Friday 23 September 2022

The Magic Of Monarchy

Grief is the price we pay for love.”  –  Queen Elizabeth II 

IT WAS HEART-BREAKING. It was heart-warming. It was as contemporary as a smartphone. It was as old as the Middle Ages. It was the antithesis of democracy. It was what the people wanted.

The Queen, at 96, has passed away, but what remains is older still. And what remains is the deep, deep magic of monarchy.

So many people, when asked by reporters why they had come to pay their last respects to Elizabeth II, confessed to being baffled. Some even owned up to being republicans, and yet, here they were, waiting in a queue for nine hours, for just a few seconds in front of the catafalque.

Anyone who has witnessed a hypnotist’s on-stage performance would immediately have recognised their condition. Quite simply, monarchy had mesmerised them. They were under its spell.

How else to explain the numerous heads-of-government and heads-of-state who consented to being driven by bus to Westminster Abbey to pay their last respects to this doughty woman – a curious mixture of primness and joy – who, wholly enthralled to the ideal of service, had redefined the meaning of leadership. Constitutionally powerless, Elizabeth II was also astonishingly powerful. Would so many world leaders have turned out to offer the tribute of their presence to a woman who wasn’t?

No leftists worthy of the name would concede any of these points. They would argue that all rational persons long ago abandoned the intellectually bankrupt notion of hereditary rule. Nations committed to democracy, they’d say, cannot in good conscience accept even a constitutional monarchy – not if they are genuinely committed to the idea that all human-beings are born equal in rights and dignity. Monarchy is the conceptual and political enemy of equality, and democracy is equality in action.

Understanding how the Left came by its aversion to hereditary rule isn’t difficult. It was no fun being a commoner in an aristocratic society. You were stuck at the bottom of the heap in a world constructed to keep you there. If you spoke up, you were slapped down. If you lifted a hand against the established order, you were hanged by the neck until you were dead. Short of rebellion, there was no way of improving the lot of people like yourself. Political power could not be earned, it could only be inherited. “Born to rule” wasn’t just a cheap political jibe, it was an accurate description of the constitution.

At the end of the American Civil War, emancipated slaves liked to tease the soldiers of the defeated Confederacy by shouting out: “Bottom rail on top!” Human-beings who had been treated as beasts of burden, were now citizens with rights. The racist world of the American South had been turned upside down.

But this triumph of equality and democracy: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; was short-lived. Abraham Lincoln’s famous summation of democracy overlooks the inescapable fact that “the people” are not a homogeneous mass. Some of the people want one thing, and some of the people want something else. You can count votes to determine who gets what, but you can’t make the losers like the final result.

Democracy works well when the stakes are low. But raise the stakes and watch democracy come apart at the seams. One way or another, the head-of-state of a republic takes office through a process of election. Chose a president when the political stakes are dangerously high, and the legitimacy of the winner will, inevitably, be questioned by the loser – and his followers. We have seen it happen with Donald Trump, we will likely see it again if Jair Bolsonaro loses the Brazilian presidential election.

Watching the final moments of the Queen’s funeral, it was impossible not to marvel at the complex simplicity of constitutional monarchy. With the line of succession decided, there was no argument about who would replace Elizabeth II. Nobody had to stand for the office of monarch. No party had to lick its wounds and mutter darkly about a “rigged” election. The transfer of power from Mother to Son was instantaneous and seamless. Moreover, the power transferred was of an apolitical nature.

As the Lord Chamberlain broke in twain his wand, and a lone piper skirled his lament through the lofty majesty of St George’s Chapel, it was clear that magic – and monarchy – had prevailed.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 September 2022.


John said...

Whoops, Chris. Not Westminster Cathedral. That's the Catholics.

Anonymous said...

People want assured continuity in life which is not provided in many areas of their day to day lives. Did not even many indigenous societies have paramount chiefs where the title was handed down? e.g., the Maori King - where is the uprising against that idea? Meanwhile Chris, like the Queen did, you are ageing. But the Queen's portrait got constantly updated.

Shane McDowall said...

Why should New Zealand become a republic? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Becoming a republic would just be a meaningless rebranding exercise.

