatural rejection of their respective pasts. Britain’s last period of misguided optimism resulted in the (mercifully) brief military dictatorship of that father of republicans, Oliver Cromwell. Writing in The Times, John Grigg aptly summed up the ‘democratic’ credentials of monarchy :
“Most nations are republics and most are not democracies in any recognisable sense. Many are cruel tyrannies. Among the world’s truly stable democracies, a large proportion, probably the majority, are constitutional monarchies, for which our own has been the outstanding model”. (4)
The wealth of our own Queen has perennially been a contentious issue with detractors criticising the ‘vast’ cost of maintaining the monarchy. In fact it can easily be demonstrated that a comparable presidency would be a considerably higher financial burden, even if one were to discount the enormous cost of staging regular presidential elections. It must not be forgotten that through the British monarchy outstanding historical monuments, such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, have entered the public domain for the enjoyment and benefit of all. Other residences, including Holyrood Castle and Kensington Palace, would still have to be financed by the state under a republican system (that is unless a republican government decided to privatise these public buildings or allow them to fall into disrepair). It is an astonishing fact that just three members of the Royal Family receive Civil List payments from the public purse : Her Majesty the Queen; the Duke of Edinburgh; and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Moreover, the Prince of Wales continues to pay public taxes on his privately earned income. It has often been suggested that the British Royal Family should become more ‘ordinary’, like the infamous ‘bicycling monarchs’ of Scandinavia. Yet to reduce her official public duties would inevitably detract from the importance of the role Queen Elizabeth plays as Head of State and possibly lead to an undesirable concentration of power in one political office. Can anyone actually remember seeing the Swedish king on a bicycle?
The concept of Divine Right is obsolete, as even the most ardent monarchist will concede. Why then do republicans continue to appeal to ‘rationalism’ as the cornerstone of their argument for abolition? (5) They claim that elections or independent appointment are far more rational ways of selecting a Had of State than inheritance. Such theories of logic are naive and unsound, since they ignore the fact that we are all merely human and are therefore ‘afflicted’ by the normal human failings of irrational thought and emotion. One cannot declare that an institution which means so much to so many people – be they Welsh, Scottish, Irish or English – is illogical and must therefore be abolished. The imposition of republicanism in a country which has enjoyed united kingship for over a millennium, would simply be inhuman. Even today Kings and Queens play a role in the spiritual life of the nation, unmatched by any elected politician. This is an important fact which should be borne in mind by all high- minded politicians and academics who pontificate on the theoretical ‘inadequacies’ of our current political system. The wisdom of CS Lewis is a sober warning for those who ignore the more basic requirements of a nation.
“Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison”. (6)
We in Britain have inherited a freedom, a Christian ethos and an outstanding heritage, which have been preserved for over a thousand years by our monarchical system. It is therefore our duty to ensure that it remains intact and wholesome for the benefit of future generations.
(1) The Cambrian News et al, 1 May 1996.
(2) Mr. David Curry, MP, as reported in The Times, 9 March1996.
(3) The Spectator, 11 May 1996.
(4) The Times, 22 November 1995.
(5) Acknowledgements to Mike May writing in Monarchy, March 1996.
(6) Monarchy, June 1995.
Also acknowledgements to ‘The Case for Monarchy’, the official publication of the Monarchist League.
About the Author
At the time of writing, Robin Burls was the President of the Monarchist League/Constitutional Monarchy Association (Aberystwyth Branch).