All crises but the final one being intrinsically self-correcting, the monarchy tends to adapt well. The abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 rocked the House of Windsor to its core and caused a famous constitutional crisis. But out of catastrophe came stability. Many historians would consider that it was revulsion with her uncle’s behavior that informed Queen Elizabeth II’s legendary sense of duty and formidable work ethic; that the current queen enjoys such remarkably high approval ratings is testament to a stewardship of the office that is the polar opposite of Edward’s approach. Much as it vexes republicans to hear, Elizabeth is extremely good at her job, and the regard in which she is held reflects that fact. The idea that the royal family is incapable of reacting to public sentiment is untrue.
Britons are, per Republic’s criticism, “subjects not citizens.” So what? As Walter Bagehot famously observed, Britain is a “disguised republic,” with a monarchy that has evolved dramatically and smartly over the years. I will happily join with those who lament that British liberty is better represented in the United States than in its cradle, but it’s utterly preposterous to believe that this is the result of Britain’s keeping her queen. If the British people truly wanted limited government, they would have it.
Ostensibly, much of the republican movement’s ire stems from disappointment that people want a prominent figurehead and enjoy the associated pageantry. With this I have great sympathy. But there is little evidence to suggest that abolition would do much to counter the public’s apparent need for these things. The United States has gone more than two centuries without a monarchy, but alas the Hamiltonian conception of the presidency has nonetheless won out. This is in part because presidents have built up the office from within; but it is also because the people have built up the office from without. Were Britain to elect its head of state, would the vacuum really remain unfilled?
Indeed, the prospect of such a vacuum appears to worry those who wrestle with the question of republicanism. In Australia, where the level of support for the monarchy is a relatively low 55 percent, the 1999 referendum on abolition faltered in part because it failed adequately to answer the question, “And then what?” It is all very well to destroy an institution, but with what to replace it? Polls showed that Australians comfortable with breaking royal ties were not as comfortable with the system proposed to replace them.
As the Britons’ enthusiasm for the recent Jubilee demonstrates, while Elizabeth II sits on the throne, groups such as Republic are fighting a losing battle. Seventy-six percent of British citizens support the monarchy — a number that has been almost constant during the incumbent’s 60-year reign. By contrast, Republic excitedly announced this week that it now has 20,000 people on its mailing list. By such numbers, revolutions are not made. And, as the Financial Times wryly pointed out this week, this means that 99.9996 percent of British subjects are not on the list. In this, at least, the “99 percent” are on the side of the status quo, and for the foreseeable future, they are happy to continue singing, “God save the Queen.”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.