God Save the Colonies
Why America should adopt the British monarchy as its own.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron told his cabinet colleagues the happy news of Prince William’s engagement this week, the Queen’s ministers cheered and thumped the table to signify their joy. Many Britons were equally delighted that the prince and his bride-to-be, Kate Middleton, had finally sealed the deal — evidenced in the acres of newsprint and fawning television coverage. To be sure, the hype has bored many others witless. Some sophisticates even wrote off the matter as "two people who met at university announced their engagement." But it’s hard not to miss the point, if banal, that it is important that the heirs to the throne, as Prince William is, marry and produce heirs of their own.
The coming months will see no end to the fawning or resentment, depending on whom you ask here in London. Yet as superfluous as it may all seem to the outside world, moments such as this are an apt reminder that even in the modern world monarchy does in fact serve a purpose. In Britain, the royal family has usefully freed prime ministers from simultaneously filling the monotonous diplomatic role of head of state. In the United States, where the president still fills that post, some paring down is in order.
So I offer a modest proposal — albeit to a country whose very founding was prefaced by disgust with a king. America needs a royal family: Britain’s.
Surely, such a suggestion will seem absurd at first. Britain itself is questioning the cost of the monarchy in these straitened times of austerity. Questions have turned to the scale of the wedding. Could it really cost as much as $50 million? Wouldn’t that be "irresponsible" at a time when the government is pushing a program of severe public-spending cuts through Parliament? Is it really necessary to make William and Kate’s wedding day a public holiday?
Penny-pinching, however, is a poor excuse for a revolution. Republicans who would abolish the throne will be sorely disappointed if they think that the excesses of flummery and plumage that accompany such royal occasions will leave Britons cold. In 2002, the media predicted that the celebrations to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee would be a flop. Cynicism and apathy were expected to win the day. Modern, democratic Britain had no time for antiquated pomp and circumstance, they predicted.
Yet then, and again today, republicanism is always on the verge of a breakthrough that never quite comes. The jubilee was a triumph and a surprisingly moving one at that. More than 1 million people gathered in central London to celebrate the Queen’s 50 years on the throne. Even the Guardian newspaper, which favors an elected head of state, was compelled to admit that the jubilee’s success had given republicans "food for thought." It was as if the words of 19th-century constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot had been written yesterday: The monarchy was, he wrote, "the dignified part of the constitution," an institution that "excites and preserves the reverence of the population." Few Britons today might put it quite like that, but the royal family remains more revered than might be thought probable.
Of course, there have been dark moments. Charles and Diana’s doomed marriage and the royal reaction to the princess’s death tarnished the monarchy’s brand. But the Windsors have since been rehabilitated. After a difficult spell, the royal household has proved adept at adapting to the realities of tabloid Britain. They have absorbed Lampedusa’s aphorism that "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." (As a reminder, the Queen joined Facebook last week.)
Some of this is doubtless due to Queen Elizabeth’s sterling service. In 2012, she will celebrate 60 gaffe-free years on the throne. Prince Charles — and his habit of pronouncing on political matters — may infuriate some. But even those who despise the class-ridden trappings of monarchy admit that his mother has done the "job" almost faultlessly. So much so, in fact, that except for the subject of horse-racing, almost no one knows what the Queen actually thinks about anything. The signs are that William — remarkably well-adjusted considering his parents’ trial-by-tabloid marriage — is cut from his grandmother’s cloth. Few think he will embarrass the institution.
The monarchy lurks in the background, a rarely considered ever-present that still, perhaps remarkably, retains a hold on the people’s affection. This confounds rationalists and strict-constructionist democrats alike for one simple reason: Royalty is an anachronism that works. Tradition has an intrinsic value, and anyway, there’s no evidence that selecting a head of state by ballot rather than birth produces any better results.
In fact, the power of monarchy is demonstrated by republics around the world. The French president, for instance, wields powers comparable to those enjoyed by monarchs before parliaments challenged royal authority. The difference is that an elected head of state becomes a polarizing rather than unifying figure. Similarly, it’s evident that the president of the United States is expected to be both the embodiment of the republic and some kind of priest-king: Father of the Nation and Chief Executive. This has a number of regrettable consequences.
Last year, Peggy Noonan, the American conservative commentator and former presidential speechwriter, complained that President Barack Obama lacked some of the presence that a good head of state requires. She imagines "a good president as sitting at the big desk and reaching out with his long arms and holding on to the left, and holding on to the right, and trying mightily to hold it together, letting neither spin out of control, holding on for dear life. I wish we were seeing that. I don’t think we are."
Americans tempted to scoff at the gushing nonsense produced by the British press this week should attend to Noonan’s words. It is one thing to be dazzled by quasi-mystical notions of the thread of royalty stretching back through the centuries; quite another to wrap a mere politician — all too human flesh and all — in such purpled prose. A politician is merely a politician, here today and tossed out tomorrow. The monarch, however, is a reassuring and enduring symbol whose presence is inoffensive at worst and more often comforting. The American system simply isn’t set up to produce the kind of figure that Noonan longs for.
If the president must be comforter-in-chief and chief executive, is it any wonder that the office is bedeviled by a kind of institutional schizophrenia? The president must, simultaneously, be the leader of his party and a kindly, bipartisan father figure whose stately presence in the White House reassures and embodies the great republic. With all that, the wonder of the American presidency is not that it is done well but that it is done at all.
Since congressional elections have become increasingly parliamentary in style, one wonders how the matrix of uneasy relationships between president, Congress, and the people will produce satisfactory results in the future.
Perhaps the Canadian model would be fitting: Abolish the presidency, join the Commonwealth, and make the speaker of the House of Representatives the prime minister.
This too would permit the good people of the United States to indulge their boundless fascination with all things royal without embarrassment or feeling that doing so throws their republican credentials into question. Since Americans are as fascinated by monarchy as Britons — perhaps more so in fact — why not come back to the fold and embrace it? I’m sure the Queen would, in her magisterial grace, forgive America’s reckless adolescence. We all grow up eventually.