Two Elizabeths: The monarchy in a democracy

The first Elizabeth, who died just the other day after a 70-year reign, was, of course, the Queen of the United Kingdom. The second Elizabeth is new British Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose full name is Mary Elizabeth Truss. The late British monarch’s final performance of her official function as constitutional head of state was to personally receive the younger Elizabeth at her residence and formally appoint her as the country’s prime minister.

Nothing could have more vividly portrayed the largely ceremonial role of the monarchy in a modern democracy than this occasion. The queen had no actual participation in the selection of Ms. Truss as the next head of Her Majesty’s government. It is no small irony that, as a student leader at Oxford University, Liz Truss once called for the abolition of the British monarchy at a conference of the Liberal Democratic Party.

She probably no longer holds that view. Brought up in a left-leaning household, she entered politics as a member of the Conservative Party, and has been compared with the iron-willed Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister. Liz Truss has held key positions under various Conservative governments, including Lord Chancellor, the first female to hold that position.

It is perhaps a simplification to say that the British monarch’s role in state affairs is purely symbolic. For indeed, the powers it wields are constitutional and real. But so constrained by parliamentary laws is the exercise of these powers that they may well be regarded as ceremonial.

The function of the monarchy in a modern democracy resides primarily in the imagined relationship between the royal family and the people. By standing above the day-to-day issues that consume politicians and ordinary mortals, the queen or king is able to personify the unity of the kingdom, its stability and continuity, and the compassion that binds the monarchy to its subjects.

On her coronation day in June 1953, the 25-year-old Elizabeth addressed her subjects thus: “I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.” As vital as that trust was in a world that was just starting to emerge from the horrors and devastation of World War II, maintaining it had not always proven to be an easy one.

Like any family in modern society, the royal family could not always keep the veneer of unity and stability that, in their case, was essential to the role they were expected to play. The breakup of the marriage of her eldest son and successor Prince Charles to the charismatic Princess Diana, in the face of repeated infidelities, and the tragic death of the latter in a car accident in Paris placed the British royal family under brutal scrutiny by an increasingly unsympathetic media. It is a testament to Queen Elizabeth’s resilient grace and the British public’s enduring affection and respect for her that the royal family managed to weather those turbulent years.

But how long will Britain be able to resist the tide of republicanism? Every time members of the royal family figure in ugly controversies, anti-monarchists find more reason to question the wisdom of subsidizing the upkeep of a family whose own private wealth makes it among the wealthiest in the world.

Surveys showed that for as long as Elizabeth was queen, republicanism stood little chance of gaining ground. As Graham Smith, head of the campaign group Republic, put it in a Reuters report: “The queen is the monarchy for most people. After she dies the future of the institution is in serious jeopardy. Charles may inherit the throne, but he won’t inherit the deference and respect afforded the queen.”

This is an interesting phenomenon. I suppose it applies to all constitutional monarchies in the modern world. Unlike in the past, sheer tradition no longer suffices to confer authority on individuals born into royalty. They must continually earn it through quiet acts of compassion, wisdom, restraint, and effusive celebration of the virtues and achievements of ordinary people.

We see this everywhere in societies that have retained a version of the monarchy in their modern constitutional governments. The deference is no longer automatic. The younger royalty find that they must struggle to earn the legitimacy that their elders took for granted as part of their birthright. Many opt to give up their royal titles and the perks and privileges that go with them.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw this trend as early as the closing years of the 19th century. “Poor reigning princes!” he exclaimed in a passage that may well refer to the current situation of Britain’s Prince Charles (now King Charles III) and his brothers Andrew and Edward. “All of their rights are suddenly changing into claims, and all these claims begin to sound like presumption. Even if they only say ‘We’ or ‘my people,’ malicious old Europe begins to smile. Surely, a chief master of ceremonies in the modern world would waste little ceremony on them and might well decree: ‘les souverains rangent aux parvenus’ (Sovereigns belong with parvenus).”