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Monday, June 20, 2011

 

Why I'm a Royalist

[This is an issue that sometimes comes up when chatting on other blogs, so may be a familiar position to come cyber-friends already. But I thought it'd be useful to put somewhere findable, anyway.]

Royals, eh? Who needs 'em? Bunch of taxpayer-supported parasites. Outdated, and they're no better than anybody else anyway. We should be a republic like everywhere sensible, right?

Well, no. The way I see things, we rather do need the royals.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time in the dark era of George W. Bush, my future husband and I travelled round the world. In getting from Sydney to New York, we had to make a stopover in LAX, which is to say, Los Angeles airport.

Now, LAX was a horrible place, a ghastly place. Few airports are comfortable, but even fewer of them are staffed by security bristling with terrifying weapons and showing the kind of don't-even-think-about-it attitude towards paying customers on holiday that you'd normally expect to see from prison guards towards their charges the day after a riot. LAX was one of these unusual places. With a thirteen-hour flight behind us and a seven-hour one before us, and with no more dastardly intentions than to visit my sister and her family and maybe take a turn around Central Park while we were at it, it was genuinely frightening to find ourselves in a place that was working hard to convince us that we were one wrong turning away from a cavity search and a week in jail until someone could get hold of the British Ambassador. For an airport in a democratic nation, it felt strangely like being in a third world dictatorship.

But here's the thing that really clinched it. To enter this world of Dantean customer service, we all had to pass under an archway. At the top of this archway were two framed pictures - tatty ones, looking like they'd been cut from some cheap magazine - of George Bush and Dick Cheney. America mooning the world, was my second thought, but my first, instinctive reaction was the sense, as I said, that this felt like entering a dictatorship. Not just because it was Bush, though obviously that didn't help, but because putting the president up on the wall like an icon you pass under to enter the country is not the usual decorating choice in a democratic country. I'd been to quite a few democratic nations by now, and this was new, and threatening. Elected officials are not usually raised so high.

But, I wondered to myself, would Britain do something like that? I didn't think we'd put any face out so prominently ... but we might put a picture up somewhere in the airport.

The thing is, it wouldn't have been of the Prime Minister. It would have been of the Queen.

And in that moment, I realised I was a royalist.

Here's the problem. Some people have itchy knees; they need to genuflect to something, and if nothing suitable is around, they'll genuflect to something unsuitable. And that can be extremely dangerous.

Authoritarians like symbols; they like people to set above themselves and treat as an incarnation of the country and its values. If nobody else will do, they'll do it with someone who's supposed by their very nature to be first among equals and nothing more. But there is an alternative: have in place a traditional, unquestionably legitimate symbol - who can't do very much damage.

A royal family serves this purpose beautifully. Their whole function is, in a constitutional monarchy, symbolic. The Queen, God bless her, has practically no executive power. She sanctions and certifies various executive ceremonies in a way that confirms their legality, but this is ritual, and if she ever refused, I very much doubt her refusal would carry the day. It might cause a constitutional crisis, but one that would be entirely focused around the question, 'Okay, so how do we overrule the monarch?' The Queen can't propose laws, she can't take sides on them, she can't even vote. Her position, in practice, is that of a servant of the law, not a master or a maker.

So if people turn their icon-making towards her, it can do no harm at all. She represents the nation, but she lacks the authority to steer it in the wrong direction. Worship her all you like; it won't make her any more powerful.

Worship the Prime Minister though ... and now we're in serious trouble. Prime Ministers can steer the nation in the wrong direction. They do it all the time. And while there's often little the public can do to stop them - we wound up in Iraq despite massive protests - you never hear anyone suggesting that we should 'respect the office' of Prime Minister the way you often hear Americans suggesting one should 'respect the office' of President. No one says, 'Well, he is the Prime Minister' in that Mia-Farrow-in-Rosemary's-Baby voice ('Well, he is the Pope...') the way I've heard people say, 'Well, he is the President.' Nobody has very much respect for Prime Ministership; respecting the office is rare enough that there's pretty much no chance it will, in any way, impede people from exercising the good old British tradition of disrespecting the person holding it. We've had charismatic Prime Ministers who did inspire worship, usually to the detriment of the nation (Thatcher comes to mind), but there's no tradition of automatic respect for Prime Ministers. There's much more of a tradition, even among authoritarians, of assuming that the Prime Minister is a crooked bastard.

Which is extremely useful in a democratic nation. In a democracy, leadership is a job, and one that's supposed to place you subordinate to the needs of your citizens. Our Prime Ministers are far from consistent at doing that job well - but at least nobody thinks otherwise. Which limits what a Prime Minister can expect to get away with. Not nearly as much as it should, but a bit, and more than the alternative. People who want someone to worship don't need to aim it at the PM; they have royalty.

