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The Monarchy: An Embodiment of Britishness?

The monarchy is often said to embody British identity and tradition, but it is not clear how. Those disposed to sneer when they hear it, dismiss the claim without sensing a need to refute it. Either they find the very idea of national identity repulsive, so it is not worth debunking, or they consider monarchy so obviously incompatible with a modern conception of national identity that there is no need to explain their objection. On the other hand, those disposed to accept the claim often do so on an almost religious basis, such that they also stop short of spelling out their reasoning. Underlying this is, I suspect, an intellectual insecurity, as though they know the claim cannot survive honest scrutiny. It is then safest to fend off scepticism by retreating to some made up norm of etiquette, much as religious people like to suggest it is rude to examine too closely what they profess to believe.

My own view is that there is an important sense in which the monarchy embodies British identity and tradition. I think it is glib to reject the claim by vague appeals to democratic values, as critics do, or to conflate a sense of national identity with racism. I also think it is wrong to leave the claim unexamined, as supporters tend to, satisfied as they are to treat it as a platitude from which dissent constitutes a breach of taste.

The survival of the monarchy is a testament to the moderation that characterises British political history. This moderation is key to Britain’s political stability, which is perhaps our greatest and most distinctive achievement. No other power has managed to negotiate its entry into modernity without succumbing to the itch to ritually smash up and vandalise its traditional institutions. The French guillotined their king and proposed to hang their priests by their entrails. The Bolsheviks shot the Romanovs in a basement after promising not to, before proclaiming and enforcing atheism in the name of progress. The Chinese tore down their Buddhist shrines, set Daoist temples on fire, buried alive their monks and dug up the corpse of Confucius in the course of a Cultural Revolution to modernise China. The Japanese are remembered for stunning reforms in the Meiji era, but we overlook the trauma of the experience as entire classes like the Samurai were erased. When it dawned on the Americans that the ancient practice of slavery was not compatible with modern civilisation, it took them a civil war killing 600,000 of their own people to abolish it.

Against this background the British experience stands out as an outlier. Unlike say the Ottomans, who sought to preserve an ossified political formation against the tide, Britain recognised early on the need to adjust and reform our institutions in light of modern conditions. But unlike the other major powers, we did so in a stepwise and gradualist fashion, sparing ourselves the trauma that each of them were put through when they pursued changes at speed and with violence. Three reform acts in the 1800’s forestalled the need for a peasant revolt in England to distribute political power to the masses. The adoption of the Salisbury Convention restricted an unelected House of Lords to a supervisory role, preemptively depriving them of the kind of legislative power that would have been impossible to reconcile with democratic aspirations. The common law accumulated over time an elaborate and expanding sphere of fundamental rights the monarch’s subjects could claim against the sovereign, although there was never a pompous moment where they were formally codified and declared in a constitutional document. The Church of England lamented but acquiesced in the decline of religion, and duly withdrew from public life — leaving, as it were, before they were asked to leave. On top of all of this was the monarchy itself which, having seen the writing on the wall in the rest of Europe, gave up of their own volition the executive power they used to wield and invented a largely ceremonial role for themselves before any homegrown Bolsheviks came for them.

All of this meant that Britain was able to transform and modernise itself without engaging in the hysterics that had at one time or another overwhelmed the other major powers, sometimes for prolonged periods and leaving permanent scars. It is because we achieved these changes without a formal revolution that virtually all of our traditional institutions remain intact: we have retained an established Church, an unelected Upper House, a monarchy, and we continue to govern ourselves without a codified constitution. This is not to say that things have been static, or that we are somehow stuck in the past — a lazy and inaccurate refrain of republicans. Rather, our institutions have reinvented themselves before the forces seeking to overthrow them gathered pace.

It is this manner of reform that is so characteristic of what we and others associate with the English stereotype: measured, understated, spectacle-free. To return to the example of slavery, an event as momentous as its abolition was achieved in England by an Act of Parliament, as an ordinary piece of legislation. The resolve to do even dramatic things without drama has enabled us to adapt calmly to fresh circumstances without an overt demolition of long-held practices and institutions. No doubt this enduring equanimity irritates revolutionary types, eager to throw the table over for a clean start, but it has ensured the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next for four centuries. There has been no coup in England since the Restoration.

When the French Ambassador M. Paul Cambon concluded his long career in 1920, he took lunch with Winston Churchill, who asked what he made of the England he had seen over his many years in the country. The exchange was recorded in Churchill’s memoir:

“‘In the twenty years I have been here,’ said the aged Ambassador, ‘I have witnessed an English Revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself. The governing class have been almost entirely deprived of political power and to a very large extent of their property and estates; and this has been accomplished almost imperceptibly and without the loss of a single life.’”

In this way the outward sameness of our established bodies conceals the truth: we have evolved, in material terms, beyond recognition. Their continued existence, whether it is the established Church or the House of Lords, offers visible proof of how far we have come without an open break from our traditions. It is in this sense that the stubborn survival of the monarchy, despite its transformation in substance, embodies the way Britain conducts itself and what we have achieved.

Image Credit: Katie Chan//CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia commons

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