An American defense of the British constitutional monarchy
Historians may wonder for many years why a rambling and moving interview between members of the British Royal Family and an American media mogul has become a rallying cry to destroy the British monarchy.
But it does: The radical left has taken over the Oprah Winfrey TV show with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in a crusade to overturn one of the most important conservative institutions on the world stage.
>>> RSVP here to attend a Heritage Foundation webinar, “Why the Left’s Campaign to Cancel the Monarchy and Undermine a Cornerstone of Western Democracy Will Fail,” at 11:00 am ET.
Charges of racism within the royal family are irrelevant. The goal of modern liberalism can be symbolically discerned in William Walcutt’s painting “Pulling Down the Statue of George III at Bowling Green, July 9, 1776.It is to demolish everything that the monarchy represents: tradition, authority, virtue, duty, love of the country and biblical religion.
The left’s demolition campaign is more likely to succeed today, thanks to the astounding ignorance of the history of the British constitutional monarchy, which plagues even the most educated.
Now is the time to refresh our memories of the monarchy and recall the debt Americans owe to the political ideals and institutions it helped create.
The British monarchy dates back over 1,000 years, even before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Although Britain flirted with absolute monarchy, in which the powers of the king or queen are virtually unlimited, the English are still returned to constitutionalism.
The signing of the Magna Carta (1215) was one of the great hinges in political history. The monarchy agreed that no political leader was above the rule of law. The monarchy affirmed the principles of due process and jury trial.
No other political system at that time anywhere in the world supported these basic concepts of justice. Founders of the American constitutional order, they still have no place in many parts of the world today.
When King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament, he sparked a constitutional crisis. While there were other issues involved, the English Civil War (1642-1651) was an existential struggle between political absolutism and constitutionalism. In the end, Thomas Hobbes and his “Leviathan” lost the point.
In the decades that followed, England became the epicenter of the most important debates on the inalienable rights of mankind: freedom of speech, of the press, the right to assemble and the right to worship. God according to the precepts of conscience. All of these rights, of course, would be exported to American settlers and enshrined in their state constitutions.
The British monarchy, despite its often controversial relationship with Parliament, became an indispensable ally in the struggle for self-government: the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) marked another important step in constitutionalism.
For most Britons William of Orange was not an invader. The real invader was James II who, after ascending the throne, trampled on the old English constitution.
The new monarchs, Guillaume and Marie, came to restore it. They pledged, as Protestant leaders, under the authority of the God of the Bible, to obey the laws of Parliament. They agreed to limit their own powers and defend the principle of government by consent of the governed. And they endorsed the English Bill of Rights, which is seen as the model for the American Bill of Rights.
The new monarchs stood in reverence as Parliament read its terms of governance:
That the purported power to suspend laws or to execute laws by royal authority without the consent of Parliament is illegal. That the elections of deputies should be free. That freedom of expression and debates or deliberations in Parliament must not be challenged or called into question in a court or place outside Parliament.
John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” (1689), his revolutionary defense of government by consent, was justified at this remarkable political and cultural moment.
These and other documents, legitimized and enforced by the British Crown, laid a new foundation in the West for individual rights and constitutional government. Together, they shaped the basic laws of the North American colonies.
So a century before the Americans launched a revolution to claim their “guaranteed rights” as Englishmen, the monarchs of England had categorically rejected political absolutism. They have presided over a culture of the common law, rooted in the belief in the “natural and inalienable” rights of mankind.
In this way, they helped the West to reinvent the primary purpose of government: to secure these God-given rights and freedoms for all Commonwealth citizens.
The impact of all of this on America’s founders was profound, not only on the concepts embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, but also on the very structure of the Constitution itself.
When the Founders conceive of the separation of powers, for example, they turn to Montesquieu, the French theorist who values the English example.
“He was a strong admirer of the English constitution,” Russell Kirk wrote in “The Roots of American Order”. “He finds the best government of his day in the constitutional monarchy of England, where the subject enjoyed personal and civic liberty.”
It is true, of course, that Britain built a massive colonial empire and was deeply engaged in the African slave trade.
The monarchy approved, by royal charter, the forced enslavement of millions of human beings. With the support of Parliament and the Royal Navy, Britain achieved the dismal status of the world’s first slave trading nation.
The left sees this story as an indelible stain on the monarchy: it is a racist institution in its essence, she says.
Yet the monarchy, as the political guardian of the Church of England, was eventually confronted with the Christian conscience of Parliament, animated by evangelical reformers such as William Wilberforce and Hannah More.
After Parliament banned the slave trade in 1807, the British Crown authorized the Royal Navy to enforce the new law on the high seas. Decades before the United States faced the problem head-on in war of Secession, the British monarchy ruled the world by abolishing the institution of slavery.
And what about Britain’s history as a colonial power?
No one disputes that there have been many dark episodes in the monarchy’s quest to expand and defend its empire. Many nations have a history of colonial adventurism. France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Russia, Turkey, China, Japan, the United States, all have committed themselves to varying degrees in the building of empires.
Under Queen Victoria, at the height of her power in the 19th century, the British Empire had no imperial rival. The legacy of his reign, however, bears no resemblance to the dark realm of Mordor feverishly envisioned by the left.
No empire other than Great Britain brought to its colonies the technological tools (railways, modern medicine, etc.) and the political ideals (capitalism, rule of law, etc.) which allowed the development of societies. stable and egalitarian.
“Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been established so successfully in so many different economies around the world,” writes historian Niall Ferguson in his book “Empire”.
Without the influence of British imperial rule, it is hard to believe that the institutions of parliamentary democracy would have been adopted by the majority of states in the world, as they are today.
This explains why 54 nations, mostly former British colonies, are voluntary members of the Commonwealth of Nations, recognizing the British monarch as their symbolic leader.
The nations that violently rejected the British model of constitutionalism – China, Russia, the Arab states – have created human misery on an industrial scale. There’s a reason Democratic reformers in Hong Kong, a former British colony, often flaunt the Union Jack.
All of this, of course, is lost for the radical left, whose attack on the monarchy is an assault on memory. Progressivism, drowned in grievances and incapable of recognition, cannot grasp the nature of the progress of human rights and the development of man made possible by those who preceded it.
Like the radical Jacobins of revolutionary France, they would sweep away any institution that did not conform to their utopian illusions. Like Robespierre, the architect of “the Terror”, they would put an end to the “long reign of crime and tyranny” and believe themselves to be “the consolation of the oppressed”. Their ambition: nothing less than “the dawn of universal bliss”.
Britain, whose experience of constitutional monarchy dates back nearly a millennium, aimed at something else: a political system which, although far from reaching heaven on earth, could be on the way to a more just, tolerant and democratic society. .
We Americans, while rejecting the English monarchy, have embraced more fully than any nation on earth its unique achievements in the struggle for human freedom. God Save the Queen.
Originally published by National Review.
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