I do not much like the British royal family. The Queen, though by far the best of them, takes increasingly frequent plunges into political correctness. This is presumably because she feels she must, if she is to keep her throne and hand it on to her heirs. The rest of them just seem unable to stay out of one sort of trouble or another, which only matters because there is a lingering idea that they ought to offer the rest of us an example. The latest of these crises has been brought about by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, known to headline-writers as Harry and Meghan, and their very public squabble with the rest of the dynasty.
As I am a monarchist, whatever should I do or think? My obligations to the Crown are strong and unavoidable, but they have been weakened by the decline of my homeland from a great empire into a small, rather puzzled country on the fringe of Europe. In recent generations, members of my family have served in our armed forces, which especially revere the monarchy and are in theory its direct servants. I was born a subject of His Majesty King George VI, and was for a while a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II—until in the 1980s I was converted against my will into a citizen, a clean different thing. Worse, I am a citizen not of England, or even Britain, but of a rather dubious and shaky federal entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This odd, hinged and jointed nation often seems on the verge of breakup. It is increasingly referred to at home and abroad as “The Ukay,” a title which, while ugly and brief, does not give offense to any of its fractious parts. But even after all these changes, Her Majesty is still the Head of State, the Lord’s anointed, to whom I bear allegiance. She is also (mainly to keep the pope out) Supreme Governor of the Church of England, during whose services I pray for her every week.
These prayers, dating from the sixteenth century but still in use in more traditionalist churches, are interesting and profound. Addressing the Almighty as “the only ruler of princes who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth,” we ask him to “strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies,” which is perhaps a bit severe for modern sensibilities. We also politely request the Lord God of Hosts to “so rule the heart of thy chosen servant, Elizabeth, our Queen and Governor that she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory; and that we and all her subjects (duly considering whose authority she hath) may faithfully serve, honour and humbly obey her.”
It is the subversive nature of these prayers, especially the parts in parentheses, that keeps me in the monarchist camp. I am amazed that they are still used at all, given how sharply they differ from the democratic consensus and the Gettysburg view that government of, by, and for an equal people is what we all strive for. The clear implication of these petitions is that the monarch is not equal to everyone else but has been appointed by God—and it is for that reason that we owe her our obedience. This appeals to me. I think the cornerstone of civilized government is the supremacy of law over power, and I cannot see how that supremacy can be maintained unless you specifically summon God into your constitution by something like the English coronation rite. For if the law is not “registered in Heaven,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, why should powerful men fear to disobey it?
The Crown of St Edward, surmounted by the Cross of Christ, still hangs on the walls of English courtrooms, adorns the banknotes, appears on official seals and documents, and gleams on the cap badges of the police and the armed forces as the ultimate symbol of authority in our country. These survivals hint reassuringly at a much deeper origin of power, legitimacy, and law than the ballot box that ostensibly decides our national fate. The British traveller to North America, when he crosses the Canadian border, is often comforted by the similar presence of the same Crown. I certainly am. In fact it makes the journey southward to the Great Republic feel like a leap into a sort of void, a void of freedom so endless and unrestrained that it is alarming.
That deep, ancient compact of Crown, law, and God still lurks diffidently in various corridors and corners of our government, and in many of its long and so far unbroken habits. It is decaying and under attack, but it is still there. The principles of civil service neutrality and non-political justice owe much to it. One day it may be important if someone decides to refuse what he thinks is an unlawful order, an act made easier if the government servant’s ultimate loyalty is to the Crown rather than to his bureaucratic or elected chief.
But mainly, these days, the monarchy serves to keep our elected politicians away from the grander, more majestic accoutrements and signs of power. We obey these politicians, and the laws they make, in a grudging sort of way. But we do not usually love or much respect them. They do not, unlike the president of the USA, attempt to embody the country, and this gives us a much greater freedom to criticize them at times of crisis, or if necessary defy their unlawful orders. I think we would revolt if any of our elected leaders bought themselves an equivalent of Air Force One, or insisted on a band playing “Hail to the Chief,” or something similar, as they walked into the room.
The monarch, stripped of all ancient direct power, is now remarkably like the king on a chessboard—almost incapable of offensive action, but preventing others from occupying a crucial square and those around it.
But what a difficult task this is. I doubt if any human being can now bear the responsibilities of this office: to be silent when you wish to speak, inactive when you wish to act, polite without exception to all your subjects and all your prime ministers. Nor can I see how, in an age when the laws of God are largely scorned, we can realistically expect many in the next generation of princes and princesses to adhere to the rules of Christian marriage, which is both the constitution of private life and the key to all the laws we have. In its subjection of immediate desire to lasting love, it neatly encapsulates the whole principle under which we are governed. Yet who, unless they were brought up in chilly houses, expected to eat austere meals to the last morsel, made to write thank-you letters for every gift, subjected to brisk walks in wind and rain, could ever cope with the public or private demands of monarchy? The Queen, who is now 93, no doubt had such an upbringing. But hardly anyone else living has experienced it.
Her reign must, alas, eventually end. When it does, why not pay the remaining royal figures generous pensions and allow them to slip away into the private lives so many of them crave but cannot lead? Why not have a monarchy, but no monarch? Why not select an elderly, unambitious, self-effacing Regent, close to the end of his or her days, to preside over ceremonies and hand out medals? I offer this as a serious solution. For if we continue as we are, the strain between what we want our kings to be, and what they actually are, will prove too great and we will tumble, accidentally, into becoming a republic.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.