May 20, 2005


Long Live the Queen: She Still Matters — Britain's flexible democracy rests on the throne (David Gelernter, 5/20/05, Jewish World Review)

Whether or not you warm to the queen, you should understand the institution. But don't expect the British to explain it to you. They have a history of obfuscation.

The 19th century English journalist Walter Bagehot got things rolling. He wrote that the monarchy's "mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic." (It's just too wonderful to explain; so don't ask.)

Modern Britons are less reverent but they harp on the same theme: The monarchy's main business is entertaining the public. Britons don't like talking (or thinking?) about its role in British government.

But, in fact, the queen's main business is not to wow tourists; it is to exude stability. She helps the government seem stable so it can be turbulent without worrying anybody (too much). Ordinarily, stability and flexibility work against each other. The monarchy lets them coexist.

Take Prime Minister Tony Blair, newly reelected: He is entitled to a five-year term. But whenever he likes, he can dissolve Parliament, call an election and get himself another five years. There are no lame-duck PMs: Blair is not term-limited. And if he should lose interest or popularity, he can hand his job to the colleague he chooses whenever he pleases.

Of course, the House of Commons can dissolve him too, can force his resignation whenever it wants. His own party can do the same. And in a national unity government (like the one during World War II), the PM can gather all major parties into the Cabinet, creating a new super party that can claim allegiance from its members in Parliament and endorse candidates in elections.

This extraordinary flexibility works well because of the queen. She is the ballast that helps keep the ship of state from capsizing no matter how much goofing around takes place on deck. (No need for ballast to be brilliant or exciting.) It's a law of organization that VPs come and go, but the top dog's disappearance makes the organization stagger.

That decapitated feeling is no good for a nation's mood or currency or economy. But with the soothingly familiar queen always on duty, Britons generally feel stable. And the feeling of great stability permits the reality of great flexibility. That is the monarchy's invaluable contribution.

Many nations try for the same benefits by electing a ceremonial president to a long term. But the queen has no party background; no one's ever voted for or against her; her term goes on and on. In comparison, a ceremonial president is a mere hopped-up politician. Britain's constitutional monarchy is like Queen Elizabeth: seems inscrutable; works beautifully. But let's not trade in our republic.

A monarch would actually perfect the Republic, one whose sole duties were to be a final bulwark wielding veto power over legislation and Court rulings and a right to call new elections.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2005 10:50 AM

Belloc and Chesterton believed that the US President was a monarch.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 20, 2005 10:54 AM

He's a member of a political party.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 10:57 AM

This isn't the stupidest thing I've ever heard, but it's definately the stupidest thing you've ever said. It's even worse than your usual pro-monarchy posting, as now you're arguing that the monarch should be given actual power. For someone so generally intelligent, and often quite inciteful, and who puts such a emphasis on the Declaration of Independence, it's just astonishing that you so badly misunderstand both the Declaration and American history.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 20, 2005 11:22 AM

and often quite inciteful

Freudian slip or cunning pun?

Nice point, though, Jim: it hadn't occurred to me that Bush is the Queen, not the PM. Except that the Queen doesn't have real power these days...

Posted by: Mike Earl at May 20, 2005 11:36 AM

How does this differ from that "old faithful" benevolent dictator? Imagine Donald Trump as king or Paris Hilton as Queen. (way things are going it will probably be Jennifer Lopez)

Posted by: h-man at May 20, 2005 11:41 AM


'Tis not that he understands the Declaration less, but that he understands the future of the Bush family more.

Good eye, Mike.

Posted by: Peter B at May 20, 2005 11:46 AM

There's no better guarantor of the rights in the Declaration than a monarchical constitutional republic. Note that it is only a power to say "no" to change. Very conservative.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 12:11 PM


The dictator doesn't get to dictate anything, just act as a brake on change.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 12:22 PM

I nominate The Manolo for the job.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at May 20, 2005 12:23 PM

Not that anyone is paying much attention, but closeby we get to see how such a Constitutional Monarchy would work in practice. So, you royalists, why is Her Majesty, the Queen of Canada, who is actually in country this week, allowing Paul Martin and Friends to violate the "unwritten constitution" in spirit if not in fact? In part because she's defering to her Governour General, who is a political toady and rubber stamp. But the real reason is that a figurehead is a figurehead, and she knows it.

