By happy coincidence, I am in the country of my birth, England, during the Diamond Jubilee weekend of Queen Elizabeth II.
I will enjoy a little tinge of British pride when I see the flags a-flying and the Queen a-waving -- a feeling not entirely dissimilar from that American pride I get when I pick up my Constitution or watch our nation's best and greatest speak with passion about the United States' founding ideals.
I've had to interrogate myself quite closely about that. After all, in the USA, I spend a great deal of time championing a political philosophy of liberty that was articulated in a sublime Constitution that was written in opposition to abuses by the same monarchy that the Brits will be celebrating next weekend. Indeed, as a passionate American Constitutionalist and activist of the liberty movement, one of my favorite Brits has to be Thomas Paine -- who did as much as any man to point up the absurdity of monarchy -- and of the love that the English apparently had for it.
Now, of course, the monarchy lacks the capacity to do the damage that it did in Paine's day, which perhaps makes my hope that God Saves the Queen easier to reconcile with my championing of the American ideals that Paine was, in significant part, responsible for realizing.
Indeed, I am quite sure that my positive sentiment toward that institution arises from the very same understanding of the dangers of Democratic government that underpins my love of the American Republic.
First and foremost, the greatest value -- which I'd call genius if it had arisen by design -- of the modern monarchy is that it gives the nation a symbol, and therein an identity, that is apolitical. As a figurehead, the monarch provides the British and the rest of the world a sense of the nation that transcends the political stripe of its government. This makes the monarch, as Head of State, a purer ambassador for the nation per se than any prime minister or president, always associated with a political agenda, could ever be.
Imagine, for example, if in the last decade, the American Head of State had been an apolitical "Keeper of the Constitution" who represented the nation alongside, in contrast to or even above, George Bush. The USA would have been better received abroad, and less divided at home as none of its people would have had to feel separated from their own country by their inability to accept the policies of the holder of its highest office that were followed in their name but against their will. The apolitical head of state is extremely good for business.
On the American side of the pond, the ultimate and most necessary purpose of the Constitution is to protect the nation against the dangers of a democracy, which, unchecked, permits the rule of a majority that would disenfranchise or dispossess one or other minorities, and in the worst case do so in a manner contrived by the governing cabal that is most effective at manipulating that majority. Limitations on democratic government are critical because whereas Democracy enables an electorate to remove a destructive government, it does nothing to reduce its monopoly on the force it wields when it is in power.
William H. Seward (1801-72), secretary of state under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, said, "We elect a king for four years, and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself."
Even if Seward wasn't right then, he is now. A look at the kind of executive orders that have been signed by the current and preceding presidents will confirm that. Seward's observation changes the question from "Should there be a monarchy?" to "If there's going to be a monarchy anyway, what form should it take and how best should it be used?"
Strangely, perhaps, the monarchy, preceding the British political process much like the American Constitution precedes the American political process, serves something of the same function. The Queen is not able to write legislation, but she is able to veto it. It never comes to that, of course, as the Queen raises her concerns with her prime minister long before she would ever have to "withhold royal assent." Whereas the US system sets the states against the federal government, the British system sets the one outside the party political system against the many within it. Politicians of all stripes have been bought. The Queen, on the other hand, has not yet been photographed taking money out of brown envelopes.
Whereas the British system does not benefit from the profound understanding of unalienable rights that is enshrined in the American Constitution, it also does not suffer from its primary deficiency: that a piece of paper has no way of imposing itself on a political class. A monarch, unlike a piece of paper, acting behind the scenes and usually quite softly, does. Those who object that the monarch is not elected are precisely missing the point. It is because she is not elected that she can act as last defense against the worst errors that might be borne out of the populist, Democratic process.
And of course, by permanently filling the highest office in the land with a non-political figure, we ensure that the top job can never be taken by a representative of any ideological regime that can see no good other than itself, and no national interest other than its own.
So much for the politics: the monarchy's cultural value may be even greater.
