How Elizabeth II Burnished Her Monarchy and Earned Dividends for Britain
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
There may seem to be little left to add to descriptions of the mighty celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. But a reflection on comparative government is timely. Of the major powers, only the governments of Germany and Canada have been reelected and command support from their countrymen in sustainable numbers if they returned at once to the electors (exceptions have to be made for the brand new, but deeply unpromising, French regime and the technocratic coalition wrestling with Italy’s decades, if not centuries, of accumulated mismanagement).
In Germany and Italy, the chiefs of state, presidents, are just ceremonious stand-ins for long deposed royal families and don’t possess any ability really to rally or personify the national interest. (Germany has had to change presidents twice in one term because of minor indiscretions.)
The emperor of Japan and most of the remaining European kings and the king of Thailand are highly regarded, but none, except perhaps for Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Juan Carlos of Spain (under considerable criticism lately), have any more impact on their countries than the Governor General of Canada, usually a distinguishedly occupied position with very limited importance.
Where presidents are also the heads of government as well as chiefs of state, principally in the United States and France, they are as esteemed as their occupant is talented at political navigation. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan enjoyed immense prestige as well as great power. So did Charles de Gaulle, and, to a significant extent, several of his successors. But the likes of Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac caused significant damage to the standing of their country.
It is fashionable, flattering to general sensibilities, and a good public relations sell to claim that political power arises from the people, and this is part of the traditional genius of the American system, dysfunctional and corrupt and almost completely ineffective though it now is. “We the people…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” but of course, the people had almost nothing to do with it.
A frightened group of lawyers, merchants, and slave-owning plantation-owners, afraid that their long and costly revolution was about to collapse in absurdity and back-biting and bankruptcy, met under the eminent chairmanship of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and the intellectual inspiration of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and a remarkable document resulted. But it wasn’t popular government, either in conception or in the narrow and often coercive manner of its ratification. It was never popularly ratified, as the constitution of the French Fifth Republic was, but acquired legitimacy through continued use.
The powers of the British monarch in modern times have just as much been circumscribed by the British people as the powers of the U.S. federal government have by Americans, and while there have been many unsatisfactory British prime ministers among the 53 holders of that office, going back to Sir Robert Walpole in 1721 (compared to 43 U.S. presidents in 68 fewer years), the last British monarch who was actually crowned who caused the nation any embarrassment was George IV (a flamboyant and profligate character who had his diverting and fashion-leading moments), and he died in 1830.
Because a really poor or outrageous monarch could bring down the entire institution and a bad or silly president merely is jettisoned in favor of an opponent at the next election, monarchs tend to behave themselves more studiously. And it is in the nature of the office that their limited powers make disastrous errors unlikely and at least royals are trained all their lives for their positions, if for little else.
Some of the dividends of this apparently anomalous system are clear in these celebrations of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. In 60 years she has almost seen the sun set on the empire she inherited, as it is now, apart from the Home Islands and, up to a point, the old Dominions, down to the Falklands, Gibraltar, Caymans and a few other Caribbean and castaway islands, including St. Helena, where Napoleon spent his last six years. She cannot have enjoyed anti-monarchist demonstrations in Quebec in the 1960s, or probably even signing all the portentous and ill-considered documents of euro integration in the piping days of that fading fable.
The endless tours of remote sections of the Commonwealth and the unclear raison d’etre of so ambiguous an organization as the Commonwealth (Mozambique, which had never had any connection to the Commonwealth was admitted because Nelson Mandela had a romantic involvement with the widow of its president), must have caused her great ennui at times.
The peccadilloes and financial embarrassments of family members, spectacular divorces, and the antics of her late sister, among others, must all have been burdensome to patience and morale. But in 60 years she has never caused one minute of embarrassment to those whom she represents, has never compromised in the attention to her duties, however banal they may have been. Finally, almost accidentally, as the passage of 60 years came, there is an implicit recognition that no country in the world can claim so dignified, so devoted, so effective a chief of state of clearly limited powers as those countries that share Elizabeth II as monarch.
It was not in the nature of her office, as it is of governing chiefs of state, to produce brilliant fiscal programs and foreign policies or to lead the armed forces in combat. But the position of monarch of the United Kingdom and head of the Commonwealth, though unique, is exacting, the more so by its ambivalence in many respects.
There have been more glamorous and imaginative monarchs than Elizabeth II, in Britain and elsewhere, and she was long overshadowed by her mother, and briefly somewhat upstaged by Diana. But Elizabeth II stands today not only unsullied by the slightest failing of duty, and universally admired for a long and splendid reign, but illustrative of the virtues of a form of government long discarded as anachronistic, which by her devotion, discretion and monarchic dignity, stands very creditably beside the damaged and fallen idols of popular electoralism, not least obviously the comparative mediocrity of all of the 13 British prime ministers who have served her, except Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, not to mention the job lot of Commonwealth prime ministers who have come and gone from the Queen’s doorstep these 60 years.
Long live the Queen.
This dispatch first appeared on the Huffington Post.