Queen Elizabeth: Defining constitutional monarchies

10 Sep 2022 07:40am
November 18, 2009, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip leave the Houses of Parliament after the annual State Opening of Parliament in London. (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE / AFP)
November 18, 2009, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip leave the Houses of Parliament after the annual State Opening of Parliament in London. (Photo by TOBY MELVILLE / AFP)

Until I started watching The Crown on TV, I didn’t know a thing about British royalty, nor did I care to. Whatever I know about the royal family basically begins from there.

There must be thousands of obituaries, memorials, retrospectives and so on that have been and will be written. It is vanity to think I can add all that significantly to that body of work. If you want a recommendation with regards to a fairly balanced tribute, the Netflix series is itself a pretty good summary.

All I will say on that front is that the Queen was an imperfect, flawed, and absolutely remarkable person.

This article will focus mostly on her impact and influence on the concept of monarchy, and constitutional monarchy in particular.

Monarchy is quite a fascinating, multifaceted subject. Its roots are entirely political, but over the centuries and millenia, a great deal of romance has grown to surround the concept.

Words like emperor, king, queen, prince, princess all have a dramatic and mythical aura about them.

Allow me to patch together two quotes from the movie Unforgiven, concerning the assasination of American President James Garfield spoken by the fictional character English Bob:

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“Again, I don't wish to give offense when I suggest this country select......a king or even a queen, rather than a president. One isn't that quick to shoot a king or a queen. The majesty of royalty, you see.

“A majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shake as though palsied... the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand... how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president... well I mean... why not shoot a president?”

It is possible we underestimate how big a role this mythical aura, perpetrated by countless fairy tales over time, has played in ensuring the continuity of an institution that is - when you really sit down and think of it - if not altogether strange, then perhaps at the very least, counter-intuitive.

The general essence of monarchy is hereditary political power that is passed down through descendents.

Of course, in Star Wars, Queen Amidala seems to have been elected, but that is well, Star Wars. As far as I know there are no democratically elected ‘monarchs’ in the world, and semantically speaking, that might be a contradiction in terms.

So the question is of course, is birthright a wise way to select or ensure a good ruler?

I suppose the vast majority of countries in the world today have answered ‘no’ to this question.

Quite a number of countries have thus decided to do away with monarchies completely, and become republics - some doing so with great passion (and no small number of beheadings).

The UK of course took a different route.

Wikipedia tells us that the earliest instance of what likely qualifies as a constitutional monarchy was probably the Hitties in the Bronze Age around 14th century BC.

That’s very long ago. It may be more useful to date the modern concept of a constitutional monarchy to England, beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215, and being developed further after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 with the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Acts of Settlement 1701.

These developments basically placed restrictions on power on what was once an absolute monarchy. In an absolute monarchy - such as still practiced in a small handful of countries today - the monarch has absolute power; in a constitutional monarchy, the monarch’s power is limited and defined by the constitution and the law.

There is a general consensus that absolute monarchy is not the way to go in this day and age.

So countries that had monarchies generally decided between eliminating the institution altogether, or trying to get the best of both worlds by maintaining the institution, but reducing (sometimes to the point of zero) the political power accorded to the monarch.

It is important for us to differentiate between theory and practice, when it comes to constitutional monarchy.

The theory is fairly sound. I have some sympathies for those who do seem to find the concept of any monarchy at all to be somewhat anachronistic.

That said, I can conceivably accept that on the condition that it is done absolutely properly with everyone playing their roles 100 per cent by the book, a constitutional monarchy can indeed add value to a nation.

Of course, the operative section of the preceding paragraph is in its qualifier.

Long story short, around the world, there are probably any number of constitutional monarchs who do not completely play by the rules.

When this happens, this generates severe public outcry and significantly shapes public perception towards the monarchy.

In a worst case scenario, when such behaviour continues to grow unchecked, a transition to become a republic becomes more and more likely. It is possible that some monarchs in the world do not recognise how far along this path they are.

