John O’Sullivan in Re: Re: God Save the Queen, I Guess
To judge by the number of approving responses, the small civil war that has broken out on the Corner over monarchy is being won hands-down by Kevin Williamson, whose dislike of titles of privilege is so comprehensive that he denounces even the humble Esq. Both Charlie Cooke and I are vulnerable to attack on this topic, though for different reasons. Charlie is eagerly building his American bona fides and so can’t afford to be seen as “soft on monarchism,” not with such vigilant republicans as Kevin and Commenter RonRob keeping watch. (Charlie, I should cut back on any casual praise for Hamilton around the office if I were you.) As for me, I actually have a title — not the Dukedom that Kevin casually confers on me, alas, but a CBE, which is not that many notches above Esq. So I am open to the charge of venal toadying, of which I must be guilty over a long career, I suppose, but not on this topic. Yet RonRoB sees me as a sinister ideological force. Responding to my Corner post in which I criticized British republicans for their attacks on the Queen’s Jubilee, he asks why I don’t “stop visiting . . . the ‘republican’ United States of America” and just get back to non-republican Britain since obviously I “hate everything this country stands for.”
Well, not everything; not very much, in fact; not even republicanism as such. My critique dealt specifically with British republicanism in the context of the weekend’s Jubilee celebrations. If American monarchists were to demonstrate in favor of replacing a new president with Queen Elizabeth on Inauguration Day, I promise that I would be at least as critical of them as of the noisy Brits.
Charlie outlined the differences between U.S. and British republicanisms very clearly. Here’s my own summary: American republicanism is a constitutional tradition emerging from American history; British republicanism is a rebellion against Britain’s main constitutional tradition. The reason that this rebellion is likely to fare less well than 1776 is that there’s much less to rebel against. As Charlie said, quoting Bagehot, Britain’s constitutional monarchy might be equally well described as a “disguised republic.” I prefer the phrase “crowned republic.” But the point is that both constitutions have checks and balances. Both have been tested by time and crisis and proved their worth. They are astonishingly successful, stable, and well-rooted in the affection of their peoples As regards the United States, this is demonstrated by contrast with the longevity of other republics, notably the French Republic, now on its fifth constitution since 1789. I will let the Jubilee argue that point for me as regards Britain.
So I admire American republicanism and I have no general prejudice against republicanism. Indeed, as an abstract doctrine, it is probably better than its rivals. It is certainly easier to explain. As the history of republics shows, however, the best abstract doctrines come to grief when unsuited to actual historical circumstances. And as Burke said: “Circumstances give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”
That said, my skepticism of republican ideas in the British context is moderate. It’s rooted in the above argument that political reforms work better when they follow the grain of historical experience. Reforms based on republicanism would mean grafting institutions from a different tradition onto the British constitution. It might just work, but the odds are against it. Its best prospect of success is that it be reached by a long and winding route of gradual change. Republicans are entitled to propose such ideas nonetheless and, if they can persuade their fellow citizens, to get them adopted in law. Last weekend several republican writers wryly regretted their failure to win over Britain to their views. They conceded, however, that it would be churlish not to thank Elizabeth II for six decades of unstinting service to the country simply because they happen to prefer different constitutional arrangements. Meanwhile, they didn’t want to rain on the Queen’s parade and the evident enjoyment of her people. I have no complaint with them.
My ire was directed at those republicans who responded to the Jubilee with scarcely disguised hatred of the Monarch and contempt for her people allegedly dazzled by the tinsel of Royal ceremony. Brendan O’Neill, the post-Marxist Daily Telegraph blogger (yes, it’s an odd world), himself a republican, has collected a virtual album of snobbish dismissals of ordinary Brits for enjoying the Jubilee. They are said to be exhibiting “infantile emotions,” “tugging their forelocks,” swallowed up in “an orgy of deference,” diverted from serious issues by “pleb-pleasing distractions,” and “brainwashed on an Orwellian scale.” O’Neill points out that if these insults were valid, they would constitute a strong argument against republicanism which ultimately rests on the consent of the people and thus on respect for popular judgment. They are expressions of leftist and anarchist rage directed less at the Queen than at the British nation for disappointing their hopes over so many issues and so many decades.
And that brings me back to Citizen Williamson. I share his distrust of titles and their multiplication in the Federal Republic. One of the attractive features of original republicanism is the austere simplicity of its ceremonial public events which in its way is as impressive as the gaudy playing-card rituals of monarchy. But I fear he is swimming upstream against a clear current of human nature. People like giving and getting titles — and keeping them too. When a prime minister resigns, he is no longer addressed as “Prime Minister” (except when visiting the U.S.) An American president borrows his nominal longevity from the Catholic Church . . . once a president, always a president. Nor do I see much likelihood that Kevin will persuade even the most original constitutionalists that the President is merely Bureaucrat Number One rather than Head of State and Commander in Chief. He and George Will may succeed in preventing Caesaropapism from expanding much further. But these things are now a done deal.
Here is perhaps one area where the British have hit upon a solution that might satisfy Kevin’s concern. By dividing the Head of State from the head of government, by making the House of Lords subordinate to the House of Commons, by giving the grandest titles to retired politicians rather than to active contenders for power, the British constitution keeps the efficient machinery of power (aka jacks-in-office) in its place. It is the almost impotent Queen — her most important power as constitutional umpire is exercised about once every 30 years when a constitutional crisis occurs — who is lifted above the multitudes in splendor. Her prime minister scurries about behind the scenes in a dull suit or in public follows behind ten minor court officials in order of precedence. He is put in the place where Kevin thinks presidents ought to be placed.
That was something Tony Blair hated and constantly tried to subvert (with his usual lack of historical and constitutional grasp). This division between the “dignified” and the “efficient” makes it easier to combine national unity with partisan warfare. The monarch provides national unity; the prime advances an inevitably contentious political program. The country is divided and united simultaneously. And a title means not power but its absence.
I cite myself.