What Good’s a Monarchy? “To Separate Pomp from Power” -Churchill

What Good’s a Monarchy? “To Separate Pomp from Power” -Churchill

Excerpt­ed from “What Good’s a Monar­chy? Churchill’s Case for an Anachro­nism,” for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text includ­ing end­notes please click here.

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On Monarchy

“It is wise in human affairs, and in the gov­ern­ment of men, to sep­a­rate pomp from pow­er.” —Win­ston S. Churchill1

In an age of lam­poon­ing any­thing which smacks of tra­di­tion, the ques­tion aris­es: what good is monar­chy? It comes up fre­quent­ly nowa­days, giv­en the behav­ior of cer­tain roy­al per­son­ages. Amer­i­cans gen­er­al­ly don’t under­stand it. They asso­ciate monar­chy only with cer­e­mo­ny, or scan­dalous shenani­gans picked up by the tabloid press. It’s the 21st cen­tu­ry, for heaven’s sake! Sure­ly the ele­va­tion of one per­son­age to reign over every­body else is an anachronism?

Not so fast, said Win­ston Churchill. Are you sure the alter­na­tives work bet­ter? “In this coun­try,” he said, “we have known the bless­ings of lim­it­ed monar­chy. Great tra­di­tion­al and con­sti­tu­tion­al chains of events have come to make an arrange­ment, to make a sit­u­a­tion, unwrit­ten, which enables our affairs to pro­ceed on what I believe is a supe­ri­or lev­el of smooth­ness and demo­c­ra­t­ic progress.

Omit tyrant monar­chies like the Kims in North Korea. We’re tak­ing about cer­e­mo­ni­al heads of state. In ordi­nary times, in eras of peace and pros­per­i­ty, there is a com­mon­al­i­ty of pur­pose, in both a con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy and a repub­lic. In fraught times amidst poi­so­nous pol­i­tics, monar­chy may have ser­vice­able attrib­ut­es. Stop and think about it.

Separation of powers 

The Cana­di­an com­men­ta­tor Mark Steyn was asked: “If you could change one thing in the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, what would it be?” He went right to Arti­cle II: “I’d sep­a­rate the Pres­i­dent from the Head of State.”

Now that would be sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers with a cleaver, and of course it’s not going to hap­pen. In Britain, how­ev­er, Churchill saw rea­son for the idea:

The join­ing togeth­er in a sin­gle per­son of the head­ship of the State and head­ship of the gov­ern­ment, or any approach there­to, open or veiled, has always been odi­ous in Great Britain. We have known how to pre­serve the old and glo­ri­ous tra­di­tions of hered­i­tary monar­chy while slow­ly build­ing up a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem which has hith­er­to met the needs of a grow­ing peo­ple, and chang­ing times.

Churchill praised sep­a­rat­ing “what is per­ma­nent from what is tem­po­rary.” The com­mon inher­i­tance of a nation, he argued, is beyond dis­pute. Law, lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture; the con­tri­bu­tions of past gen­er­a­tions to a cul­tur­al ethos—nobody argues about that. (Well, not in his day.) But what about “those mat­ters which must nec­es­sar­i­ly be in dis­pute between class­es and par­ties and fac­tions”? The unwrit­ten British Con­sti­tu­tion, Churchill said, “places the supreme posi­tion in the State beyond the reach of pri­vate ambi­tion, but…assures to a polit­i­cal leader, in ful­fill­ment of the wish­es of the elec­tors, a free­dom and con­fi­dence of action unsur­passed in any land.”

“Parliaments talk, the Crown shines”

Churchill explained that “if the King does what is thought to be wrong, it is his bad advis­ers who are blamed. But to apply that doc­trine to the con­tro­ver­sial head of a polit­i­cal gov­ern­ment would be an alto­geth­er undue exten­sion of the principle.” 

