The politics of monarchy

Ruth asked:

Your thoughts on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Royalty is a fiction. History records that Oliver Cromwell put an end to the belief — regarded once as an immutable axiom — in the ‘divine right of kings’. Today, in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, there has been much talk of what it means to be a ‘constitutional monarch’. Yesterday, erstwhile Prince Charles, now His Majesty King Charles III, was quick to reassure those worried about his previous ‘meddling’ that he would respect the limits imposed on his constitutional role as King.

This is an understandable error.

On the contrary, Charles is not bound to follow his mother’s script. Queen Elizabeth II was the product of a different age. His Majesty is his own man. With the country deeply divided on party lines, and open hostility between the lucky privileged and those struggling to make a living, words and wishful sentiments are not enough to bring the country back to a sense of unity. As King, Charles has authority that he lacked when he was a mere Prince. He has the means and the power to influence events, to bring about change.

This is his right — albeit not a ‘divine’ right — and not a mere privilege granted to him by whichever party happens to have been elected to power.

The King may not have the power to make laws or administer justice, but by the very fact that he is monarch, his words carry a unique weight. In a strong democracy, the respect granted to the fiction of monarchy poses no danger that the country might lapse into tyranny, or that somehow the wishes of the electorate will be undermined.

John Stuart Mill remarked that democracy is the ‘tyranny of the majority’. However, it is mere fantasy to imagine that power resides only in the elected representatives in Parliament. On the contrary, anyone who speaks out and knows that they will be listened to — whether they be leaders of large trades unions, or groups of industrialists, or even popular celebrities — has the ability to influence the course of events, in a positive or negative way. They have a special role to play in the national conversation. In this respect, the role of the monarch is unique and irreplaceable.

Decades ago, Charles was one of the first to speak out about the dangers to the climate and the environment. He has persevered despite jibes and disrespect from the popular press exerting their power and influence. Now that he has succeeded to the throne, the deep regard that the British people hold to the institution of monarchy, shown by the reactions to the death of his mother, ensures that these criticisms will be severely muted, if not silenced. He has a right and a duty to speak his mind.

There is a puzzle here, of how a mere accident of birth can grant one this right. The monarch’s power is a fiction. We can block our ears, if we choose. But we do not, because we happily subscribe to that fiction. I mentioned in a previous answer that religion is a fiction. That does not mean that people who engage in religious practices are somehow deluded. To be religious, or to respect the authority of the monarch is a way of life that we find meaningful and worth believing in, even though we lack ‘belief’ in the strict and literal sense.

If political theory finds this difficult to reconcile, so much the worse for political theory. Traditionally, the problem of political theory has been posed in the form, ‘Why should I obey the law?’ Answers have been along the lines of justifying the sense of obligation, the strict meaning of ‘ought’. But there is also a question why I should listen to any given pronouncement from this or that person, or whence comes the authority of an individual or group of individuals to influence belief and action. The answer is that it is an authority that is partially earned, but also granted even when it is not earned because I have freely chosen to grant it. Ultimately, that choice is the choice of a way of life.

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