How does a constitutional monarchy justify itself within the framework of a twenty-first century democratic state? With the British Queen now 91 years old, expect this question to be re-emerge in the not-too-distant future. For many observers, there can no longer be a justification. The contradictions are too great between our system, with its claims of equality for all, versus a ruling family in power by accident of birth. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense brilliantly laid bare the absurdities of monarchical claims and privilege, and the broad trajectory of western civilization has been anti-monarchical ever sense.
In recent years, certain corners of the internet have witnessed the peculiar and imaginative musing of neo-reactionary Jacobites. Fantasies of absolute monarchy or of dynasty last in power 330 years ago may make for escapist musings for eccentrics. But what about for the vast majority of us who, for all democracy’s faults, believe in Churchill’s dictum that it is the worst system except for all the others? Is it possible for democrats today to logically believe in a constitutional monarchy? For Americans, the re-imposition of a monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, would be absurd and unwanted. But for citizens of the Commonwealth like myself, not only is it possible for democrats to support constitutional monarchy, but it also carries with it a particular virtue our society desperately needs: ideological tolerance.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote:
“There is [in our democratic society] a general agreement about the most fundamental political principles, and therefore doubts about them have no status. In aristocracies there was also the party of the people, but in democracy there is no aristocratic party. This means that there is no protection for the opponents of the governing principles as well as no respectability for them.”
Bloom correctly observed that democratic ideals tend to lead us toward a certain degree of intellectual conformity. There cannot be any respectable person that does not hold with them. I myself am a firm believer in democracy and in its demonstrable merits relative to other systems, but I also recognize much truth in Bloom’s claim. In the modern world, all regimes carry with them particular ideologies, enforced with varying degrees of rigidity in schools, media and popular culture. Democracies are no different in this respect, though both the type and severity of their enforcement are far more benign and relaxed than in other regime types.
Nevertheless, democracy’s fundamental premise of “equality” has seen a slow but relentless expansion, particularly in recent decades, in pursuit of a certain type of “equality”, frequently informed by neo-Marxists, which is held to be a good preferable to all others. In education, for example, equality has come in practice to mean the elimination of most of the canon – once taught to top students – in favour of works conformist mandarins deem as “accessible” or “relevant” to all. Even our history appears at times to contain little of value, except where it may be mined for fodder in the fight for “equality.”
To be clear, our society should unquestionably implement measures to level the playing field, with the most obvious being free and universal public education. There can also be no tolerance for the cancer of racism, an irrational prejudice that would deny equality and dignity for arbitrary reasons. But it is reasonable to observe that many projects aimed at “equality” may be sacrificing treasures for magic beans, or to put it more neutrally, may not be achieving what they set out to do. It is also reasonable to wonder whether democratic regimes may be pushing us further and further down a particular ideological path. This is still not quite Soviet Lysenkoism, but still worth considering.
This is where constitutional monarchy affords some ideological breathing space. Instead of insisting that the entire state conform to utopian visions of equality, the constitutional monarchist broadly acknowledges the superiority of democracy as a mechanism to govern the polis and loves the freedom that it brings, but still allows for some areas of non-conformity within even the symbols and institutions of the state. It is a counterweight, however small, to plutocracy, technocracy, and utopian radicalism. It is certainly more human than any of these things.
Constitutional monarchy is a frank acknowledgement of human nature, which is not wholly rational. It is admittedly inherently Burkean, knowing that it is the product of centuries of democratic evolution and that there is no guarantee that whatever replaced it would be better. It acknowledges some space for tradition in a world that is being rapidly changed (in many respects for the better) by technology and global integration. It admires the stability constitutional monarchy has afforded the UK vis-à-vis almost every other land on earth. It loves democracy and its institutions, but is suspicious of demands for ideological purity. And so, I personally have little faith that, if the monarchy were tomorrow abolished in my country of Canada, its replacement would change our society for the better.
Does constitutional monarchy still bring with it questions of unearned privilege, of snotty-nosed Etonians looking down on the plebs from a world of unearned privilege? Yes, even in 2017 it does, and this is perhaps the least palatable side of the institution. But at least this unpleasant characteristic is frank and widely understood, comes with obligations, and is not hidden beneath a hypocritical veneer of classlessness as may increasingly be the case in the USA.
Naturally it would be absurd to desire the imposition of constitutional monarchies in states which are now republics. This would be reaction, an absurd imposition opposed to the national character of most republics, and would only mean the weakening of democracy. Nor would an expansion of royal power in constitutional monarchies be remotely desirable. However, for citizens of the Commonwealth states, supporting the existing democratic monarchies as a bulwark against the excesses of our regimes is the moderate position. When the inevitable question of republicanism arises after the current British queen passes, Commonwealth citizens should be aware of the tolerant, patchwork character of what they now have, and look upon demands for monarchy’s abolition with a healthy skepticism of why and what that might mean.