And I like the excuse of "B.C. just had an election" as the reason for not calling a national one now. In a few months, Martin just has to get one of his cronies in another province to do likewise, and Canada can have a rolling excuse for keeping him around for years.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 20, 2005 1:23 PM

"Britain's flexible democracy rests on the throne," meaning the sceptered isle is in the toilet ... again.

Posted by: Genecis at May 20, 2005 1:35 PM

oj - When the old king dies, can the Democrats filibuster the appointment of a new king?

Posted by: pj at May 20, 2005 2:01 PM

H.D. et al.:

And speaking of The Manolo.

Posted by: Peter B at May 20, 2005 2:11 PM


McCain & Lieberman will save us.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 2:27 PM


There seems little indication that anyone wants a new election in Canada or is dissatisfied with the current government.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 2:33 PM

Mike: Definitely a cunning pun. Definitely. Now that, um, you've pointed it out.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 20, 2005 2:42 PM

What's the Manolo's position on man-dates tho?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 20, 2005 3:28 PM


Exactly why I nominated him for king. He's obviously a Eurosceptic.

Posted by: H. D. Miller at May 20, 2005 3:39 PM

OJ: Jim in Chicago is right. The President is a monarch and a fairly powerful one at that. Monarchs have often been elected. The Doge of Venice, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Papacy were (and in the case of the Papcy is) all elected monarchs.

What the President's term and powers should be are open to debate. However, the American Constitution has worked fairly well up to now and I would be loath to change it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 20, 2005 5:19 PM

The People -- in the abstract, not the actual physical people -- are king or, as we prefer, sovereign. The president is the king's evil minister.

HD -- I have to say that I really did think you were nominating him for Queen.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 20, 2005 5:26 PM


The president is a partisan who comes and goes with the political winds. A monarch's sole interest is his country.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 5:32 PM


A monarchy is not possible in a system premised on the innate equality of all before the law. The president serves as an elected monarch for a limited term. What more could you possibly want? Hereditary titles and nobility? Very un-American.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 20, 2005 9:50 PM

Kings can be subjected to the law.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2005 9:54 PM

More from The Manolo for all us Brothersjudd Europhiles.

Posted by: Peter B at May 21, 2005 7:01 AM

Here we call it elections and a four year term which assumed that the precedent set by our first elected monarch would be voluntarily honored over time. Kings have courts populated by nobility with hereditary priveledge based on a class structure. The thing that makes America what it is (and confounds the Marxists) is our fluid and classless system.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 21, 2005 9:22 AM

Sometimes I could wish our system wasn't quite so classless.

As for OJ's argument, I refute it thus.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 21, 2005 10:53 AM


Making for a natural aristocracy. That works too. But you need a king.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 11:03 AM

Our natural aristocracy, formerly known as the senate, has spent a good amount time and effort over the last 60 years or so, attempting to create a class of citizens dependent on the state. A powerful, albeit elected, monarch put the process in motion. The British system allowed the experirement to go even further. Where would you rather be?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 21, 2005 11:16 AM

That's what an ariustocracy does, control the votes of others. You chose this sort of aristocracy over the superior sort. Too late to whine now.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 11:21 AM

Whining? It's the nature of things I note rather than some ideal. Idealism gives us 'living constituionalism', a very British and elitist concept. By the way, your posting on Burke is not taking comments. Burke makes the case that America didn't seperate from Great Britain, they left us, taking their version of monarchy with them.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 21, 2005 11:36 AM

But the presidency turned out to be a pretty weak institution, no check on populist whim.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 11:55 AM

Weaker than the monarchy has become? Baloney.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 21, 2005 12:23 PM

Weaker than the monarchy was--he'd be horrified at what they've done to the monarchy and, as bad, the House of Lords.

Posted by: oj at May 21, 2005 1:16 PM

"The president is a partisan who comes and goes with the political winds. A monarch's sole interest is his country."

Rubbish. A monarch is a man with the same self interest and blind spots as any other man. Every political system has politics and and parties. Every monarch has a party -- the court party. It is part of human nature.

Deal with it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 21, 2005 4:54 PM