The Queen’s Jubilee and Her Strategy of Doing Nothing
Over the course of a long (and, of course, rainy) weekend, we Brits are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Perhaps the most important thing to celebrate is Britain’s good fortune in retaining the institution of the monarchy itself. Since WW2, almost every institution that contributed to making Britain what it was, from the grammar school to the House of Lords, has come under attack from the forces of liberal reform, which brook no compromise and will never see the wisdom of anything they did not themselves design. The present, ostensibly Conservative, government is even committed to abolishing the unique status given to procreative, long-term heterosexual unions, a feature not only of British society, but, as far as we can tell, of pretty much all forms of reasonably civilized human existence. Monarchy, an institution the justification for which is much less immediately obvious, has, almost miraculously, escaped, despite it being a standing affront to the ideals of “equality”, “meritocracy” and “democracy”, in the name of which everything that makes human life diverse, interesting and special must be chewed up and spat out by the zealots of bland, nihilistic universalism.
Since this is an American paper, I should probably spend a moment explaining why the retention of monarchy is just cause for satisfaction. Though Yanks are fairly tolerant of and even periodically affectionate towards our monarchical ways, they tend to look at anyone with a royal family, like any country that has an established church, as existing in a state of retarded development, just a few levels above the man drawing crude pictures of goddesses on the walls of his dank cave.
However, I don’t think it necessary to dwell too long on this point. Simply put, if you look at the history of the western world since the French revolution, one tends to find that, though neither has an unspotted record, monarchies have on the whole outperformed republican governments in fostering sustainable prosperity, maintaining peaceful stability, restraining the pavlovian urge to destructive war and guarding individual liberty from the dread hand of the modern state. One doesn’t have to restrict one’s survey to the western world; even in regions where the record is pretty universally dire, monarchies, like Jordan or Malaysia, easily beat out local republican competition in terms of being a minimally tolerable place to live. Thomas Paine might have made a good case that republican governments would keep the peace and manage finances better than the old royal families of Europe, but as the global debt crisis unfolds we can, hopefully, take a more empirical approach.
The obvious (but only partial) exception is America: the richest, most powerful, top nation, which has been proudly and ostentatiously republican from its beginning. Of course, wise people don’t base their opinions of statistical outliers (and America is about as un-representative as Khmer Rouge Cambodia), but, even so, we can interpret the American experience differently. The institutions that have made America a free, and for that reason wealthy, place are all inherited from the British motherland and intimately tied into its monarchical system of government. This is true of Habeas Corpus (Edward I, Henry II), trial by jury (Æthelred, Henry II), the office of sheriff, the common law (Alfred the Great, Henry II again) and, most pertinently, the concept of certain inalienable rights of the individual in the face of power (c.f. Magna Carta). Conversely, the distinctively republican institutions of the U.S.A. have performed pretty poorly. The presidency has been a magnet for narcissists intent on fighting aimless, utopian and unnecessary wars, distressingly often against abstract concepts (poverty, terrorism) or inanimate objects (drugs). Congress has pioneered one of the most egregious systems of organised bribery and corruption (‘lobbying’) in the history of mankind; so morally debased and criminal in its habits is that institution that a man like Ted Kennedy, who was not only a lifetime degenerate, but actually killed a girl and laughed about it, was able to spend the bulk of his life comfortably ensconced there. Speaking of the Kennedys, whatever one might say about the House of Windsor (and I’ll get to that) at least the British have been spared the indignities of being governed by a dynasty of sybaritic psychopaths such as themselves. Finally, the much vaunted “written constitution” has been one great big flop from the day Hamilton created the first National Bank; the constitutional history of the United States is simply the history of governments violating the constitution and getting away with it.
So, we can be thankful that, whatever else we have lost, we still have a monarchy, but I must now strike a more sombre note. Our current Queen, accurately sensing that she would preside over an age characterised by cultural and institutional degeneration, long ago adopted a strategy of preserving the monarchy at all costs and the centrepiece of her plan was to do … nothing. Well, not strictly nothing: she smiles a lot, and waves, and wears fetching pastel suits, but she scrupulously avoids exercising her, in theory quite extensive, prerogative powers or doing anything remotely political at all. This strategy has been remarkably successful: while British politicians of all parties are rightly loathed the Queen is wildly popular and British republicans are seen as sour eccentrics spoiling our big party.
However, there is a catch. While Elizabeth II has been carefully conserving royal authority by steadfastly refusing to exercise it, the politicians who are theoretically in her charge have made an almighty balls-up of everything and, so, in exercising her duty to preserve the crown, she has terribly neglected her duty to preserve the country. You may counter that it would have been wholly unrealistic for the Queen to have stepped in and stopped such monstrosities as the Climate Change Act that costs £18,000,000,000 p.a. for an expected environmental impact of nil, or Gordon Brown’s whizkid decision to sell off over half the nation’s gold reserves for a cool $256 an ounce (about a sixth of its present level). What’s more she might, for all I know, agree with the government most of the time; since she never divulges her opinions we simply don’t know.
