BY EFFIE DEANS
The history of Britain is that of a small island that began as a collection of territories ruled by chiefs and warlords and gradually evolved into a constitutional monarchy. Most of Europe evolved up until a certain point as we did, but then diverged. Collections of territories that tended to speak similar languages first united under an absolute monarch and then with various degrees of success moved away from absolutism. Britain was almost uniquely successful and fortunate. We began our journey to democracy earlier than anywhere else and transitioned from the divine right of kings to constitutional monarchy earlier and more peacefully than anyone else. We have been invaded once or perhaps twice in the past thousand years, our boundaries with one major exception have remained unchanged, when Europe has revolted, we have largely watched. All this we owe to royalty.
Constitutional monarchy remains arbitrary. Our present Queen is as closely related to Alfred the Great or Kenneth MacAlpin as I am. This is partly a matter of simple arithmetic. There are thirty to forty generations between these kings and today. Two to the power of forty is a very large number indeed. If you go back far enough, we are all related to everyone else.
In the history of succession there are also breaks. At times the relation of one king to his predecessor has been distant sometimes non-existent. There is not an unbroken chain going back. It is due to a series of accidents of history that we have the good fortune to have our present Queen ruling us. But this doesn’t matter.
We are what we are because of that history. The history of Britain is the history of our monarchy. Without it we would not know ourselves.
Our way of government is imperfect, but so is the way of everyone else. The task of transitioning from absolutism to democracy has been failed by most of the world. Russia has never made the transition, nor has China, nor has most of the rest of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Democracies are few and some of them have been in existence for less than a lifetime. We may admire American democracy or Swiss democracy. We may think that a president and a senate would be better than a Queen and a House of Lords, but really, we should simply be grateful that we live in one of the few properly democratic countries in the world. We should also recognise that changing your system of government more frequently leads to tyranny rather than greater democracy.
Britain could not move towards a “more” democratic presidential system without revolution and reversing the process that united us would be more likely to lead to chaos than harmony. There is no guarantee that what resulted would be more democratic, nor that it would be more free. Secession rarely solves existing problems, but frequently gives rise to new ones.
It is in this context that we must view the present difficulties that our Royal Family faces. Britain changes gradually, but when necessary we do change. It is this that has saved us from much of the horrors of European history.
Constitutional monarchy depends on consent. So long as the British people are content to be ruled by the House of Windsor we will be. But that consent requires something from the Royal Family too. Whereas in medieval times we might have had a succession of bad kings and nothing would be done, now something would be done, and it would be done quickly.
I am uninterested in Royal gossip. I do not follow their tours, nor am I interested in what they open, nor do I pay much attention to the charitable work they do. I am grateful to have a Queen, because a president with powers like Macron or Trump is too close to an absolute monarch for my taste. A president without powers like Germany or Ireland is most frequently a worthy non-entity. In that case I would rather have a Queen we care about. Let power rest with the Commons and with the Prime Minister, but better by far not to have a political head of state, because this is inherently divisive.
My support for the monarchy is therefore constitutional. I like that we go through the process of having the Queen sign bills. She may have almost no power, but she does have the power of the queen bee. She can sting once. She can if necessary, refuse, bring down her whole house, but perhaps thereby save her country from a tyrant. The monarch is our safety net. Our monarchy makes change gradual and makes us British.
But we can all tell when someone is trying to use the Royal Family to make themselves rich or to give themselves a platform to become greater than any Hollywood megastar. I prefer the manner of the Queen. There is no gossip about her. We don’t even know her opinions on most issues, because she is genuinely impartial. We have only ever had glimpses because someone so vulgar as Tony Blair or David Cameron leaked. The Queen’s wisdom is in not telling the rest of us what to believe.
The Royal family must be smaller and more private. They must cease to think of themselves as celebrities. Let the Royal family be the Queen, Charles, William and his family. Let everyone else be treated with respect, but not indulged and not allowed to trade on their relationship with the Queen to gain either fame, money or notoriety. Let them neither expect state weddings, nor state funerals. Let them work, but not by selling their Royalty to the highest bidder. If necessary, let them live quietly on a country estate somewhere. Let us not read about them and let us not care what they do or don’t do. Let us not notice.
The excellent Effie Deans blogs at Lily of St. Leonard’s here. We hope to republish many more articles from Effie in 2020.