Monday 12 September 2022

The Weight Of History.

Receiving The Burden Of Sovereignty: The weight of royal ritual and tradition, and all the gilt machinery of monarchical government, is crushing. 

THE SHEER WEIGHT of it takes your breath away.
On display in St James’s Palace on Saturday night (10/9/22) were rituals and traditions dating back centuries. To say the weight of those rituals and traditions, and all the gilt machinery of monarchical government, is crushing, would be no exaggeration. 

To the millions watching on television, however, the ceremony proclaiming King Charles III, conveyed another, older, message. That the House of Windsor is the last great royal house of Europe.

When the late Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Victoria, sat upon the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, the House of Saxe-Coburg (later re-named Windsor) was just one of many great royal houses. Alongside it stood the House of Hapsburg, the House of Hohenzollern, and the House of Romanov. By the end of the First World War, the Queen’s grandfather, the King-Emperor, George V, was the last man standing.

Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated and Germany had declared itself a Republic. The Emperor of what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl I, had similarly renounced his throne. The Tsar of all the Russias, Nicholas II, along with his family, had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. The Ottoman Empire, which had once threatened to conquer all of Western Europe, had similarly disintegrated under the hammer blows of war.

Britain, alone of all the great monarchical European empires, stood alone. Only once, in a span of close to 1,000 years, had the English people succumbed to foreign invasion, defeat and occupation. The Norman Conquest of 1066 broke the Anglo-Saxon state into pieces and re-constituted it according to the principles of feudalism. That feudal state then proceeded to see off all foreign challengers for the best part of ten centuries. The Spanish failed in 1588. The French in 1805. The Germans tried and failed twice. The first time between 1914-18. The second, between 1939-45.

It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of British resilience. The grim audit of war had seen the other great royal dynasties declared politically bankrupt. The emperors and aristocrats who ruled them had failed in their first and most important duty – to protect the security and integrity of their realms. That failure allowed their peoples to reconfigure their political systems into new and (sometimes) more democratic ways. Old ideas and old institutions were either tossed aside in revolutionary fervour, or, carefully retired to the national attic – pending more favourable circumstances.

But not the House of Windsor. Not the British Empire. At the end of every existential struggle, England’s king, and its ancient aristocratic families, were there to take the salute of their triumphant armies. Proof that the ideas and ideals of the Middle Ages were more than equal to the challenges of economic and social change. Certainly, other classes had been admitted to the magic circles of political power, but the splendid feudal pageantry, the resonant feudal vocabulary, remained undisturbed – as the millions watching on Saturday night could see and hear.

Yes, the Cromwellian revolution of the 1640s and 50s, and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had tamed Great Britain’s kings and queens, transforming them slowly but surely into that most curious of creatures – half-medieval, half-modern – the “constitutional monarch”. But, it was never a purely one-way process. Century after century, the rebellious and democratic instincts of the British people have been tamed and domesticated by their kings and queens.

It was impossible to look upon that extraordinary line-up of former prime-ministers – four Tories, two Labour – all of them members of His Majesty’s Privy Council – standing loyally to attention and bellowing “God Save The King!”, without mentally doffing one’s cap to the extraordinary political legerdemain of the British ruling-class.

It is easy to scoff at such scenes, dismissing them as so much medieval mummery, but the deeper truth remains: they’re still being played out. J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan informs his young readers that fairies will continue to exist only for as long as people believe in them. The same is true of kings and queens.

Politicians under-rated the political perspicacity of Elizabeth II at their peril. In the 70 years of her extraordinary reign, the late Queen saw the British economy and the British people transformed. By a sustained act of tutelary will, she convinced them that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, they remained one people: that there was more holding them together than there was tearing them apart. Her stubborn refusal to be convinced otherwise thus acted as a sort of dam, behind which the waters of division and disquiet rose higher and higher.