Royal families, in short, can act as a kind of siphon for authoritarianism. By existing to serve a symbolic, reverential function, they split reverence and leadership into two separate categories, leaving everyone free to remember that the elected leader may be nothing more than some tosser in a suit who'll get fired if we catch him taking bribes.

I don't reverence royalty, but I value it. Some people want kings. I'd rather they had one, safely contained within constitutional conditions, than that they made one out of a person with the real power to do harm. Because when that happens, we start forgetting what democracy really is.

Comments:
Coming to think of it... I think we actually have a similar institution in Germany, just without the whole "royality" thing. In short, there's a president, who is little more than a figurehead, and a chancellor, who does all the actual governing. In fact, the president is explicitly encouraged to stay out of politics.

It sounds a bit self-contradicting, but given your post... it may well make sense.
 
Officially in Canada the Queen is also the figurehead, but unofficially it is the governor-general, who goes around the world doing figureheady sorts of things while the elected government governs, for better or for worse.

There are lots of ways to separate out the ceremonial role from the legislative ones -- some countries elect both, some elect one and nominate the ceremonial position, some countries have the ceremonial position inherited -- and I think it's less important which one is chosen than that one of them actually is chosen.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
ooh, interesting point. I guess it’s a little like the House of Lords - I hate the idea that one of the pillars of our democracy is built on generations of privilege, however, the alternatives are not appealing either. We don't vote enough as it is, so voting new people in is unlikely to give people a mandate, and appointees are likely to repay their 'party' once in the House.

Sometimes I think that a lottery system might work - i.e. people are randomly selected to be Head of State / member of the House of Lords for a term...
 
In the last three years, I have heard occasional references to "respecting the office of the presidency," but I can't say that I've perceived Obama as being treated as "an incarnation of the country and its values" to the extent previous presidents were. Of course, I might not have a fair perspective since American culture is the water I swim in.

Of course, Obama does tons of figure-head events, and his family probably gets more news coverage than the families of other global leaders. I never considered that wasn't the norm for an elected head-of-state.
 
I can't say that I've perceived Obama as being treated as "an incarnation of the country and its values" to the extent previous presidents were.

Well, when the President's black, it rather messes it up, since it seems to be mostly authoritarian white people who do it. On the other hand, I have heard people criticising his attackers for not respecting his office, which I tended to feel was criticising them for the wrong thing...
 
What you say has logic, but if it were that simple we'd need to ask why European republics haven't slid the way of the USA. The answer may well be 'well, they have their own safety valves, like presidents-who-are-very-much-not-prime-ministers'. If that's the case, though, we can ask why we can't have that instead of the monarchy.

I think it's a good question to ask, not least because the people most damaged by the monarchy are the monarchy. An non-herediary system would be far preferable.
 
What Baron Scarpia said. Maybe an apolitical president is an impossibility, but a non-executive president seems to work well enough in plenty of countries. The US's problem is that the head of state is also the head of government.
 
And also, do the Germans really venerate Angela Merkel as much as some Americans venerated Bush?

I confess, the more I think about this, the less convinced I am that it's a major issue.
 
a non-executive president seems to work well enough in plenty of countries

Which is fine; I'm not advocating royalty in every country. I'm just of the opinion that it has advantages in this one. And if we tried to reinvent the system here, I suspect that the loss of tradition would reduce its authoritarian appeal.
 
Here via slacktivist

About what would happen if the monarch in a modern constitutional monarchy refused to sign a law, well, back in 1990 the king of Belgium did exactly that, when the country liberalized abortion - the Belgian Government (at his request) basically gave him a 24-hour vacation and signed the law in his absence. I'd imagine something similar could be worked out in other countries, should the need arise.
 
"And also, do the Germans really venerate Angela Merkel as much as some Americans venerated Bush?"

Merkel is not the President of Germany, she's the Chancellor. The President is some guy no-one ever hears about unless they follow German politics fairly closely.

@Kit: I'm not sure I agree with you that the best outlet for people's innate authoritarianism is a "defanged" monarchy. For one thing, there are (as people have mentioned) plenty of republics with presidents that don't get the worship accorded the US presidency - even presidents with more than ceremonial function, such as France's Sarkozy (as far as I can tell, anyway).

For another, malignant authoritarianism (by which I mean the version that takes over countries and makes them dictatorships) doesn't depend on the Great Leader holding any particular office. Hitler (to get him out of the way) was Chancellor, not President. More to the point, Mussolini was Prime Minister in a monarchy.

My take on this is that authoritarianism as a political force comes and goes for reasons other than the formal constitutional structure of the country in question - as such, I think a republican system of government is preferable for reasons of principle, but not strongly so.
 
