The British national anthem, whose musical tune most Americans know best as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” opens with a request of the heavens: “God save our gracious Queen / Long live our noble Queen.” On this petition God appears to have smiled, for Queen Elizabeth II has been on the British throne for 60 years and counting, and looks set in three years’ time to pass Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
Judging by the considerable public enthusiasm for this week’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations — and the attendant opinion polling — the majority of Britons regard the queen’s longevity as being worthy of recognition. But among the revelers is a small clique that has instead elected to protest the festivities. They are the advocates of a British republic, and they are having none of it. Britain, they aver, should be based on “democratic values — not medieval ones.” In a nation that likes to cast itself as “modern,” why has their message not caught on?
Champions of the American Revolution such as myself will likely have some sympathy with the republicans — at least in the abstract. Certainly, if one had the rare luxury of designing a political system from scratch, one would not choose a monarchy. But Britain is not designing a system from scratch, and most countries are not abstract ideas. In the best Burkean tradition, the British appear to understand this well.
British republicans do not. Groups such as Republic, which argues for “a democratic alternative to the monarchy,” give such considerations short shrift, often falling foul of the Whiggish temptation to recruit the word “progress” to causes in which it does not belong. And, like their forebears, contemporary advocates of a British republic present modernity as an argument in and of itself. This makes little historical sense. “New” is not a synonym for “good.”
The timber of royal history is desperately crooked, and both the popularity and utility of the monarchy have varied with a complexity that is often ignored. Britain was briefly a republic between 1649 and 1660. It didn’t work out. The Commonwealth of England acted as an overture first to the restoration of the monarchy, and then to a relatively bloodless coup, by which the stadtholder of Holland was imported to replace James II, placed on the throne, and forced to sign away many of his powers. Ultimately, the form of monarchy imposed upon the country by 1688’s Glorious Revolution was a better fit for Britain than the short-lived republic presided over by Oliver Cromwell and his son; and working through the existing institutions proved a more efficacious route to increased liberty than tearing them down wholesale. This does not go any way to proving that a British republic would be a failure, but it should give pause to those who see history in a linear manner.
Britons have found this to be true time and time again. When Queen Victoria dressed in black and went into semi-permanent hiding after the death of her husband in 1861, republican clubs surfaced around the country to such an extent that by the early 1870s, traditionalists in many quarters were genuinely worried about the institution’s prospect of surviving into the new century. (Ironically, during the Victorian era, the punishment for publicly advocating for a republic was transportation to Australia — a country that has disappointed anti-monarchists for two centuries.) But the failure of the new American model to prevent a woeful civil war as well as the devastating lessons taught by the failure of the French Revolution ultimately had a cooling effect on a growing republican sentiment, and the monarchy’s popularity recovered.
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.