On 2 June, I travelled down to London to attend one of those unusual events that somehow manage to be at once an embodiment of the stereotypical idea of what Britain is, and an absurdity: Trooping the Colour. The ceremony, consisting of a military parade and inspection by the monarch, is several hundred years old, stretching back to the restoration of Charles II in 1660, after the collapse of Britain’s only experiment with republicanism. It was a bright sunny day over Horse Guards, an elegant whitewashed eighteenth-century building and former military headquarters, that straddles Whitehall—the seat of British government—on one side, and Buckingham Palace on the other. On the parade ground, to the tune of toe-tapping military music, the stirring beat of drums and the roar of bagpipes, battalions of the Guard regiments—ceremonial protectors of the person of the monarch—expertly marched, rode and manoeuvred. This was the culmination of months of practice and rehearsal. All around, spectators were in their finery, since a strict dress code was enforced—many men appeared in top hat and tails.Sadly, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II could not be there. There are some things neither wealth nor position can alter. The years are taking their toll. She was replaced on the parade ground by her children and grandchildren, who, resplendent in uniform, inspected the troops on her behalf, while she waited on the balcony of the palace, and watched as the battalions made their steady way back to barracks, trundling up the Mall, to cheering crowds. Trooping the Colour is carried out yearly in June to mark the Queen’s official birthday and coronation—a typically British quirk, it is a summer celebration granted to monarchs unfortunate enough to be born in the colder months. (Her Majesty’s actual birthday is in April.) At the close of the parade, the Royal Family appeared together on the palace balcony, to deafening cheers, as the Royal Air Force streaked red, white and blue in the sky above.
To the coldly objective observer, the whole spectacle might seem silly. Yet I find myself inclined to defend it.
Monarchy is the default state of human societies. We all live in monarchies, of different sorts. The United States and France—an evolutionary and a revolutionary republic—elect their monarchs, just as the Polish nobles of old assembled to elect their king. In both countries, the monarch (whom they refer to as their president) awkwardly straddles the roles of head of state—symbolic embodiment of the nation, caretaker of the highest office in the land—and wielder of ultimate political power. In Britain, we have gradually severed this uneasy link. From the medieval absolute sovereign, who ruled through their court, power has slowly slipped away from the personal grasp of the English, then British, monarch. Today, while on paper the Crown (subtly different from the Queen) is the ultimate power in the land, decisions are made by the elected parliament, in the Queen’s name and by her chief minister, the prime minister—curiously enough, a position that has no legal basis. The prime minister governs the nation by managing the parliament, but technically, and symbolically, has no power whatsoever.
To an American, with an explicit constitution that forms a manual for government, this doubtless seems bizarre. And it is. But a display of military pomp such as Trooping the Colour drives home the utility of such a separation. The Crown, in a constitutional monarchy, has atrophied, it has become impotent, but, simultaneously, has also developed into an all-powerful icon of the nation: something of immense emotional, symbolic and perhaps even spiritual value. It is an emblem that stretches back through time, anchoring us to our ancestors. The British Crown dates from the unification of England into a single kingdom, over ten centuries ago—in a world we can scarcely imagine. On those occasions when a nation must come together, when the country undergoes some deep upheaval, it is the monarch who receives the adulation of the people and the loyalty of the armed forces, who offers strength, fortitude and succour—the monarch must embody the nation—while calculating politicians linger in the background, hoping to take on a glimmer of reflected grandeur. Monarchy is a magical thing, which the rationalist dismisses at her peril. We are rational animals, but we are moved more deeply by our hearts than by our logic.
A monarchy is at its best when it keeps those who seek power away from it. The hereditary principle is decidedly not a rational basis for choosing a head of state. It is a customary method, rooted, like the monarchy itself, in the hazy mists of time. Our system was never designed; it has slowly evolved over time. And it seems to work rather well. Constitutional monarchies are among the most peaceful, prosperous and successful countries in the world.
The monarchy is not democratic—and perhaps that explains something of its appealing mysticism. However, it is, in practice, an aid to the proper functioning of a democracy. Given the political powerlessness of the head of state, the fetishism for electing the holder of that office is odd. Democratic elections have no guarantee of producing dignified and stately outcomes. Indeed, there is something incorruptible about the hereditary office—the randomness of the method of choice gives the holder some measure of independence. They are not beholden to voters or millionaires, and don’t have to court popularity. We could, however, select our sovereign differently: perhaps by drawing lots from among the yearly set of retiring civil servants, or from a shortlist of small-town mayors reaching the twilight of their tenure. But even if we crowned a white-haired provost from an obscure village in Westminster Abbey, to the sounds of choirs and trumpets, it would not alter the fundamental nature of the monarchy one bit. The point is to have someone of dignity, reluctantly compelled by duty to assume the ancient mantle.
Many republicans spend much of their time berating the Royal Family for the personal conduct of its members: an attitude indebted to the quaint Victorian notion that they ought to be a model family. But this is a misapprehension—the royals are not a model for but a model of the nation. The merits and flaws of our times are imprinted upon them. Her Majesty is not a tsar or pope, she is not a god. She is a human being, with human frailties and weaknesses, who finds herself thrust into a position of great responsibility, and who has responded by fulfilling her duty.
In Britain we have a tradition. Each week the prime minister, the most powerful person in the land, visits Buckingham Palace. There he attends his regular audience with the Queen. He meets with her in complete privacy—no aids or advisors are present, and no record is kept. There, he bows. And he explains himself. Custom dictates that the prime minister give an account to the monarch of what his ministry have been doing in the previous week, what problems they face, and what plans they have for the future. The symbolism of this is important: the single most powerful individual in the land is humbled and made accountable before the personification of the country and its ten-century-old heritage.
Of course, this is old fashioned. No one concocting a system of government from scratch today would invent a monarchy. But we should not mistake novelty for progress. For all the antiquated awkwardness of its system, Britain’s people have lived in relative liberty for centuries, while the torture chambers of many a republic have echoed with screams. That same system of monarchy has spawned some of the freest countries in the world, including the United States. As the battalions marched across the Horse Guards parade ground, seventy years after the Queen’s coronation, while the Prince of Wales, solemn and dignified, saluting the Colours as they moved by, it seemed to me far better to have him seated there, astride his horse, than some unscrupulous, uniformed politician, adorned in medals and ribbons, soaking up the splendour and pageantry—that heady brew of political power and the aura of majesty is a dangerous mix.
Editor’s Note: This piece is a response to our Deputy Editor, Daniel Sharp’s anti-monarchy article in OnlySky, which you can read here.