Kit, seeing Bush and Chaney portraits upon arriving in the US would sour anyone on the type of government we have here. If it helps, I didn't see any such portraits of Obama and Biden when coming back into the country through Dulles last year.

I don't consider myself an anti-royalist, and I have a strong interest in the royal family from my interests in England and history in general. The William and Kate saga in particular reminded me of the Smallville version of Clark and Lois - a man destined for power who needs an intelligent and confident woman to bring out his true potential.

Still, throughout human history, hereditary monarchies have done more harm than good. Ironic that North Korea carries on the tradition in everything but name. My own interpretation of the UK monarch concept is that the ruler has a great deal of unofficial power, and not just as of a patriotic symbol. I would be curious to know how the political power in your country gradually would up in Parliament. Some anti-royalists may slam the concept as being the ultimate in authoritarianism, but I see royalism's chief weakness as the inability to dispose of incompetent rulers without civil strife. Hell, the US had the equivalent of a hereditary ruler for most of the last decade, although there's a strong argument that GWB was the figurehead and Chaney the real power.
 
Put another way, I don't oppose royalism, I oppose any system that treats inequalities of power and privilege as a good thing. This includes some monarchies but also some republics, including my own.
 
That's an interesting argument, and I think there's a degree of truth in it, but I wonder if you're not conflating correlation with causation a bit.

It seems to me that your national "the elected leader may be nothing more than some tosser in a suit" attitude has less to do with the existence of the royal family (who I suspect will be in for a bit of this themselves when poor Prince Charles takes the throne- you've been rather lucky in the Queen) than with the fact that your political establishment is subjected to absolutely rabid scrutiny by comparison to ours. I don't know if it's chance or intrinsic British cynicism or the Westminster system or being a world power with a relatively small total population and a relatively high percentage of journalists, but for whatever reason you guys keep your government under a scanning electron microscope, and when you've got an SEM you see a lot of bacteria crawling around. Our rightwing authoritarians have a whole news channel where they can never see the President criticized (if he's Republican), but that's just not an option in the UK even if you only read the Daily Mail. And from the 18th century political cartoons I've read, this scrutiny predates the separation of the Crown from political power.

(What a ghastly airport experience, though. My profound apologies on behalf of my country.)
 
there's no tradition of automatic respect for Prime Ministers. There's much more of a tradition, even among authoritarians, of assuming that the Prime Minister is a crooked bastard.

Bewdy! We have this one in Australia too! God bless the Queen!

Elizabby from the Slactiverse
 
It seems to me that your national "the elected leader may be nothing more than some tosser in a suit" attitude has less to do with the existence of the royal family (who I suspect will be in for a bit of this themselves when poor Prince Charles takes the throne- you've been rather lucky in the Queen) than with the fact that your political establishment is subjected to absolutely rabid scrutiny by comparison to ours.

I think the two things you're relating here may be essentially equivalent; it's not clear to me that you've reduced the problem any.
 
The American situation is compounded by how very young it is, I think. Two centuries and change is still awfully young, and it's drummed into us that we're special because of our political system, and the president is the symbol of the political system. Which isn't to say that presidential politics wasn't vicious early, but we all have to pretend that no matter what, we cleave to our political system. (Which has it's upsides and downsides.) The office of the president is something special here, and I'm not convinced it should be, especially with all the hats the president gets to wear. In contrast, governors of states are usually treated with the assumption that they're crooked and probably amoral at best.
 
I think the two things you're relating here may be essentially equivalent

Only while the monarch and the political establishment are separate. Which they are now, but once weren't. Back then it was the king who was under the microscope as well as Parliament- heck, that's why there is a Parliament. The English have mistrusted their rulers for a long, long time. I don't think it takes a reverence-siphoning figurehead to convince them the guy in charge is a crook- it just takes a crook.
 
Two centuries and change is still awfully young, and it's drummed into us that we're special because of our political system, and the president is the symbol of the political system.

The founding myth and the youth aren't necessarily linked, though. France has a major foundation in the French Revolution, and they don't seem to revere their premiers in the same way; Australia was colonised relatively recently and they don't either. I think the myth has a lot more to answer for than the youth.
 
France has a major foundation in the French Revolution, and they don't seem to revere their premiers in the same way

No monarch either, though. I think Americans may just be fascists by national inclination.
 
A monarchy (or, at least, a Head of State which term dependant of the Parliament) have also the advantage that even if the Parliament spend all its time bickering, there is someone to handle the day-to-day march of the country. For such a role, all the better if the head of state is a traditionnal figure (they will be expected to have a competent staff).
 
Hey kit, I understand your reasons perfectly.

But lemme ask you this, why must we revere anyone in particular?

is there any reason to do so?
 
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