It wouldn’t be a royal scandal without a bevy of Canadian pundits seizing on it to demand the abolition of the monarchy. Or never mind royal scandal: royal visit, royal lunch, royal flick of a light-switch – no occasion is too trivial to propose dismantling a centuries-old institution that is the foundation of our entire system of government and laws.
This time was no different. From their book-lined studies on the leafiest streets of one of the most favoured countries on earth, pundits shed their usual hot tears at what they and we might have become were we not bent under the lash of the House of Windsor.
The prime minister, for his part, dodged the subject, when asked – ho ho, I’m not touching that one, the kind of thing prime ministers typically seek refuge in. Rather than, say, defend the system under which we are governed.
Which is sad, and silly, because the case for monarchy is pretty simple to make. For all the abolitionists’ attempts to portray it as an antiquated relic (well yes, and while we’re at it, democracy’s getting a bit long in the tooth, isn’t it?), beside which their own alternative – assuming they could ever agree on an alternative – is reason itself, they have by far the harder side of the argument.
Every country, for starters, needs a head of state: the symbol of the nation, the person in whom ultimate constitutional authority is vested. That’s person, singular – the experience of oligarchies and central committees is instructive.
The first question is: should the head of state also be the head of government? Or should the two offices be divided between two different people? The argument for keeping them separate is the usual cautionary note about concentrations of power. In constitutional monarchies, the head of government holds power, fleeting and contested; the head of state embodies the authority of the state, permanent and legitimate.
Among other functions, this serves to keep the head of government from getting above himself. The Queen may be bound to follow her prime minister’s advice, but the prime minister is nevertheless her servant, and by extension ours. At the same time, her own truncated role, so far removed from the absolute monarchs of the past, is a constant reminder of the hard-won triumph of democracy.
By contrast, in presidential systems, power and authority are combined in one person, who must somehow act as both partisan warrior and symbol of national unity. The dangers of this are obvious. We don’t have to look far for evidence of which system performs better. Of the top 25 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index, for example, 12 are constitutional monarchies, and seven are their close cousins, parliamentary republics. Just two are presidencies.
The second question, then, is how should this separate head of state be chosen: by election, appointment, or heredity? Election, as in most parliamentary republics, sounds appealing, but immediately poses a difficulty: why should an elected head of state not also exercise power, much as the head of government does? Appointment, on the other hand, raises another question: appointed by whom? And would an appointed officer have the legitimacy to stand up to a prime minister who abused his power, should it come to that?
What is common to both is the element of choice: you choose to run for office, or someone chooses you. By contrast, you don’t get to choose whether to be king or queen. Neither are you chosen. You simply are, from the moment of the previous sovereign’s death to your own. It is like no other office in this regard.
It is this element of fate, and of its particular expression in heredity, that explains the enduring appeal of monarchy. Half of life, after all, is a revolt against our fate; the other half is acceptance of it. Heredity, likewise, is one of the great motive forces in human history. We all want to be worthy of our parents. We all want to pass on our values, as much as our genes, to our children.
It particularly explains the great popular affection and reverence for the Queen, who has stoically accepted her fate, through decade after decade of dutiful public service, as her forebears did before her, and theirs before them. It is why she will never abdicate. The moment it becomes just another job, something you can take or leave, all is lost.
“My whole life,” she told her subjects on her 21st birthday, “whether it be short or long, shall be devoted to your service,” and she meant it. Can we imagine an elected head of state saying the same? Would we want them to?
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