Maybe a Ceremonial Monarchy Can Show the Way to a Less Powerful State
When it comes to kings and queens I agree that, as Monty Python had it regarding King Arthur, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. I’m a skeptic. But people seem better at dumping the forms of monarchy than at disposing of the practice. Solitary rulers still command in many countries, eschewing titles and crowns while wielding power to interfere in people’s lives.
In recent generations, the British royal family evolved in a different direction, embodying crowd-pleasing pageantry while abandoning most of the political role that made the monarchy so dangerous in the past. Harmlessly satisfying an appetite for pomp while threatening nobody’s liberty is a decent attribute for any institution—and one to which we should aspire for government in general.
That the British monarchy has not always been perceived as benign is apparent from some reactions in former imperial possessions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“As condolences poured in from around the world after Queen Elizabeth’s death, there were mixed feelings among some Africans about the monarch and her country’s colonial legacy on a continent where Britain once ruled more than half the territory,” Reuters reported.
Memories linger of the days of often-brutal rule by Britain over territories it controlled until the years after World War II. But much of the resentment is of imperial conduct by an elected government; the royal family itself has been shedding authority since long before Elizabeth took the throne, starting as long ago as the Magna Carta in 1215. The English civil wars of the 17th century set the tone for a monarchy that came to sign off on policies chosen by elected politicians (and unelected bureaucrats).
That’s not to say the monarchy has no authority. After briefly losing the power to dissolve Parliament between elections in 2011, the crown regained it this year. A 2014 play focused on a constitutional crisis when a then-fictional King Charles III refused to give expected rubber-stamp assent to legislation. But Queen Elizabeth II continued surrendering authority in favor of a ceremonial role that could be inoffensive and even unifying to anybody who isn’t a firmly committed republican.
Meanwhile political systems that rejected robes, crowns, and titles proceeded to demonstrate that isn’t enough to protect against the real danger of monarchy: concentrated coercive power.
“Great Britain is a republic, with a hereditary president, while the United States is a monarchy with an elective king,” the Knoxville Journal quipped in 1896. That the president at the time was Grover Cleveland, one of the less autocratic chief executives in the United States, illustrates the inherent power of an office that was still decades away from being labeled “imperial.”
The 20th century then provided seemingly endless examples of absolute rulers, including Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, M
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