Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 83
9th December 2002

In Defence of the Monarchy
Sean Gabb

When with my family and friends I celebrated her Majesty's golden jubilee last June, I thought that republicanism had been crushed as other than a marginal force for another generation. Over a million people had gathered in the Mall to cheer her—many of them young people, and many from the ethnic minorities. For a few days, all the silly chatter about inclusiveness and diversity became about as real as it possibly could, but became real in a cause that the loudest and silliest of the chatterers regarded with shame and annoyance. Now, sadly, the republicans are back with their levelling agenda. I do not think we shall ever know the truth concerning the former servant of the Princess of Wales who started the present round of scandals. But the lurid claims of warnings from the Queen, of homosexual rape in the royal household, and of the general conduct of the royal family, are highly damaging regardless of their truth—and have been taken up by the republicans in the media and used to cause the greatest damage possible. Of course, the Monarchy will survive these scandals. They may be used, however, to justify a weakening of its institutional powers, and so will contribute to its decline over the long term.

I know that many of my readers live under republican forms of government, and that many of my British readers have no settled affection for our own monarchical constitution. But I am myself a committed monarchist, and will take this opportunity to explain why.

The first argument is from antiquity. Queen Elizabeth II is descended from the kings of the Germanic barbarians who invaded the Roman province of Britain after the year 410 AD. At first, these barbarians were divided among many tribes, each with its one king. As the centuries passed, however, what is now England was gradually brought under the rule of one royal family; and Alfred the Great (d. 901) is normally regarded as the first King of England.

With the exception of the rather strange period between 1649 and 1660, when the country was first a republic and then a military dictatorship, England has always been a Monarchy. And the monarchs have been members of one family. Her present Majesty is descended from the family of Alfred the Great, just as he in turn was descended from the chieftains who led their warriors and their families out of the great forests that once overspread northern Europe. There have been changes in the order of succession—in 1485, in 1603, in 1688, in 1714, and in 1936—but the crown has not passed outside that family during the past 1,500 years.

Antiquity, I grant, is not in itself a defence of anything. But antiquity does raise a presumption in its favour. Unless a particular thing can be shown to produce great and easily avoidable harm, its age does serve as a defence. The burden of proof, therefore, lies against the republicans. Before they can be allowed to have their way, they must prove beyond reasonable doubt that Monarchy is for us a harmful institution.

One claim I often hear is that we are in this country not citizens with inalienable rights, but subjects with revokable privileges. An argument consequent on this is that the Monarchy is a survival from the time before the middle-class revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a symbol of a traditional order in which status is possessed on the basis not of ability but of birth. It is even claimed that it is because of the social prestige of the Monarchy that this country lost its commercial lead at the end of the 19th century—that the first generations of capitalist factory owners were replaced by sons who had come to believe that high social status was best achieved through the professions and politics, and that industry was something for the lower classes to bother about.

The reply is simple. The language of obedience and the ceremonial that attends royal occasions may support this claim. However, in a constitution like ours, which was not made, but has evolved over many centuries, the dictionary meaning of words is far less important than the things they actually describe. During the past few hundred years, all of the European monarchies have been either abolished or remodelled out of ancient recognition. Are the "citizens" of those countries notably more free than English "subjects"? The obvious answer is no. We pay lower taxes than in most of these countries. We enjoy generally greater freedom of enterprise. In the writ of habeas corpus, and in trial by jury according to common law rules of justice, we enjoy greater protections of life, liberty and property. Unlike in most of Europe, I can take action against the authorities in the ordinary civil courts: where we have administrative tribunals, there is always appeal to the ordinary courts. Assuming I want to, I can read books and make statements that in much of Europe would get me into serious trouble. During the past century, there have been repeated floods of European immigrants into this country. They have come here to live in a country where they are not bled absolutely white in taxes, and where they do not need to fear a 3:00am knock on the door by the authorities. Except by those who want to live in a better climate, and who have the money to ignore local oppressions, I have not seen much movement in the opposite direction. Better to be a subject in England than a citizen in France. Just ask all those emigres who have settled here since 1789—and we can ask the 300,000 who currently have taken advantage of the European Union rules on labour mobility to come and work here. Having a Monarchy did not stop us from having the first and therefore the most important industrial revolution. It has not stopped London from remaining one of the great financial centres of the world—a financial centre where more people work than live in Frankfurt, whish is the next largest financial centre in the European Union.

If we are less free today than a century or even a generation ago, this is not because we have a Monarchy. It is because the representative elements of our constitution have decayed. It may have been Her Majesty last month, speaking to Parliament, who announced the planned abolition of the double jeopardy rule, and the lifting of the bar on similar fact evidence, and the limitation of the right to trial by jury. But she was reading words written for her by others - these others being a pack of unprincipled technocrats obsessed with meeting targets on the suppression of crime, regardless of due process, and regardless of whether the targets can be met by way of the means suggested. It is the people we are supposed to represent us who are making us less free, not the person whom the coins proclaim our monarch by the grace of God. If we have a problem, it is not too few elected politicians: it is too many bad ones.

