Time Lords: The historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. "[A] constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
I’M A REPUBLICAN. At least, I used to be. Now, I’m not so sure. And, yes, this reassessment is, indeed, the result of the just completed visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George.
So, what has changed? What’s become of that young university debater who, way back in 1981, when the royalist team called for “Three cheers for Her Majesty, the Queen!” leapt to his feet and called for “Three cheers for Oliver Cromwell!”?
The answer, I’m afraid, is “Time”.
Two years on from that fiery debate in the Otago University Union, the Prince and Princess of Wales were seated on the lawn at Old Government House and their little son, William, was hot in pursuit of a Buzzy Bee.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own. Through all the happy and farcical, inspiring and tragic events that have shaped both his life and my own over the intervening 30 years, a connection – something more than mere sentiment – has grown. It was not there in my republican youth, but it has sprouted as my youth faded: watered by the storms of experience; growing stronger with each circuit of the sun.
And now, impossibly, that little boy has a little boy of his own.
I understand now what I could only smile at in my youth – my late mother’s undying affection for the Queen. I realise now that she, too, had memories to measure her own life by. Of a serious little girl staring warily at the newsreel cameras in the last years of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. Of that little girl, grown now into a young woman, on the arm of her new husband. Of that same young woman, now a mother, proudly displaying her first-born son to the world.
That connection again: through war and marriage and motherhood; always there, always growing and subtly binding this super-family – half German, half Scot – to that vast commonwealth of families who, growing older, had learned to recognise the signposts of their own maturity in the unfolding history of this strange and exalted reflection of themselves.
The Royal Family - a strange and exalted reflection of our own.
Time has also taught me to recognise the true identity of the forces I railed against in my youth. In opposing monarchy I was, in fact, opposing the exercise of unelected and unaccountable authority: the arbitrary and violent intervention of state power into the lives of the powerless and the innocent.
But if that is the measure, then the government of Oliver Cromwell does not merit even one cheer. He and his “plain, russet-coated troopers” were nothing less than Christian mujahedeen. England during the Interregnum became a ruthless military theocracy. Cromwell’s New Model Army, for a brief moment the crucible of democratic debate, would emerge, finally, as the Taliban in breastplates.
And was the Monarchy really so politically unaccountable? When the Cromwellian regime collapsed, and the Stuart dynasty was restored in 1660, the executed King Charles I’s son landed at Dover. And all the way to London, a distance of 75 miles, the road was lined with his cheering subjects. Had it been put to a vote, Charles II would have been elected in a landslide.
What Cromwell did do, however, was prove that monarchs could not rule, indefinitely, without the people’s consent. This radical notion was reconfirmed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Henceforth kings and queens would reign – but they would not rule. Our monarchs thus ceased to be creatures of politics and became creatures of time. For what else is a “reign” but the temporal measure of the monarch’s tenure on the throne?
This historical transition of the Monarchy: from that which rules, to those who reign, was a remarkable constitutional innovation. Neither a true monarchy, nor yet a full republic, Britain’s constitutional monarchy offered its subjects something unique. In the words of the man who understood the innovation best, Edmund Burke:
“[I]t is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
And this, of course, is the great distinction, between a royal family and an individual head-of-state elected for a short term of office. A family embodies a relationship with time that is quite distinct from that of the individual. The hereditary principle itself is meaningless without the reality of those who have come before – and those who will come after.
And that is what we see when William and Kate and George step off the plane. Not just themselves, but all who have come before them, and all who shall succeed them. It is an image embodying not just the Royal Family, but our own.
And that is something we shall never be able to elect.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 April 2014.