The Magazine

The Reign Explained

An argument for Britain’s constitutional monarchy.

Jul 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 40 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Monarchy Matters

Queen Elizabeth II

Getty Images

by Peter Whittle

Social Affairs Unit, 91 pp., $52.10

In the middle of May, Queen Elizabeth arrived in Ireland, the first British monarch to do so since the Emerald Isle became a republic in 1922. Royal visits tend to be symbolic affairs—with the sovereign visiting health clinics, greeting well-wishers, laying wreaths at war memorials—and this one featured all the typical fare. Yet the queen’s journey to Ireland, a onetime component of the United Kingdom, whose six northern counties are still part of the U.K. and the cause of much violence in recent decades, was redolent of something more than symbolism. At a banquet in Dublin, she articulated a message of unity in the way that only a monarch—who, by virtue of her station, sits above the give-and-take of everyday politics—can do: “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past,” she said, “I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all.”

Spoken by Elizabeth II, these words were probably more meaningful to the Irish than had they come from, say, David Cameron. For as even the most strident of Irish republicans could attest, the queen’s trip was more than a series of ribbon-cuttings and photo ops. Even Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Army’s political arm, Sinn Féin, told the BBC that the visit of the British sovereign was “sincere .  .  . a page in a book, and we need to write the next page and the next page and keep the process moving on.” Not long ago, of course, the BBC would have been prevented from airing Adams’s voice. That Gerry Adams would praise the British queen in an interview with the BBC is a symbol not only of how less troublesome “the Troubles” have become since the Good Friday Agreement, but also of the queen’s unique and unparalleled role as Great Britain’s head of state.

Several weeks before her visit to Ireland, Elizabeth was occupied with another royal event: the wedding of Prince William to his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton. Given the pomp and circumstance surrounding the ceremony, it provided republicans with easy fodder to make their case against the Windsors in particular and constitutional monarchy in general. How could a modern, racially diverse, 21st-century democracy countenance such an old-fashioned, inherently aristocratic, institution? Well, as an estimated two billion television viewers worldwide attest, whatever practical power these arguments possess has little effect: People are fascinated by royalty, and the British value their constitutional monarchy—even as celebrations might have been dampened by the biting austerity measures instituted by the Tory/Liberal Democratic coalition.

A cost-benefit analysis of monarchy, however, is not what Peter Whittle concerns himself with in Monarchy Matters, a monograph in defense of the institution published by the Social Affairs Unit, a conservative British think tank. Republicans and monarchists can throw numbers at each other disputing how much tourist revenue the royal family draws, but constitutional monarchy is too important a component of British culture to be defended on the level of the pecuniary. It ought to stand or fall on its own merits as a system of democratic government. And even the most steadfast of American constitutional republicans will find Whittle’s case persuasive—certainly not as a formula for our own country, but as something that clearly works for Great Britain and the Commonwealth.

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