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Royal Jelly

The death of Elizabeth II of Great Britain raises many interesting questions about monarchy in general, and the British royal family in particular. Let’s not mince words: the queen was the only figure with the stature to hold the Crown together, and her passing threatens the entire institution. Her white-knuckle devotion to duty from the time she was a teenager during the Blitz until the other day, when she had to welcome an already deeply unpopular new Tory prime minister, earned her near-universal respect, except during l’affaire Diana. King Charles III is a dim bulb next to his mother, perhaps well-meaning on environmental issues, but with far too much personal and political baggage to claim anything like the reverence his predecessor did. The rest of the House of Windsor seems to provide the British people with nothing but vulgar soap-opera entertainment. Why it is necessary or desirable for the British taxpayer to subsidize that is beyond this writer, a small-r republican who thinks that the American founders were at least right not to establish a monarchy in their new nation; remember, there were many folks who wanted George Washington crowned king, and only his unyielding rejection of that nonsense stopped it. Were I the British prime minister, I would propose disestablishing the monarchy as soon as the mourning rites for Elizabeth are over, and putting the royal palaces and other holdings up for auction for the Disney Corporation and Julian Fellowes to fight over.

As an American, I am more interested in why the British monarchy is so fascinating to so many of my compatriots, two hundred forty years after we chased George III and the whole pack of thieving scoundrels from our shores. At the beginning, America was the terror of crowned heads everywhere, scarcely less so than the much bloodier minded French Revolutionary regime. So how and why did the founding generation’s descendants get so that their knees turn to jelly whenever British royalty is mentioned?

It’s a complex question, but the fascination seems to be worldwide, including many countries that suffered far worse under British imperial domination than did the Americans, who after all really were the children of the mother country. My mind strays back to the Bible’s first book of Samuel, in which the eponymous prophet complains to God that the Israelites are demanding a king. The sage views this as a nearly idolatrous request; is divine protection not enough for this stiff-necked people? Remember, in the world of the Bible, God is not an impossibly remote, abstract and silent deity, but a living presence who routinely communicates with people like Samuel. But He replies, in effect, with a version of H.L. Mencken’s famous quip about democracy: that it is the theory that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard.

The lesson is that the longing for a leader endowed with the mystique of power is impossible to eradicate from the human soul. That being the case, the ever-imperfect solution must be to tame this longing and the sociopolitical power it creates. Constitutional monarchy is one possible solution to this conundrum, with the mystique reserved to a figurehead and the actual power delegated to the prime minister and parliament. The danger of a presidential democracy, which the anti-Federalists were not slow to point out in the time of America’s founding, is that it combines the mystique of the head of the state with the power of the actual head of government. The result is that we always run the risk of an unscrupulous demagogue such as the Orange Baloney Monster exercising his “charisma” over his followers and using the tools of democracy to establish an absolute tyranny, unrestrained by the bonds of tradition that (sometimes) constrain monarchs. One might hope that respect for that restraint in the name of tradition is behind some of the worldwide outpouring of love for the late Queen Elizabeth II, whose realm is troubled indeed.


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