Monday, 3 June 2013

The Future of Monarchy

The 60th Anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2, 1953. Around 8,200 guests witnessed the historic proceedings, with 27 million people staring at the events on the graining 425 line black and white television sets.
There is a small but fervent republican element in the UK and Jersey who sees the Queen and institution of the monarchy as relics of a bygone age, no longer suitable for a modern democracy.
I can sympathise to a degree - I do not really have much time for all the exactness of elaborate ceremony that occurs when, for instance, the Queen is dining with people at a formal meal. That the meal should end when she has finished does seem like a piece of mediaeval frippery that one can well imagine at the Court of Henry VIII, when the power of the King was being asserted over all his subjects.
But then you have to ask the question: when does one stop eating? My step-father, bless him, meanders over his meal, taking his time; most of us could have eaten two courses in the time it takes him to eat one. Should the Queen then wait for the slowest eater? Or should slow diners be allowed to eat on, until she leaves the table and the official farewell takes place?
Minor matters of etiquette these may be, and it would be interesting to know how Presidents of the United States conduct matters. Certainly, in the USA, State dinners are bound by strict protocol to ensure that no diplomatic gaffes occur. In fact all formal dinners have their own protocol, such as black die, introductions, how to select cutlery etc, so it is not especially a matter for and against the monarchy to see these write large when the Queen is present.
What is perhaps more important is the symbolic role that the Queen plays. Curiously, one good argument for a constitutional monarchy comes from an American write, Robert Heinlein, and in a science fiction book as well.
The book is called "Double Star", and it is about interplanetary politics between the "expansionist party" and the "humanist party". The expansionists want to include alien races - and this is a 1956 book, so that means Venusians and Martians - while the humanists want to keep the aliens out of any participation in government. The extraterrestrials are not permitted to be members of the interplanetary parliament - the Grand Assembly, and have to vote in elections for representatives, a system which the expansionists are pledged to remove. But xenophobia is very deep rooted, and the struggle to give universal suffrage is at the heart of this story.
There's a nice paragraph, where the hero, who is doubling for the kidnapped expansionist leader Joseph Bonforte, states the philosophy of the expansionists:
I suddenly got a glimpse of what Bonforte was driving at. If there were ethical basics that transcended time and place, then they were true both for Martians and for men. They were true on any planet around any star-and if the human race did not behave accordingly they weren't ever going to win to the stars because some better race would slap them down for double-dealing. The price of expansion was virtue. "Never give a sucker an even break" was too narrow a philosophy to fit the broad reaches of space.
Called to the Grand Assembly to take over as a caretaker role in the run up to the next election, the hero Lawrence Smith goes through the formal protocol before the Emperor, Willem, of the House of Orange.
Heinlein, of course, was an American, and was very much a firm supporter of very libertarian ideas about freedom and politics. And he is also canny. He is well aware that some Americans have an almost mystical awe towards Royalty because of its glamour - a celebrity effect. This comes out in another amusing aside when Laurence Smith is told he will have to meet the Emperor.
"The Emperor!" I almost screamed. Like most Americans, I did not understand royalty, did not really approve of the institution in my heart-and had a sneaking, unadmitted awe of kings. After all, we Americans came in by the back door. When we swapped associate status under treaty for the advantages of a full voice in the affairs of the Empire, it was explicitly agreed that our local institutions, our own constitution, and so forth, would not be affected-and tacitly agreed that no member of the royal family would ever visit America. Maybe that is a bad thing. Maybe if we were used to royalty we would not be so impressed by them. In any case, it is notorious that "democratic" American women are more quiveringly anxious to be presented at court than is anybody else.
The book has at its heart a constitutional monarchy where the Emperor reigns, but does not rule from "New Bavaria" on the Moon, and where real legislative power rests in the hands of a Supreme Minister, who must command the support of the Grand Assembly. There is a future for monarchy in Heinlein's vision here. Here Laurence Smythe is presented to the court:
We paused at the entrance to the throne room. Far away, on the raised dais, the throne was empty. On both sides the entire length of the great cavern the nobles and royalty of the court were standing and waiting. I suppose Pateel passed along some sign, for the Imperial Anthem welled out and we all held still for it, Pateel in robotlike attention, myself in a tired stoop suitable to a middle-aged and overworked roan who must do this thing because he must, and all the court like show-window pieces. I hope we never dispense with the pageantry of a court entirely; all those noble dress extras and spear carriers make a beautiful sight.