Nevertheless, I think I can point to one clear-cut example when she could and should have acted. A little over half a decade ago, the European Union produced a new constitution, the purpose of which was to further the goal of “ever closer union” by formalising and increasing the powers of the EU’s governing bodies. Whatever the merits of this idea (and, by the by, there aren’t any), it was strongly opposed by the overwhelming majority, not just of Britons, but other Europeans too. This being the case, after losing referendums in France and the Netherlands, the EU came up with the idea of renaming the constitution the ‘Lisbon Treaty’ thus obviating the need to go cap in hand to those pesky electorates again, since governments can sign whatever crazy treaties they want without asking anyone.
All three major parties, and most of the minor ones too, had run in the 2005 election on the promise of putting the constitution to a public vote. When the constitution was renamed a treaty, the ruling Labour party took the excuse to go back on its pledge, but the Conservatives argued that nothing essential had changed and the old promises remained in force. What followed was one of the most shameful and preposterous episodes in modern political history.
After a decade-long simmering feud, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown finally pushed out Tony Blair and was anointed, unopposed, Prime Minister by the Labour party, fulfilling an ambition that he appears to have harboured from kindergarten. However, his premiership quickly hit the skids: after promising the “end of boom and bust” a bank collapse destroyed his reputation for economic competency; the subsequent depressed tax revenues demonstrated the folly of a decade of public spending growth supported not, as it turned out, by sustainable economic development, but bank chicanery and unsustainable property speculation. Aside from the disastrous public finances, however, it became increasingly evident, as some had long known, that Gordon Brown was not mentally stable. He angrily stormed out of friendly interviews, he insulted voters on microphone; reports dripping out about his behaviour in private indicated a mental breakdown and his bizarre anti-charisma in public was turning him into the most unpopular Prime Minister in living memory. Resignations from his cabinet suggested a government in collapse and a swift election, in which Labour would have been decimated, looked inevitable.
However, just as events started to resemble the downfall of a baddie in a Jacobean comedy, to the rescue came Peter Mandelson, a political genius who together with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell had engineered a decade of New Labour political dominance, but had twice retired from British politics thanks to his proclivity for financial corruption, subsequently winning for himself a lucrative sinecure in the European bureaucracy. He was installed in the British House of Lords, purged a decade before of its rightful residents in the name of “democracy”, and swiftly took over all the vacant positions in the cabinet, giving the government a stay of execution and allowing Labour time enough to engineer a more graceful defeat at the next election, one that, in the event, denied the Conservatives a majority. The condition was that, against the will of the overwhelming majority of Britons, Brown would sign the Lisbon treaty and so, by the time the Tories could take power, the matter was a fait accompli. That done, Mandelson toddled off back to Europe, where he still does fairly well for himself.
Elizabeth II could easily have stopped this. She did not even have to express opposition to the Treaty itself, only to an unelected Prime Minister and his unelected vizier signing it without a referendum against the earlier promises of the entire British political class. Indeed, she almost certainly would not even have had to exercise her powers in the strict sense; a public expression of her displeasure would have done the trick. She would have scaled heights of popularity not seen since the days of her namesake after the Spanish Armada and British independence would have been saved. But, after decades of carefully treasuring up the kind of political capital ordinary politicians can only dream of, she did, as is her custom, nothing, nothing at all. A week or two later she broke with her normally apolitical stance and banned, from a dinner party of hers, Nick Griffin, the leader of populist anti-immigration party that consistently fails to be popular and has some vague links to underground neo-Nazism. Meanwhile, the reigns of British power were handed to unaccountable oligarchs across the channel.
In the how-to guides of how to be a sovereign “don’t let your country get taken over by foreigners” must be one of the basic guidelines. Our case is even worse because the European empire (in typical republican fashion) hit the skids almost straight away and is perceptibly sliding into financial oblivion and out of control. In another universe where our Queen had taken the golden opportunity presented to her by providence, we could be watching from the outside, providing assistance as we thought appropriate whilst tending towards our own, not insignificant, problems. Instead, we are tethered to a rotting corpse as our broke overlords desperately lash out, looking for whatever source of funds they can find. As Elizabeth II celebrates her diamond jubilee amidst the pomp and splendour fitting to an ancient crown, the disjunction between the awesome responsibilities the accident of her birth has placed upon her and her negligence in meeting them is too great to overlook. Fate gave her a test and she flunked it.