(Opinion) Queen Elizabeth II, monarchy and democracy
The British Constitution's authority a source of strength and inspiration in dark times
Great Britain’s 10 days of national mourning upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II featured splendid pageantry, music and burial services unlikely to be seen on such a grand scale again.
Critics of Britain dismissed the obsequies as nostalgia for a lost imperium, the assumption being that all that expense might have been better spent in feeding the hungry, distributing medicines abroad, rebuilding infrastructure or heating homes this winter.
In the U.S., many found reverence for the Queen hard to reconcile with the idea of democracy, which is understandable, as America’s Founding Fathers threw off King George III to form a republic that recognizes no hereditary privileges or royal prerogative of any kind.
Yet, for the majority of Britons, something deeper was at work that was not irreconcilable with democracy. In Britain, most serious matters of government — law, employment, taxation, healthcare, immigration, foreign policy and national defense — are handled by the prime minister and Parliament, the true seat of sovereignty. Britain’s monarchy is legally restrained by the British Constitution; its authority is largely moral, even spiritual, a source of strength and inspiration in dark times.
In the 1930s, under the shadow of invasion, Winston Churchill praised King George V’s defense of freedom, democracy and individual rights. Churchill had witnessed democratically elected parliaments collapse into military dictatorships and communist regimes across Europe. He knew that kings could become tyrants, but he also recognized that they could serve as stewards of civilization, impervious to passing grievances and special interests.
Elizabeth became Queen in 1952 at age 25 upon the early death of her father, King George VI, assuming the duties of the Crown when many of the world’s rulers had been deposed and driven into exile, and at a time when few women held positions of power. That she managed so well for so long in superintending the remnants of the far-flung British empire, traveling around the world to visit her dominions and developing a warm relationship with many, testifies to her intellect, vision and diplomacy.
Small wonder that her passing at age 96 has led to an outpouring of emotion and anxiety about the future.
Reigning for 70 years, Elizabeth was the only sovereign many Britons had ever known. And her conduct was exemplary, characterized by dedication to duty, selflessness in personal life, a strong belief in Christianity and the Church of England, of which she served as head while respecting the faiths of others, and an impish humor that delighted and surprised those who met her in private. Such qualities enabled her to communicate effectively, not only with the elite and powerful but also with laborers, factory workers, shopkeepers, and average people.
Elizabeth understood the role of monarch and how it can serve as a stabilizing element when hostilities between political parties threaten to paralyze the nation. Following British custom, she asked 15 prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, to form governments during a reign that spanned the Cold War, the partition of Berlin, the struggles in Northern Ireland, labor strikes, recessions, wars in the Middle East, assassinations, global jihad and scandals, some involving the royal family itself.
Considering the changes that have occurred over that stretch — economic, social, political, geographical, environmental, technological — it is easy to see why Britons may now feel somewhat adrift.
Happily, they are supported by the Commonwealth system, which gives Britain, a country smaller than Texas, an outsized voice in world affairs. Less grand than it used to be, that system, which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other democracies, nonetheless holds, functioning as a kind of trust whose members are committed to the long view of human enterprise. All subscribe to representative government, freedom of religion, protection of private property, habeas corpus and respect for the rule of law. And all recognize the British monarch.
Britons may one day decide that monarchy and empire, which have played such a large role in their history, have outlived their usefulness. Regardless, the elaborate funeral of Elizabeth II will long be remembered as a cultural high-water mark for the Britain and the Commonwealth nations, projecting a set of beliefs at once secular and sacred, for it has demonstrated that while hard power in the form of economics, law and military might is centered in and guarded by the people, the soft power of the throne is still a factor to be reckoned with.
Paul Forte is CEO of Portsmouth-based FedPoint.