In the last few bars he came in from behind and took his throne -Willem, Prince of Orange, Duke of Nassau, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, Knight Commander of the Holy Roman Empire, Admiral General of the Imperial Forces, Adviser to the Martian Nests, Protector of the Poor, and, by the Grace of God, King of the Lowlands and Emperor of the Planets and the Spaces Between.
I could not see his face, but the symbolism produced in me a sudden warm surge of empathy. I no longer felt hostile to the notion of royalty.
There's an amusing aside as he looks out at the nobles present:
I found that I knew a number of the court faces from pictures. Most of the unemployed royalty of Earth were there, concealed under their secondary titles of duke or count. Some said that Willem kept them on as pensioners to brighten his court; some said he wanted to keep an eye on them and keep them out of politics and other mischief. Perhaps it was a little of both. There were the nonroyal nobility of a dozen nations present, too; some of them actually worked for a living. I found myself trying to pick out the Habsburg lips and the Windsor nose.
He is called to a private audience with the Emperor after taking on the role of Caretaker leader, and it is here that Heinlein makes a strong case for a constitutional monarchy:
"I would not advise you to make it a vote of confidence. If you lose, take your licking and stay in office; stick the full term."
"Why, Willem?"
"Because you and I are patient men. See that?" He pointed at the plaque of his house. "'I Maintain!' It's not a flashy rule but it is not a king's business to be flashy; his business is to conserve, to hang on, to roll with the punch. Now, constitutionally speaking, it should not matter to me whether you stay in office or not. But it does matter to me whether or not the Empire holds together. I think that if you miss on the Martian issue immediately after the election, you can afford to wait-for your other policies are going to prove very popular. You'll pick up votes in by-elections and eventually you'll come around and tell me I can add 'Emperor of Mars' to the list. So don't hurry."
This is Heinlein's argument, which he expands further in the book - "I maintain". The strutting leaders may come and go, but behind them is a symbol of stability. The throne is an idea, but an idea whose pageantry runs counter to the quick short term of politicians; it provides political neutrality:
"Of course. Psychosis-situational is the occupational disease of heads of states. My predecessors in the king trade, the ones who actually ruled, were almost all a bit balmy. And take a look at your American presidents; the job used frequently to kill them in their prime. But me, I don't have to run things; I have a professional like yourself to do it for me. And you don't have the killing pressure either; you, or those in your shoes, can always quit if things get too tough-and the old Emperor-it's almost always the 'old' Emperor; we usually mount the throne about the age other men retire-the Emperor is always there, maintaining continuity, preserving the symbol of the state, while you professionals work out a new deal." He blinked solemnly. "My job is not glamorous, but it is useful."
I love the aside on the American presidents, and I think we can see here a veiled criticism by Heinlein regarding the kind of political system without that element of continuity. If you have a President governing the country, the head of States becomes politicised; they no longer really represent all the people in the country. And they have the glamour of a monarch in trappings, but without the same restrictions of a constitutional monarch. There may a written constitution, but that, as Heinlein knew, can be changed. With a constitutional monarchy is a separation of the glamour of office, of the function as head of state, from that of the elected political leader.
While in the UK, campaigns have moved towards more of the glamour of a US Presidential style campaign, if they win, they still have to wait to be summoned to the Palace. It is a check and balance which has evolved over time. In the past, monarchies have seen themselves as absolute rulers, but equally absolute rulers have appeared in governments without monarchies; the 20th century being a particularly salutary example of those with the rise of dictatorships across the world.  The American President is feted as a celebrity; the British Prime Minister far less so, and they usually get slapped down if, like Margaret Thatcher, they try to purloin some of the trappings of monarchy.
The Whig approach to history was to see the past as an ever improving trend towards the present day. We are not as naïve as that now, but that doesn't conversely mean that every trend may not be beneficial. I believe that in the development of the constitutional monarchy we have seen a trend which has improved government  at the same time - "maintaining continuity, preserving the symbol of the state, while you professionals work out a new deal" as Heinlein puts it.

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