Rotorua District Council changed its name to Rotorua Lakes Council without making the town one bit better ... or worse. Different name, same shit.

Becoming a republic will cost money, with no tangible benefits.

Our unicameral Westminster parliament is just fine.

And leave our flag alone.

Kit Slater said...

Kenan Malik took a similarly ambivalent attitude to the loss of Queen Elizabeth as a globally-recognised figure-head. Reverence will in due course fade into calls for monarchy’s revocation. Plus ça change…

We see the progressive Left, in its destructive path of the “overthrow of all existing social conditions” in order to “cultivate the four news”, steadily dismantle the nation’s meta-narrative à la Lyotard via cultural repudiation. Yet monarchy, as an over-arching and transcendent narrative, independent of Queen Elizabeth, the King and his family, offers an apolitical, unifying, eternal and intrinsic saga, in a way that a president, indeed any supra-governance option, cannot.

The stability this offers can be seen in the period ironically called the ‘Arab Spring’. Countries that fared better - Bahrain, Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – were monarchies. Republics – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen – well, not so much.

Governments in a monarchy have a ‘loyal opposition’ and the loyalty belongs to the crown and country, allowing debate and difference but in a greater cause. Walter Bagehot, in The English Constitution, described the ‘efficient’ part of the system, which did the work, and the ‘dignified’ part, which was symbolically important but functionally ineffective. The role of a politicised president offers expressions of power and grandeur, but its temporality does not offer nobility and detached continuity.

In rejecting its players as they strut and fret their hour upon the stage, we will lose a lot more than a source of mass entertainment, global fascination, a subject of debate from the disaffected, and target of annihilation to aid a utopian fantasy.

Stability is a virtue to be cherished. We should care less about the actors and more about the play.

Chris Trotter said...

To: John @ 11:47

Yikes! Thanks for that, John.

Duly corrected.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Funny, stability is supposed to be a virtue yet the regressive right destroyed that from 1984 into the 1990s. And apparently that was a good thing. Maybe instability or stability is a good thing if it works in your favour.

greywarbler said...

Noted. It's a big step but I did see an image of Mike Lee the other day which appears to have been from 2006. So youthful looks may last for yonks. But true worth shines out; we acknowledge wit and wisdom for sure.

Chris Morris said...

One of the better things about the constitutional monarchy is the mystery. You don't know what they privately think, they don't overshare and they deliberately try to be personable to all, no matter how detestable that person or what they represent may be. Look how the Queen dealt with Gerry Adams whose organisation killed her uncle. Then there are all the heads of states she meets. Even before she died, there was almost universal praise for her and people vying for her company. That charm was a masterclass in soft power and influence. Almost all politicians should really learn from her.

Unknown said...

Kit Slater

Geoffrey Palmer discusses Bagehot here although he thinks our symbols are just as good

It all reminds me of the story of The Happy Prince

John Hurley said...

Guerilla Surgeon said...
Funny, stability is supposed to be a virtue yet the regressive right destroyed that from 1984 into the 1990s. And apparently that was a good thing. Maybe instability or stability is a good thing if it works in your favour.
Labour decided to make NZ a "truly multi-racial society". Multiculturalism weakens belonging but self-esteem depends on where you are in the food chain.

Paul Spoonley says that Asian NZrs have "very different expectations about what it means to be a New Zealander" and we are going to have to have discussions about "the anthem, the flag....". So, thanks Labour as we suffer housing pressure/density/loss of identity/hate speech laws. The benefits are concentrated /the costs dispersed. Like RNZ and te reo we are NZ and all cultures; and none of you understand what you have done because it may work for you on your fat salaries with your bloated egos but try being working class white or Maori in the face of on the ground and in your face foreign competition.

greywarbler said...

Kit Slater
Thanks for thoughtful comment with appropriate link and extract to sit and consider.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Labour decided to make NZ a "truly multi-racial society". Multiculturalism weakens belonging"

A theory debunked long ago.

Basically I don't care what Paul Spoonley says, he seems to be a particular hate of yours – I doubt if he cares about that either.

I have never had a fat salary. My father worked in a factory and to his dying day he made more money than I did.