Whereas Americans find their identity in the future that they are building, the British find their identity in their past -- in the institutions, ideas and even buildings that tell the story of a nation that has always been a work in progress. The American Constitution may well be the highest articulation of what was discovered by the British on their long journey, but the British nation, finding itself in existence 1000 years ago, didn't have the luxury of being able to start from such a formulation. Theirs was the society that did the philosophical and political work so that in 1776, the Americans really didn't have to. Remember: there were proportionately as many in the mother country who supported American independence as there were in the new world.
The monarchy is the constant in that thousand-year-old journey. It, and the sum of all the historical accidents that together comprise its associated traditions and ceremony, unite Brits like nothing else because in crystallized form, they tell them where they have come from and therefore -- and most importantly -- who they are.
No surprise then that 80% of the nation favors the monarchy. Not only do politicians fail to achieve such a favorability rating, despite all their talk of "uniting the nation," none of them can do so like that.
As two sociologists who studied the reaction of a post WW-II impoverished Britain to the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952 reported, "The Coronation provided at one time and for practically the entire society such an intensive contact with the sacred that we believe we are justified in interpreting it as ... a great act of national communion."
That kind of brute fact -- one we shall observe again in hundreds of communities throughout the UK this weekend -- makes mockery of clever political theory. Just because something cannot be theoretically justified at a particular time does not make it meaningless. I'd suggest that those of progressive tendency would do well to understand what of substance is going on here -- what in human nature is being lifted up -- before dismissing it with a modern disdain.
The monarchy, when maintained by a person like Elizabeth II, is the ultimate in positive branding: the monarch's life is one of pure duty and service. For all of her palaces and chariots, the queen is denied something every one of her subjects takes for granted: the freedom to choose her own life's path. Stripped now of power to interfere in the lives of her subjects, filling every day with her duties of service but not with free choice, her life is not entirely dissimilar to that of a monk -- except that she serves a nation rather than God, and her surroundings are plush rather than austere. The one in five Brits who can't get past the privilege of the monarchy based on an accident of birth should see the bigger picture: there's nothing privileged about it.
These qualities perhaps suggest her greatest value of all: the qualities of duty and service are those that, when present in a nation's leaders or servants, strengthen the nation -- regardless of the politics of those who exhibit them. Indeed, by exemplifying these traits while personifying the nation, the monarch forces a common good upon an otherwise partisan polity.
I can't help wondering in how much better shape American constitutional rights would be if our politicians had more of those qualities.
Monarchy Inc. has an annual running cost of about $60 million but supports a British tourist industry that is 500 times the size. Since London is the most visited city in the world, and the Tower of London is the most visited site in that city, the British Monarchy undoubtedly brings more wealth into the nation than ever the nation spends in supporting it. As hard as it is for some to admit, that means more schools, more hospitals and more opportunities. That is some serious brand value.
Many of my educated Liberal friends who would eliminate the monarchy as a tyrannical and anachronistic concentration of wealth and power think nothing of supporting the mandarins of the EU, who unlike the Queen, do have the power to impose unwanted policy on the country, use it every day against the will of the majority of its people, do not enjoy the consent of the majority of our country to govern, vote themselves more in material benefits every year, replace elected officials with unelected ones in European nations, and are directly responsible for reducing the prosperity of those under their power.
Some don't see the hypocrisy.
I, on the other hand, do see some irony in the fact that the one person who could stop the transfer of British sovereignty and civil rights over the heads of the British people to a supranational non-democratic European body is, were she so minded, the monarch.
So I will continue to say God Save the Queen on one side of the Atlantic even as I say God Bless America on the other.
It occurs to me, though, given the positive impact of the British monarchy on the character of the British nation, on the one hand, and the relentless attempts by our American political masters to undo our birthright, on the other, that perhaps the more appropriate proclamations would be God Save America and God Bless the Queen.
Follow Robin Koerner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rkoerner