Dieu et Mon Droit
Let the British keep their king—it’s good for them.
Enoch Powell said that American meddling in European affairs arose from the fear of “having no one to talk to,” that the United States is still basically colonial in its outlook and must refer itself back to Europe, and especially England, to make sense of itself. Guilty as charged, I suppose. I am about to write a column about the British monarchy.
To begin with some disclaimers: I claim no English descent. I have never been to the United Kingdom, save for a 14-hour connection through Heathrow during which I slept on a bench and watched five episodes of Top Gear. I think Morris dancing is stupid—a belated happy May Day!—and I dislike the music of Benjamin Britten. As a Catholic, I have serious reservations about the historical British account of sovereignty.
At the same time, I was cheered to see that a narrow but unambiguous majority of Britons—57 percent—said they would vote to keep the monarchy, per a poll conducted by the Daily Mail. A majority also said the King, who will be crowned at Westminster this Saturday, ought not entertain calls for apology and reparation for slavery and imperialism. (Although, speaking of Powell, it is worth noting that opinions of the monarchy among immigrants and immigrant descendants were not so sanguine.)
I am generally disposed not to care very much about the internal affairs of faraway places; I generally wish people on the thither sides of the oceans the best and hope they will mind their own business, as I would like to mind my own. The United Kingdom, though, is a little different; it is still in some way our metropole, which gave us our law and our language.
It is the living museum of our past. Urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit, Tacitus writes. We Americans are in some way lucky that our reges are still living and ruling elsewhere, so we can appreciate both the continuous foundations they gave us and the libertatem we currently enjoy, decaying as it is. So let the British have their kings.
There is also the fact that Britain remains a nuclear power and retains one of the five most powerful navies in the world. I prefer the old country maintain its three centuries and counting of stable government; establishing republics is a messy business. (Ask us; we know.) In a backwater like Spain (or the 18th-century American coast), it is disruptive enough; I do not care to imagine what getting rid of the longstanding constitutional government of a major financial and military power would bring. Particularly as Britain is the guardian of the Atlantic approach from the east—the Atlantic Taiwan, you might think of it—America has a strong interest in its stability above all else, if not necessarily a share in its affairs.
For the May/June issue of The American Conservative, I reviewed Colonialism: A Reckoning, by Nigel Biggar, the emeritus Regius professor of moral theology at Cambridge. In that article, I wrote a little about how it was the Crown, the institution of the monarchy itself, that allowed the British Empire to maintain a peaceful and broadly pluralistic rule from Ireland to India. Territory gained in American adventures abroad will always tend to become independent republics—the Philippines—or attempt to become states—Puerto Rico, Hawaii. Our representative system is the whole system. One can be part of it or not, which is the difference between being American or not. There is no legal category for American subjects who are not American citizens.
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The Crown, on the other hand, allowed for Parliament in England, Stormont in Northern Ireland (at least as originally conceived), rule by Indian Civil Service and the maharajas on the subcontinent, companies ruling by royal charter in East Africa, and so on. A personal monarchy is a handy thing to have. Running an empire without one seems to be perilous at best, as the U.S. is intent on illustrating. It is no accident that the decay of the Crown’s constitutional position, beginning with the creation of the Commonwealth from the old Empire, has been accompanied by a rise in political instability and unrest among British possessions as close to home as Scotland.
I am afraid that it is in large part American influence and intellectual fads that have picked away at public support for the monarchy, as at every other traditional institution in England and elsewhere; this decay in support has been accelerating since the functional end of hereditary peerage in the 1970s. Saturday’s coronation will not include the homage of the peers; instead it will include the homage of “the people.” I am not so sure that is so bad. Perhaps it will encourage a popular renewal of support for the Crown and bolster an increasingly shabby and exhausted-looking United Kingdom.
Long live the King.