Every now and then the frivolities of the British royal family grab the world’s attention. The House of Windsor belongs to an institution that seems deeply out of place among modern democracies. His weddings and coronations fascinate as much because they appear to be the pinnacle of celebrity culture as they are because they are the rituals of an archaic regime. Somehow, the Crown was allowed to endure, the last vestige of a vanquished age.
While some may romanticize the royal family, others are quick to use their celebrations, like Prince Harry’s Saturday wedding to Meghan Markle, to rally dissent. The Crown, they say, belongs to the era of the hereditary aristocracy, whose other institutions have disappeared for good reason. Why should we leave it on its own, and at the expense of taxpayers? Isn’t the monarchy an outrage against the basic principles of representative government? Either it retains residual powers, in which case it represents the antithesis of democratic legitimacy, or it has fallen into disuse, in which case it is a parasite of public funds.
In their haste to slander the monarchy, these critics betray an ignorance of its development. The relationship that has developed between the British Crown and mass democracy is predominantly symbiotic, although increasingly ignored and misunderstood. It bears repeating that the UK is a constitutional monarchy. Its monarch reigns, but under the constraints of constitutional law. In fact, it is better to say with historian Macaulay that such a ruler does not reign at all. “The prince reigns,” writes Macaulay; he “does not rule”.
The laws which constrain the British monarchy find expression in three vital conventions. These stipulate that the sovereign accepts the advice of his ministers, acts only on the advice that the ministers offer and speaks discreetly about the ministers themselves and the policies they defend. Respect for these conventions allows the sovereign to remain politically impartial and avoid obstructing public opinion, as expressed by parliamentary representatives. The Crown can be the head of state and of the various branches of state. But as a constitutional sovereign, his powers to proclaim war, ratify treaties, veto legislation, or appoint judges are exercised in accordance with – indeed, through – ministerial advice.
On the other hand, constitutional monarchs like that of Great Britain retain residual prerogatives. The Crown can legally influence ministers on whose advice it acts, most visibly during the weekly hearing with the Prime Minister. He can also act without ministerial advice when appointing a prime minister or considering the dissolution of Parliament.
The exercise of these powers may appear to infringe unjustly on representative government, but Republican regimes also grant prerogatives to unelected office. In the United States, members of the Supreme Court and Presidents of the Federal Reserve wield considerable powers, despite having been appointed to their posts. And just as American democracy has often profited from the isolation of these officials from popular pressure, Britain has profited from the residual powers it has bestowed on the Crown. Democracy is best for some self-restraint.
Yet by far the most important function of the constitutional monarchy is to provide a symbol of the constitution itself that is both majestic and visceral. In the words of Walter Bagehot, the monarchy represents “the worthy element” of the British regime. It is presented above all as a living totem of the ends to which this regime implicitly aspires.
Like a respected aristocrat, the constitutional monarch inspires “mystical reverence” because of the antiquity of her home and office and the pageantry with which she and her family live. But since the “effective” and, therefore, controversial elements of her office are almost always exercised by her ministers, the rule of law is above political partisanship. Despite being at the very center of the state, it is politically powerless. Although royal, she is harmless. She can thus be a magnet for a loyalty whose ardor is both strong and sure.
It is worth considering how useful this arrangement could be, especially in times like ours when partisanship is so outraged and politics so short-sighted. If Bagehot’s account is solid, then he identifies a possible way in which democratic politics can remain civilized.
Constitutional royalism can partially disconnect the patriotic devotion from mercurial politicians. It can thus slow down the treatment of political rivals as traitors and criminals. It can also inspire respect for public duty. It is in the name of the Crown that the Cabinet rules in Great Britain. It is out of loyalty to Her Majesty that the opposition is dissenting. Where the monarchy recalls not arbitrary privilege but public goals, honorable conduct and even political justice, it can make political agents pay more attention, seek broader guidance, and demonstrate greater tolerance.
In an age of threatening populism and cultural disorientation, we might do well to dwell on the merits of this chimerical regime. It is perhaps less an anachronism than a missed opportunity.