It was Louis XV of France who famously declared: “Après moi, le déluge” (After me, the flood!) Although she would never have indulged in such nihilistic despair, Elizabeth II could justifiably have said the same.

King Charles III must be wondering, along with the British political journalist who came up with the metaphor, whether his mother’s death signals “the conclusion of a season, or the end of the whole series?” Certainly, he could be forgiven for considering the term “United Kingdom” to be a joke in very poor taste. Those who witnessed Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s angry rejection of Boris Johnson’s arm, or watched on Twitter the Welsh nationalist actor Michael Sheen’s stupendous evocation of Welsh pride, would surely agree with the King.

A principled man (not a healthy attribute in a constitutional monarch) Charles must be looking with grave apprehension at the new, far-right British prime minister, Liz Truss. She cut a positively creepy figure in the otherwise splendid surroundings of St James’ Palace – bearing a frightening resemblance to the wicked queen in Disney’s Snow White.

The go-to Nineteenth Century explainer of Britain’s unwritten constitution, Walter Bagehot, wrote that the British monarch has only three constitutional rights: The right to be consulted. The right to encourage. And the right to warn. Given the ferocious ambitions of the Truss ministry, one suspects that King Charles III will soon be in need of all three.

And, here, in his far-flung realm of New Zealand? What will his antipodean subjects make of their new king? These islands are no less troubled by division and disquiet than Charles’ own beloved British Isles. Looming constitutional debates, all having at their heart the historical relationship of the British Crown with Aotearoa’s indigenous people, can hardly avoid attracting his royal attention.

In the meantime, the pageantry and pathos of the late Queen’s funeral – not to mention the looming pomp and circumstance of Charles III’s coronation – will serve as a reminder to Māori and Pakeha alike, that their nation is the deliberate creation of an empire presided over by the great-great-great grandmother of its new Head of State. A reminder, too, that, in Karl Marx’s memorable formulation:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

King Charles III’s brain, and those of his subjects, alike.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 12 September 2022.


Anonymous said...

I am very impressed by your ability to put the constitutional monarchy into its historical context. Those of us with Republican leanings can see that there will be much to think about in the coming days. It will not be so simple as just saying “ begone with all that”.

Phil said...

Liz Truss I have read is the first Tory PM to have attended a State school. Her parents have been described as hard left. Liz Truss herself has a Zelig like ability to swing across polical viewpoints. Formerly a Liberal Democrat and CND campaigner who became a Tory. A prominent EU remainer who who now leads the charge on Brexit. She is Far Right if it is good for her career but that may change. She was after all a republican but now a monarchist.

Wayne Mapp said...

"Far right", "creepy"? I would say a bit far fetched.

Liz Truss is hardly in the same domain as Trump or Orban. She is probably more conservative than say Theresa May, but that hardly make her far right. That term is usually reserved for ethno nationalists. You only have to look to her Cabinet to see the precise opposite of that.

As for the broader thesis, that the monarchy has somehow subsumed democracy. Well again, rather far fetched. It is very clear that all political power resides with parliament. The monarchy might restrain wilder excesses, mostly by temperament. Would a left wing government actually want to bring in full blooded socialism?

In any event such a government has to face the people within a short period of time. that alone restrains at least some excesses.

Though I guess you could ask another question. Does the monarchy limit the sort of excesses that we now see in the United States?

With its full blown nilihistic culture wars, and a view that the your opponents are little more than traitors. Well, perhaps the constitutional monarchy does. The very fact that you had all the living PM's in Britain swearing allegiance together is testament to the value of temperate restraint.

Barry said...

Without doubt the system for Hesd of Nation that we have is the best there is. History shows that it works. That for NZ its incredibly cheap and is non-political.
What could be better. Certainly not a political appointment. Certainly not a popularity vote. Those systems have proven disasterous for all that have tried it.

David George said...

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living"

Not surprising that Marx would come up with something as foolish as that. We know what happens when a people's culture and the lessons and cautions of those that came before us are destabilised, discredited and destroyed: a nightmare beyond imagination is made real.

