The Monarchy Strengthens British Democracy
...as long as the King understands what his job does—and doesn’t—entail.
Succession is a tricky time for a modern monarchy. Grieving for the late sovereign inevitably leads to questions about the institution. The nation needs to be reminded why, in an age of equality and meritocracy, accident of birth should determine who represents it.
Thus the passing of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in September prompted both tributes to the individual herself and soul-searching about the Crown’s function. The sense of loss was remarkable. A quarter of a million people filed past her coffin, waiting up to 24 hours to see her lie in state; 28 million of her British subjects watched her funeral on television. In a republic, a head of state would have to be assassinated shortly after an election to draw that sort of audience.
Elizabeth was loved to such a great extent because she fulfilled her duties to perfection. Those duties, as many commentators noted, go well beyond the ceremonial chores of a figurehead: cutting ribbons, opening nursing homes and parliament, and so on. The chief role of what 19th century essayist Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” institution of the Crown (as opposed to the “efficient” institutions that run the state) is to embody permanence and unity. It is to act as a glue between past and present and, at any given time, between the various segments of a diverse society.
Yet observers have been wary of pointing out the explicitly political dimension of this function. The cabinet, for example, is officially known as His Majesty's Government and its rivals as His Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition. Mere words, people say, pointing out that in practice, parliamentary majorities can do what they like. That is true. But they cannot do so in any way they like. Fixed procedures are central to freedom, and in Britain these involve the monarch. Whatever else it might be, the British monarchy is a perfect illustration of the paradoxical—and crucial—role of non-democratic institutions in democratic societies.
All free nations have set up august bodies that are widely seen as legitimate without being answerable to the people. The need for such non-democratic anchors to democratic rule was theorized by America's Founding Fathers in The Federalist.
Today in the U.S., not only does the letter of the Constitution crimp assemblies—the Bill of Rights is de facto a list of prohibitions forbidding representatives to vote on this or that—but unelected judges are allowed to re-interpret it to veto laws. The rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court can be controversial, but the principle of a higher power independent of the popular will forms a key pillar of the system.
Britain has no written constitution. It does not even have a clear set of overarching political principles. Ask any Brit about national values and you are sure to make them squirm (put the same question to a French person and you'll get a lecture about les valeurs républicaines, égalité, laïcité and so on).
But the UK does have a fixed political mooring—the Crown. To be sure, its powers do not compare with those of the American judges. In fact, monarchs’ authority depends on their not using what little formal powers they have (such as declaring war or vetoing snap elections). It is also true that their ability to prevent executive overreach is limited: When then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to suspend parliament to avoid awkward questions about Brexit in 2019, it was a judge, not the Queen, who stepped in to call out the abuse.
Despites its shortcomings, however, Brits have so far been satisfied with their remote bulwark—and with good reason. They can’t imagine a tyrant bothering to have tea at Buckingham Palace every week, or, as prime ministers currently do, asking the monarch to go before Parliament and read out the government’s plans for the country. As long as those rituals keep happening, the public knows the country has not fallen down a constitutional hole. The fact that Britain has no step-by-step instruction manual for its politics makes the presence of a human being at its center all the more necessary. To trample on the constitution you cannot simply tear up a document—you have to slight a person.
The Crown acts as a mainstay of democracy on a deeper level as well. It is meant to represent the nation, a unifying concept, as distinct from politics, which by definition is divisive. The monarchy thus provides a framework within which it is OK to be different and safe to disagree. Britons can have a good go at each other in the knowledge that, as subjects, they cannot be called traitors for doing so.
This, ultimately, is why Elizabeth did such an impressive job. Her sense of duty earned her widespread support—even among opponents of royalty. An important part of this was her strict political neutrality, which muted criticism of the monarchy and allowed her to retain her position as British democracy’s non-democratic anchor. The Guardian wrote that she “came closer than any monarch in history to reaching the soul of the British people.” The Economist, another republican publication, admitted that she had “strengthened the monarchy.”
But these assessments also imply that the Crown is vulnerable. The office is not much stronger than the person who holds it.
The new King, Charles III, is cut from a different temperamental cloth from his mother. He has in the past freely aired opinions on issues ranging from climate change to complementary medicine, conservation and genetically modified foods. His sons have definite views on diversity, immigration and race. These attitudes seem to suggest a novel, if unconscious, strategy to remain relevant: the support of conservative and plebeian elements of society is assured; let’s focus on the progressive bourgeoisie, always a slippery lot, by highlighting its causes.
Such a strategy might bring a breath of fresh air to a stuffy palace. But it is risky: at a time of rising political polarization, it could drag royals into the culture wars Elizabeth has studiously avoided. Prince Harry’s claims of racism at the Palace angered many conservatives last year. The heir to the throne, Prince William, has been accused of holding progressive positions that could spell the end of the monarchy. These concerns are surely overdone. But they indicate that support for the royal family can be as volatile on the right as it is on the left.
Meanwhile, the Crown will continue to be weakened as future successions (which will now be a lot more frequent, given Charles’s advanced age) inevitably raise questions about the point of the regime. With deference disappearing from public life and backing for an elected head of state polling consistently around 20%, monarchs increasingly need to earn not just the respect, but the affection of a large majority. Should a less adept figure than Elizabeth elicit only lukewarm mourning, the institution will be called into question much more forcefully than it is now.
For better or for worse, liberal democracies need untouchable institutions. The UK has so far been content for this role to be played by the monarch. But with Elizabeth’s passing, the British might soon find out that democracy, after all, does not have to rest on the shoulders of a flesh-and-blood being.
Henri Astier is a London-based journalist who writes for French and English-language publications.
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