Another claim is that the Monarchy is a visible symbol of inequality—a barrier to an ideal society in which everyone will be equal in status, and in which everyone will have the right, if not the ability, to rise to the highest position. It is a knife pointing at the heart of democracy. This may sound a persuasive claim. Historically, though, attempts to create such societies have usually gone far beyond abolishing a Monarchy—they have ended with attacks on anyone with a nice house and money in the bank, or on anyone with a good coat on his back. Those who hate the Queen for her jewels and palaces generally have no time either for the middle classes.

But all this is only a negative reply to the republicans. It demands proof of harm done by having a Monarchy, and then rejects all alleged proofs. The Monarchy is not simply an ancient institution that is harmless and that ought therefore to be left alone. There is a positive argument. Not only has the Monarchy done us no harm: it has done much good.

England is the only country in the world that has for the past three hundred years not had a revolution, a civil war, a military dictatorship, a foreign invasion, or any other serious breakdown of constitutional order. It has throughout this time maintained high levels of political and economic freedom. There is no other country in all history that has been so reliably free and stable for so long. This may have something to do with our geographical position—though this did not bring much stability before about 1700. It may have something to do with our racial characteristics—though the Americans who fought the War between the States were generally of the same stock, and still managed an awful bloodletting. There may be any number of other reasons, or combinations of reasons. But one highly probable contributing cause is our constitution. For the past few centuries, we have had a Monarchy with all the prestige of ancient legitimacy, combined with actual government by elected politicians. The character of the Monarch has therefore been fairly unimportant, but no politician has been able to scheme or shoot his way into that first position. We have a situation where the politicians have most of the power, but the Monarch has all the authority.

This is not a division of power that exists in the written constitutions of the other countries. Certainly, it was not noticed by foreign observers such as Montequieu and de Lolme in the 18th century. It is, even so, a division of powers that seem so far to have been more successful than the formal divisions of executive, legislature and judiciary with which constitutional lawyers are more familiar. It is not a defect of the Monarchy that the top position is closed to merit. It is one of the highest benefits. We cannot be certain that replacing the Monarchy with a presidential republic would preserve anything like this division. It might well be that to get rid of the Monarchy would take Britain into the kind of political instability that is currently unimaginable.

This brings us to the third line of defence—which is our ignorance of what would happen if we tried to replace the Monarchy.

Contrary to all the imaginings of the utopian philosophers, we are fundamentally not rational beings. We cannot be perfected. We cannot be made fit for a social order based wholly on light and reason. Certainly, the modes of thought and social organisation that developed chiefly in England, and have since spread in stages throughout the world, can usually be given a powerful abstract justification. But the success—indeed, the continued existence—of these modes owes nothing to rational deliberation, and everything to an often unconscious habit. To abolish, or even to try altering these habits is to risk our enjoyment of the benefits that proceed from them. Anyone who thinks otherwise falls into an error readily demonstrable from the history of the past two centuries. Anyone who proceeds from thought to action commits acts that range from the absurd to the catastrophically monstrous.

When, therefore, we come to an examine a functioning social order such as our own, our most proper attitude is one of curiosity mingled with reverence. We are not to seize on its apparent faults and reject it in favour of something else spun out of a single head. Nor, as has been most often done this century in those countries lucky enough to avoid a total reconstruction, are we to advocate sweeping reforms simply on the grounds of "modernisation" or of bringing something "into the twenty first century". We must instead try to understand the inner workings of society—to conjecture by what innumerable and infinitesimal stages the present order of things evolved to its present sophistication. This will require us to look even to those habits and institutions that rest on justifications manifestly absurd, asking whether they might not nevertheless serve a useful purpose. Then, and only then, shall we be ready to consider what deliberate changes may be necessary, and how these may best be combined with what already is. The best change is so cautious and incremental that only those directly affected notice its happening. Even the most radical, sudden change is best achieved so that within only a few years it becomes difficult to tell the old from the new.

According to this argument, then, it is wrong to look at the Monarchy as if it stood alone. It might be wrong to see the Monarchy as a direct guarantor of political stability. Nevertheless, it might contribute to that stability in some way that no one has yet discovered.

Some monarchists I have spoken to over the past year have expressed a strong dissatisfaction with the Queen. Disliking the present Government's European policy, they have petitioned Her Majesty for the redress of grievances, using the procedure laid down in the Magna Carta of 1215. So far, they have received no proper answer. From this, they have concluded that the Monarchy is as weak and indeed rotten a support as any other branch of the Constitution. This is a mistaken view. It proceeds from the same confusion of law and constitutional practice as the republicans usually make.

