Tomorrow, February 2, 2012, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will have been on her throne sixty years. In May 2011, she passed King George III to become the second longest reigning monarch in Britain, and is exceeded in longevity only by Victoria, who wore the crown for 63 years and 7 months. Given the 85 year old Queen’s current state of health and family history (her mother lived to age 101), it is likely Elizabeth will attain the longest reign in September 2015.
The celebration of the Diamond Jubilee, as it is called, will occur on June 5 in the United Kingdom and in the sixteen or so other Commonwealth countries of which Elizabeth is nominally queen. It is certain to be quite a pageant. There may be over a million tourists attending, with a commensurate boost to the economy.
Which is one of the principal reasons the British Monarchy endures. Unlike the many nations that have discarded a hereditary monarchy, with all of the attendant pomp and splendor, the British have kept theirs, although one with extremely limited powers in governance. A lot of present day Europe looks to me like a proto-Huxleyan brave new world, but much of it remains a Disneyland for adults, particularly foreigners, and like that Magic Kingdom, the existence of the Monarchy is a cash cow. It doesn’t cost Britain money; it makes it.
There are at least two other reasons the British Royals endure. One is the position of the monarch as a constitutional, non-political, but prestigious moderator of government and potential arbitrator of last resort. Constitutionally, the Queen is the head of state. In many democratic republics throughout the world – Germany for example – there is an elected president who is nominally the head of state, but has neither the power nor the trappings of one. In Britain, the monarch has no real political power, though the bully pulpit is there if the occasion ever arises. She gives her pro forma consent to legislation, is kept informed as to state matters, and is consulted by and occasionally gives warning to her government, in the person of the prime minister. The monarch stays out of politics. The obvious exception would be in the event of a hung Parliament; that is, the inability of a majority in the House of Commons to coalesce behind a prime minister and form a government. The Queen could have a decisive role in that event, with a number of options available to her, such as choosing a minority prime minister or calling another election. Because she has little personal stake in the outcome in that event, her sense of the country’s mood would tend not to be suspect.
Another reason the Monarchy endures is that Britain’s one flirtation with non-monarchical government turned out to be a disaster. The nominal Parliamentary democracy under the leadership of Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his son in the mid-17th Century was really a military dictatorship akin to that of the Iranian Ayatollahs and other such regimes. That government’s inception was the execution of King Charles I under trumped up charges, and its demise came once Richard Cromwell’s ineptitude became apparent.
Today, some believe the British Royal Family is of German origin. That is not entirely, or even mostly correct. While there are ancestors who ruled in Germany, the present branch of the family tree sojourned there in the 17th Century, and Victoria was married to a German prince, there is an unbroken line of descent from William the Conqueror to the present. The current Prince William is the 25th great-grandchild of the Conqueror of 1066. Fittingly, he may well be 5th King of that name in time for the millennium of the Norman Conquest.
Not every ancestor in the direct line, however, sat on the throne. Some collateral successors to the throne died without issue, ending their line; some were deposed. In possibly an ironic twist, the three intervening Williams are all collateral ancestors. The family lineage took a detour through Scotland in the 16th Century, and then merged to become a dual monarchy of both England and Scotland that later consolidated as the United Kingdom (some Scots today are in favor of secession, but that’s a subject for another essay). The daughter of James I (James VI of Scotland), Elizabeth Stuart, married into a German princely family which remained Protestant. Her grandson George I thus was the nearest relative eligible to assume the British throne in 1714 under the terms of the Act of Settlement, which forbade Roman Catholics to wear the crown. The family tree gets rather complicated with several branches which diverge and then re-merge during the 15th Century amid internecine conflict, but it is directly traceable. The various dynastic name changes are a reflection that the male ancestor’s name, even when merely the consort, took precedence.
Why does all of this matter to us Americans? Our founders renounced the concept of a hereditary, or any other kind of monarchical government, and fought a bloody war of independence against a descendant of the “principal ruffian of a restless gang.”
My short answer is that it is a frame of reference for how we got here, is an interesting story, and great entertainment. And there is our fantasy land, in which we long for a President who will be a Platonic philosopher-king or at least a Good King Wenceslaus. We love the trappings that come with power even though suspicious of its concentration, particularly in one individual with lifetime tenure.
The heritage of Britain is the most important reason, though. Although we Americans have biological ancestors from every corner of the Earth who brought their own contributions, the principal source of our nation’s culture is, and always will be, Great Britain, and in that sense, we are all the fruit of Albion’s seed. The British monarchy is a symbol of stability. It is an institution that despite all the travails from the Anarchy of the 12th Century, through the Wars of the Roses in the 15th, the Civil War of the 17th, to their Finest Hour in the 20th and beyond, they endured. Perhaps we can too.