On the flip side, there are monarchs who have a deep, and unwavering commitment to doing everything by the book, exactly as constitutional monarchy was designed.

I would argue that Britain’s longest reigning monarch was perhaps the most famous example of this.

Again, I must make the qualifier that most of my opinion on this is shaped by the afore mentioned TV series, which in no way can be guaranteed to be more fact that fiction.

That said, I do feel the series creators took considerable efforts to try and capture the essence of Elizabeth’s life, and her convictions.

Chief among these was the idea of how a monarch should behave, and how they should discharge their duties.

A formidable and formative influence on Elizabeth’s concept of how a monarch should conduct themselves was of course the abdication of her uncle King Edward.

A recurring theme in The Crown was the idea that this abdication nearly caused the collapse of an entire monarchy. Elizabeth also ascended the throne at a time when monarchies in Europe were in decline.

The series features a fictional letter written by Elizabeth’s grandmother to her, upon her ascension:

“Dearest Lilibet, I know how you loved your papa, my son. And I know you will be as devastated as I am by this loss. But you must put those sentiments to one side now, for duty calls. The grief for your father's death will be felt far and wide. Your people will need your strength and leadership. I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else. Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the crown must win. Must always win.”

There is indeed a sense that the collapse of said monarchies, and the trauma of her uncle’s abdication instilled Elizabeth with a certain fervor with regards to the proper execution of her duties.

At the core of this proper execution was a true and deep understanding of the concept and role of a constitutional monarch.

First among these was a separation between what Walter Bagehot (who wrote the book The English Constitution in 1867) called the dignified and the efficient.

He theorised that the role of the government (the efficient) led by elected representatives was the running of the country, with all its attendant politics.

The role of the monarch (the dignified) was to stay completely above politics, leaving the business of politics to the government with essentially zero power or influence as to any government decisions whatsoever.

Of course completely zero influence whatsoever is by any stretch difficult to imagine. But the true concept of constitutional monarchy calls for that influence to be as close to zero as humanly possible.

It calls for remaining truly 100 per cent aloof and detached from political concerns, no matter what one’s own convictions or opinions may be. In the TV series, they frequently discuss the challenge of having to ‘do nothing’, no matter what their opinions or strong feelings may be - simply because that is the proper role of a constitutional monarch.

The demands of playing this role in the way that it is designed - in order to provide a branch of government that embodies dignity and provides a unique form of check and balance - is so particular and rigid that some might consider it basically too superhuman for any one human to actually do.

Perhaps Elizabeth’s greatest achievement, and greatest legacy, is showing the world that this task can in fact be performed by a human.

We must of course dedicate some words to Elizabeth’s imperfections. No human is perfect, that is for sure.

Her controversies might arguably include a failure to truly make sufficient amends for Britain’s colonial legacy; questions about impropriety surrounding her personal wealth (including some details revealed in the Panama papers); and most recently, whether she played a role in protecting her son Prince Andrew from incidences involving Jeffrey Epstein.

These controversies and others should be examined closely and fairly as we make our overall historical assessment of Elizabeth’s life.

That said, I still believe that Elizabeth’s "career" has had a profound impact on the question of whether constitutional monarchies add or detract value from a country.

Her positive personality, personal dignity, and, ultimately, painfully exacting sense of professionalism were all things that she as an individual brought to the job.

The manner in which she has done so has greatly influenced what people think is and isn’t possible with regards to a constitutional monarchy.

I would certainly be the last to suggest aping our former colonial masters in any way; but one sometimes cannot help but think that the more constitutional monarchs practice this professionalism, the more likely we are to ensure the longevity of the constitutional monarchies as an institution.

Monarchs who behave contrarily (for example, through excessive interference in politics or abuse of power) are conversely probably more likely to bring about the opposite outcome.

In marking Elizabeth’s passing, we do not overlook or whitewash her vices; as with all people, this does not mean we cannot learn from her virtues - virtues such as devotion to duty, patriotism, treating people with respect, and dignity.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: [email protected] #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.