The legal powers of the Monarchy are theoretically immense. They have not been reduced by law since 1660, and then were not fundamentally touched. Formally, the Queen is the Head of State, Head of the Church of England, and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. In theory, she is also the owner of all the land in England and Wales —a survival of the feudal tenures introduced by William I in 1066. All legal acts are done in her name; and in theory, she is present in every courtroom in the country. Her head appears on every British postage stamp and on every British coin and banknote. We tend to despise those foreign countries where national flags or even pictures of "El Presidente" are everywhere. But images of our Queen are in every pocket and on every letter posted. If she so wished, she could dismiss Tony Blair tomorrow and set me in his place. She could dissolve Parliament to save me the trouble of facing it. She could declare war on France, and sign a treaty giving Gibraltar to Spain. In reality, she can do none of these things. Her inability to raise taxes in her own name would eventually force her to recall Parliament, just as Charles I was forced. But long before reaching this position, it would have been necessary for her to break through the web of custom that, during the past three centuries, has overlain the law. Her actions might be strictly legal: they would not be at all constitutional.

There might be circumstances in which she needed to use her full legal powers in defence of the whole Constitution, and she might then break various conventions without any loss of authority. But the arguments over the Treaty of Nice—bad as it might be—do not justify formal royal intervention. She would not have public opinion sufficiently on her side—and that, whatever the wording of constitutional documents might say—is the real source of power and authority.

This being said, I do believe that the Queen is aware of how dangerously bad this Government is, and that she is at war with it. But the weapons practically available to her are not those available to Queen Anne when she decided to rid herself of the Whigs. The weapons now are symbolism and ceremonial obstruction.

We saw these most obviously in use earlier this year. We have a government and a controlled media insisting that we are no longer what our ancestors were, and that our only future lies in the new country called Europe. This message received a flat contradiction when the Queen Mother was buried—an event acting as powerfully on the English imagination as a half-forgotten bugle call on an old soldier. The countless millions of unrepresented conservatives in this country were suddenly faced with the old music and words and ceremony, and the effect was often overpowering. It was like waking from a nightmare and looking at the familiar things around the bedroom. That is why New Labour and the BBC were so upset and even frightened by the public reaction. Unlike the amateurs and fools who run the Conservative Party, these people fully understand the power of symbolism, and they appreciated the strength of the reverse to their project of national deconstruction. They were equally upset by the success of the Jubilee celebrations. They could see what they had long regarded as the withered husk of the Monarchy taking on new life with every outpouring of popular support. This recovered strength would not be used to defeat them in open battle. Instead, it would be an inspiring force for others. The ancient Jews would carry the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them. Whether it brought the divine blessing on their arms may be doubted. Undoubtedly, though, it gave them a visible symbol of all they were fighting for. That is the real modern power of the Monarchy. And this, I suspect, is the reason why these scandals are being so emphasised in the media. They weaken the Monarchy in the place in which it needs to be strongest.

Now, what we are fighting for is obvious. We want personal freedom and national independence. Is that why Her Majesty is now at war on our side? I like to think so. But it may just be self-preservation. In the past hundred years, the Monarchy has accommodated itself to great and surprising changes. George V decided not to stand by the landed aristocracy, and so avoided its fate. George VI made no complaints about losing his imperial title. Her present Majesty managed very well in the first half of her reign as head of state in a mixed economy welfare state. But none of these changes threatened the survival of the Monarchy as an institution. The older Labour politicians—Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan—had no desire to overthrow the Constitution or even to remodel it. I am not even sure how serious were their more radical followers. The present Labour leaders, though, are republicans. They are not, of course, republicans in the tradition of Tom Paine or even of Tony Benn—who wanted what they thought a fair and rational deal for all the people of the country. Instead, they have a vision of a New World Order society in which there is no room for things like monarchy or any other pattern of habitual loyalty that they cannot themselves control. Their republic is not one of annual parliaments and village democracy: it is one in which the rulers of many countries combine to exercise absolute and unaccountable power over an atomised—and perhaps before long, a genetically modified—peasantry.

I think the Queen realises this. I believe that she takes her coronation oath seriously, and that she does regret the police state that her Minsters are building for us. But I am convinced that she sees the danger to her own position and that of her children. This puts her on our side—even if she stands on our side only "objectively", to use the old Marxist jargon.

On this last point, I would commend the Monarchy even to those of my friends who are committed republicans. Perhaps their ideal republic is a better form of government than our monarchical constitution. But this ideal republic is not presently on offer. Until it can be on offer, therefore, I would advise them to take a lesson from the Australian voters of a few years ago. Presented with a choice between a monarchy for which they had little strong affection and a republic designed wholly with the interests of the politicians in mind, they chose to keep the Monarchy.

And so, for all these reasons, and for others that I may have forgotten, I ask all my readers—monarchists and republicans, libertarians and conservatives, and even the more thoughtful socialists who want a better world than New Labour has in mind for us —to join in wishing Her Majesty a happy Christmas and a long and productive reign in the years still to come.