In part of Jordan Peterson's superb, and widely acclaimed, response to an audience question (made a couple of hours after the Queens passing) he outlined what is special about the British tradition - and the problem with the alternatives.

Despite all of its ‘for the people’ cries within communism, its state leaders are quickly deified into all-powerful gods. In places such as North Korea, their family lines are literally made divine via law in a way royals – even in historical times – have never sought to do.

Without a symbolic leader to balance out the political class, the political head of a nation becomes a figure of extreme (rather than emotive) worship. This is a situation orders of magnitude more dangerous, as these leaders have actual political power to write law whereas the Crown’s only power is to sack a government that disobeys the Constitution and send power straight back into the hands of the people via election.

In many ways, a constitutional monarchy is the most pure form of ‘people rule’ as it robs politicians of supremacy.

JP "I wish your new King the best, that’s for sure, but you know maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe your monarch, with your support, will rise to the occasion and your country – and the rest of the British Commonwealth – will recognise that what they have in the shared bonds that unite them based on English common law and the great democratic tradition that’s so much a function of this country"

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Surely even Jordan Peterson realises that there are many intermediate steps between a monarchy and a communist dictatorship? Perhaps fewer between a monarchy and fascism given the royal family's and British aristocracy's performance in the 1930s. But even so, someone with his education .... Less than superb then. :)

David George said...

Sorry, I should have made clearer, the only part of the above that is from JP is the last paragraph.

David George said...

It's well worth a listen in full, it's only 14 minutes, but here are some more snippets from JP in that discussion on the monarchy:

"You also see that [political worship] to some degree in the US – which is a ‘star-worshipping culture’. Obviously, with the glitterati and the royalty of Hollywood – it’s [a human emotion that’s] better put there in the entertainment section, even though that’s also somewhat dangerous because it tends to elevate actors into pronouncements of ethical virtue.

‘Still, it is better there than in the political realm. Trump… He is like King and President all rolled up into one and that’s just too much. So, I really admire the monarchical system.’

‘You had someone around to intimidate all your Prime Ministers. That’s a really good idea and I’m sure she did a fine job of that.

‘You can imagine how useful it was psychologically for the Prime Minister who has monarchical temptations, in some sense like Trump did, to have to go on a regular basis to this remarkable person who’d seen this immense span of political history and confess – in some real sense – and to be subject to her cautious and wise judgment. I think she was a woman who was traditional and cautious and wise in the highest degree.’

‘I see in England and Europe such apprehension and such refusal to note the greatness of your country and its contributions.

‘No one in the US ever talks about the fact that the UK was the country that eradicated slavery. Like – that has only happened once in the whole history of the human race.

‘When your country did it, it took 175 years and a huge economic [burden]. It was your country and the great people [of the UK] who were spearheading that movement. That [decision] established, once and for all on the political and economic front, that [slavery] was not to be tolerated. Then it took a while for that idea to spread everywhere. It still hasn’t because there’s plenty of slaves in the world. The estimate’s 30 million at the moment.

‘Your country was definitely one of the moral forces in the world – the primary moral force on the political front – yet mostly what characterises a fair bit of self-image in Great Britain is shame.

‘Every country has things to be ashamed of, but not every country also has things to be proud of.

‘What’s going to happen with the Commonwealth?’ ‘Well… Maybe we’ll wise up and recognise that we have something absolutely precious to guard and then maybe we’ll guard it.

‘To do that, we’re going to have to defend ourselves against unwarranted accusations of guilt – not that there’s not something to be guilty about, you know, because we’re all the beneficiaries of the atrocities of history and we have to atone for that in our personal behaviour, but by the same token, man, you’re supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff and not just call it all chaff.

‘When you look at your own history you think we stumbled plenty, but we still walked uphill and you, in your country, you can say that more than most…’