On monarchy

            Like most people who have spent their whole lives under her reign, I have been numbed by the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  It is as if part of the sky has fallen in.  Somehow everything looks different now.  I did not ever meet her, and so I can only speak of her public persona, but I recognize much of what has been said about her over the last few days.  People have spoken a lot about her sense of duty, her faith, and her wry humour.  One of the themes I have missed – perhaps there’s too little sense now of common morality to encourage people to comment – is her apparently moral life.  When all’s said and done, making all allowances for the position into which she was born (one at once more privileged and more constrained than that of most of us), she seemed to live as much as she could the life to which she believed her faith called her.  She was buffeted over the years by family disappointment and tragedy, and few of us can really know what she felt about things, or even what she said in private, but still she carried on as if quietly determined to live in the full view of the public the Christian life.  So it seems to me, at any rate.

            That is somewhat in contrast to some of her more distant predecessors.  It’s easily forgotten – but not by historians – that the reputation of the monarchy was redeemed by Victoria, and above all by Albert, whose earnestness, political neutrality, and public service probably contributed more to the spirit of the modern British monarchy even than his wife did.  Since then, duty, public service, and personal restraint, these have been the marks of our constitutional monarchy.  To sustain this commitment over 70 years is an achievement all on its own, though.  Yet I’m not sure I have much to say about the late Queen personally.  Other people who did know her can say more, and it’s not really to my purpose to add to whatever they think and feel.  I’m wondering aloud here more about what the regnal shift might say to us about power, authority, and sovereignty. 

            There’s no getting away from the oddity of monarchy in a democratic state.  Because we see, inevitably, the current monarchy against the backdrop of the language and symbolism of early modern sovereignty, and the long, drawn-out process by which the absolutist claims made by James I and Charles I were whittled away by civil war and the evolution of cabinet government, we tend to assume a fundamental incompatibility here.  If we’re all equal, how come some seem more equal than others?  Yet it’s worth remembering that constitutional monarchy is not an example of arrogant British exceptionalism, but almost a European norm. Many west European states have constitutional monarchies.  Something works about it.  I for one can’t even begin to imagine where we would end up if we had an elected head of state, given the precarity of our party political system.  President Johnson?  President Cameron?  President Blair?  No thanks.

            But even thinking of it this way is to look at our national governance from a merely functional view.  I think there’s more at stake here.  And here I need to make a brief personal, political excursus.  I’m sometimes accused of being an out-and-out Liberal.  In religious matters anyway, I suppose I do endorse some positions that are allegedly ‘liberal’.  But basically liberalism as an ideological system has never really been part of my intellectual and political makeup.  Instead, two quite different systems have influenced me profoundly – the Christian socialist tradition, with its appeal to social justice as the outworking of the Gospel, and its sacramental socialism and egalitarianism, and the Burkean, organic tradition of conservatism, with its acceptance of the longue durée of change, the need for tradition and its engagement of affective, collective notions of belonging, and its suspicion of rational ‘programmes’ of social engineering.  I’m not suggesting, by the way, that I have a fully consistent, worked-out political philosophy combining these things: these are my primary inspirations, but they’re probably a somewhat unstable mix

For me, then, it’s not fundamentally a problem that the ancient institution of monarchy, with its pageantry, its archaic language (I can never help smiling when I hear the phrase ‘liege lord of life and limb’), its privilege, its titles and symbolism, co-exists with democracy and the pursuit of equal opportunities for all.  States which aspire to change, to reform and reinvigorate themselves constantly, need at the same time principles and institutions which help to guarantee longevity and stability, and which are not a product of rational engineering, but of the deep processes of time, of the loyalties of generations which transcend the particular preoccupations of any one age. 

The monarchy is not, to me, merely the residue of an archaic social system, but a vital element of a complex political and social system which has helped to deliver significant social stability in this country.  Her Late Majesty, I think, instinctively grasped that, or at least lived it, and I pray that her son will do the same – I have confidence he will.

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