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Reciprocal control by monarchy

The Case For Monarchy, and Against Meghan

The British Royal Family. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Meghan Markle Affair is an occasion to restate the arguments for monarchy...

The French Revolution had only been going on for a year when Edmund Burke realised, in the summer of 1790, what was really happening. This was nothing similar to the 1688 Glorious Revolution in the British Isles, which had been about defending and reinforcing traditional liberties. Quite the contrary. The French Revolution was a rejection of limited government. It was an attempt to implement Rousseau’s fantasies about a General Will. It was, as Burke trenchantly observed ‘the preference of a despotic democracy to a government of reciprocal control’. Burke certainly conceded that in France reform was necessary. That was not the issue. ‘The absolute monarchy was at an end. It breathed its last, without a groan, without struggle, without convulsion,’ Burke noted, adding that a ‘state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.

The idea of reciprocal control is a crucial idea in Western philosophy, as I discuss in my recent book on Burke and 23 other conservative-liberal thinkers. Such reciprocal control obviously takes different forms in different situations. Burke elaborated on the appropriate British form in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, commenting that ‘instead of quarrelling with establishments, as some do, who have made a philosophy and a religion of their hostility to such institutions, we cleave closely to them. We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater.’

For Burke the aforementioned institutions were primarily means of establishing reciprocal control in society, not necessarily sacred in themselves, or supported by supernatural forces. They were the ‘little platoons’ or intermediate institutions standing between the individual and the state, civilising the former and restraining the latter. For example, whereas the established religion in Ireland might be Catholicism it would be Anglicanism in England. Again, an aristocracy would not need to be a closed caste. It could be a flexible and open institution welcoming people of merit into its ranks, turning an Austrian immigrant into Sir Karl Popper and rewarding an eminent statesman such as Margaret Thatcher with the title of Baroness.

Thus, Burke’s argument for an ‘established monarchy’ was not based on the divine rights of kings, but on stability, continuity and the division of powers and loyalties which all contribute to reciprocal control in society. Therefore the British crown should pass from one generation to another, instead of the king, or the queen, being in any way, directly or indirectly, elected or chosen by the population: For Burke it was crucial that the British monarchy had withstood the test of time. Other forms of government might however fit other nations and communities, for example his contemporaries in the Swiss Federation or in the city ­states of Northern Italy and Germany or in the newly established union of thirteen states on the other side of the North Atlantic.

However outdated and irrelevant monarchy may appear to many, it tends to instil in the general public a healthy respect for continuity. A head of state performs a symbolic function, staying out of controversy and speaking for the nation when it seems necessary and proper. It may be prudent to distinguish this role from that of a battle­scarred, elected leader of government. Perhaps those who happen to hold political power should not also enjoy the historical glory. Unlike Rousseau and the French Revolutionaries, Burke believed that there should be many sources of authority, not only one, and that monarchy could be one of them. Indeed, some of the freest and stablest regimes in Europe are monarchies, Great Britain, the three Scandinavian countries and the Benelux countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also all chosen to remain monarchies. Recall that it was the respect for royal authority which held a civilised Central Europe together under the Habsburgs and which enabled Spain to suppress a rebellion in 1981.   

Consider also two counter­factual cases from other continents. Brazil was a monarchy from 1822 to 1889, under the reign of two relatively liberal emperors. They enjoyed respect, but had limited power. The second one, Pedro II, was deposed by a military clique that was under the baleful influence of French positivism and found the monarchy obsolete. Since then Brazil has not been very stable politically, to put it mildly. Possibly, she might have been better off if the monarchy had been maintained, exercising some constraint on politicians and generals.

Again, during the British Raj India was an amalgamation of many political and cultural communities, some of which were ruled by princes, maharajahs, nizams and nawabs. They were largely left alone by the British. But after India was partitioned into two countries in 1947, India and Pakistan, mostly on religious lines and at an enormous cost in human lives, the princes of Hyderabad, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir and other Indian territories were replaced by elected politicians, many of them steeped in Fabian socialism. Since then, Pakistan, a totally artificial country, has split into two, with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971. Under their elected rulers, these three countries have not done nearly as well as some other former British territories overseas. In retrospect, would it not have been more prudent to respect the traditional regimes and boundaries of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps within a loose federation?

I should emphasise, again, that a conservative liberal like Burke would regard monarchy as a means of maintaining reciprocal control and reaffirming historical roots rather than as an absolute end in itself. It would fit some, not all. Compare two countries, Iceland and New Zealand. From 1262, Iceland had been a dependency, first of the Norwegian and then of the Danish king. In 1918, after peaceful and friendly negotiations she became a sovereign country in a personal union with Denmark. According to the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union, Denmark represented the tiny new country abroad and maintained what little defence she had. The Act was to be revised in 25 years. The consensus in Iceland was that as soon as the country could, she would repeal the Act of Union, and establish her own foreign service and somehow provide for her own defence. The question of the monarchy was hardly addressed during the next two decades. The interesting question is why Iceland eventually decided to break with the Danish king whereas New Zealand is still a monarchy with the queen as head of state. Why did the Icelanders not keep the monarchy?

The main answer lies, I would think, in the history that defines the nature of a nation. New Zealand was more or less settled from Great Britain (even if I am not forgetting the Maoris), and her culture is mainly British. Iceland’s ties to Denmark are more tenuous. We speak Icelandic, not Danish, and we were settled already in late ninth century mostly from Norway and the British Isles. When we broke with the Danish king, we were in effect returning to our roots: we had been a commonwealth without a king between 930 and 1262. Our intermediate institutions were our history, language and literature. We had no aristocracy and the Danish monarchy was distant and foreign. In other words: Different nations have different roots and different means of expressing, preserving and protecting their identity. Thus, in Iceland, I am a republican, while in England I would be a monarchist.

This brings me to the spectacle to which we have been subjected in the last few days. A young British prince and his American-born wife are venting their grievances about the rest of the royal family, using a television interview as the medium. From the outside, it looks like the couple have not much cause for complaint: after all, they left voluntarily. They could not have it both ways. I can scarcely believe that anyone in the royal family made inappropriate remarks about the race of the young princess, or of the children she might deliver. Her problem was not that she was of mixed race: in the British Commonwealth this would have been a welcome and opportune fact. The problem was that the couple were not prepared to perform their duties as members of the royal family, respecting tradition, ritual, hierarchy, and bearing themselves with dignity. ‘Don’t wash your dirty linen in public’ may be a relatively recent expression, but the advice is much older. The British royals are celebrities, to be sure, but the young American actress who married a prince of the realm did not seem to distinguish between being a celebrity and also a royal. Now she is implausibly casting herself as a victim, in the spirit of the woke movement.

Meghan Markle may get lucrative contracts out of this spectacle. But monarchy is an institution contributing to balance and reciprocal control in society, as Burke saw more than two centuries ago, not a business opportunity. Americans who tend to take the side of Prince Harry and his wife should remember that most subjects of the queen revere monarchy as much as Americans revere their Constitution. Monarchy is not only about pomp and circumstance: it is also about the joint and solemn celebration of a common identity, in this case not only of the inhabitants of the British Isles, but also of all the other Commonwealth countries.      

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