|“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.