Commentary Magazine


Re: Are Americans Royalist Saps?

Jonathan doesn’t seem to think much of the Americans who got out of bed early to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on Friday morning. Well, I was one of them and I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.

I don’t believe in the divine right of kings (and neither does anybody else, that’s a red herring of cetacean proportions). I couldn’t care less about “celebrities.” I don’t even read People Magazine while standing in line at the checkout counter. (Indeed, at my age, I often haven’t the faintest idea who the supposed celebrities on the covers of those magazines are.) I don’t want the Queen restored to the rule of those lands her great great great great grandfather lost in 1776. I am a loyal and proud citizen of the Great Republic those lands became.

But I do care about the British monarchy. I care about its long and wonderful history, so intertwined with that of the country it symbolizes as to be inseparable from it. That was not just a handsome young man getting married on Friday. That was, in a very real sense, England getting married, that sceptered isle, that green and pleasant land who saved the world in 1940 by being British, not rational.

And that, of course, is what intellectuals object to about monarchy in general and the British monarchy in particular. It’s not “rational” to vest the office of head of state in a family, and therefore, in a breathtaking leap of illogic, it shouldn’t be so vested. To be sure, no one establishing a government for Britain today would do so. But no one ever established a British government at all. Instead, it evolved over the course of a thousand years and thus is shot through with accidents of history. The most prominent of those accidents is the monarchy. And the British would have to be very irrational indeed to abolish it, which is why they won’t.

Democracies are almost all patterned on either the American model, in which the office of head of state is combined with the executive authority, who serves for a limited time, or the British model, in which the two offices are separated and the head of state is either a monarch or a president. Neither has any political power whatever. But while presidents in parliamentary democracies are nonentities whom no one has ever heard of (quick: who is the President of Germany? I don’t know either), Elizabeth II is known throughout the world. When she travels, people come out in the tens of thousands in hopes of catching a glimpse of her. Why? Because she’s a queen, a real queen. That gives Britain an enormous national asset at practically no cost.

This is not because of today’s celebrity culture. In 1859 when the future Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, came to the United States—the first member of the royal family to do so—his reception was something beyond ecstatic, as people rich and poor turned out to catch a glimpse of a prince. Intellectuals may not like it, but people have a deep, atavistic attraction to royalty. Instead of anathematizing it as irrational, they might consider trying to understand why that it is. “It shouldn’t be, therefore it doesn’t have to be” is an intellectual conceit that cost humankind dear in the 20th century as intellectuals tried to force people into molds they did not and would not fit.

So of course I got up early, settled down in an easy chair with a cup of coffee, and watched along with one third of the human race, as Prince William claimed his beautiful bride amid the sort of pomp-and-circumstance ceremony that only the British can pull off.

That wasn’t “monarchist flummery,” as Jonathan wrote. It was, to use Walter Bagehot’s term, magic.