There is util­i­ty in a sys­tem where Par­lia­ments talk and the Crown reigns. When the Sov­er­eign opens any­thing, from Par­lia­ment to a shop­ping mall, crowds cheer and the Sov­er­eign is duly uni­fy­ing. No mon­archs walk on stage clap­ping their hands, as politi­cians often do in oth­er places. It’s inap­pro­pri­ate in a con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy. In 1940 Churchill said:

When our beloved Sov­er­eign and the Queen come from their bat­tered palace to a build­ing which is not with­out evi­dence of the strokes of war, when the Sov­er­eign comes to open Par­lia­ment in per­son and all his faith­ful Com­mons to the dis­charge of their duties, at every step, in every mea­sure, in every for­mal­i­ty, and in every res­o­lu­tion that we pass, we touch cus­toms and tra­di­tions which go back far beyond the great Par­lia­men­tary con­flicts of the 17th cen­tu­ry; we feel the inspi­ra­tion of old days, we feel the splen­dour of our polit­i­cal and moral inheritance.

Bulwark against dictatorship

Con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy, Churchill declared, was “a prac­ti­cal instru­ment and means of nation­al self-preser­va­tion against every type of repub­lic and every degree of dic­ta­tor­ship.” Hard­ly any­one, he added, “even the great­est sim­ple­ton,” believed any bet­ter sys­tem was avail­able. “No one can pre­sume to set him­self up as nation­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive against the hered­i­tary rights of the King.”

It would be a mis­take, he wrote, for Britain to force her sys­tem on oth­er countries.Yet he believed it would have been bet­ter on the whole if some coun­tries had kept their mon­archs. He offered as exam­ples Kaiser Wil­helm and Czar Nicholas. Writ­ing after the First World War he said:

The unfor­tu­nate Tsar was endeav­our­ing to cre­ate with­in the brief span of his own life a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem in Rus­sia. Had he or had the Kaiser suc­ceed­ed to their thrones under some­thing like the British Con­sti­tu­tion, and with the expe­ri­enced polit­i­cal advis­ers at their side whom our con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem has always hith­er­to sup­plied, they might both be reign­ing peace­ful­ly at the present moment, and the world would have been spared the mea­sure­less calami­ties of the Great War and the still unmea­sured calami­ties which may fol­low from it.

“The cost of government is greater under republics”

I once asked a British Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment how big a staff he had, and was told he had three. More recent­ly a Swedish MP, stag­gered at the bat­tery of aides grouped around U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives at a Con­gres­sion­al hear­ing, let on that she had a staff of one. Churchill maintained

that the cost of gov­ern­ment is greater under republics than under monar­chies, that there is more cor­rup­tion, less free­dom and less progress, both phys­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al. There are, of course, excep­tions, and it would be wrong to gen­er­al­ize. Every nation is enti­tled to the form of gov­ern­ment it choos­es, and once the appa­ra­tus of monar­chy has been over­thrown in a coun­try there are a few prece­dents for its restora­tion. The fact remains, how­ev­er, that it has been the expe­ri­ence of many nations to have dwelt more hap­pi­ly, more safe­ly, more pros­per­ous­ly and more pro­gres­sive­ly under a monar­chy than either an oli­garchy or a republic.

Will the Monarchy survive?

In The Dreamhis 1947 con­ver­sa­tion with the ghost of his father, Churchill explained that the monar­chy had even sur­vived socialism:

The Social­ists are quite in favour of the Monar­chy, and make gen­er­ous pro­vi­sions for it…. Of course they have a few rebels, but the old Repub­li­can­ism of Dilke and Lab­by [Labouchère] is dead as mut­ton. The Labour men and the trade unions look upon the Monar­chy not only as a nation­al but a nation­alised insti­tu­tion. They even go to the par­ties at Buck­ing­ham Palace. Those who have very extreme prin­ci­ples wear sweaters.

Nei­ther Lord Ran­dolph nor his son, of course, could have antic­i­pat­ed the trau­ma sur­round­ing Princess Diana half a cen­tu­ry lat­er. Not to men­tion the sub­sidiary recent erup­tions and nar­cis­sism of less­er roy­al progeny.

God Save The Queen

Bogdanor’s “peri­od of mag­i­cal monar­chy,” writes Kevin Theak­ston, “reached its apoth­e­o­sis in Churchill’s eyes in the ear­ly years of Eliz­a­beth II’s reign.” That pin­na­cle, Pim­lott wrote, was

the final dis­ap­pear­ance of Empire; the trans­for­ma­tion of media def­er­ence into media intru­sion; the pass­ing of an age of respect for author­i­ty and tra­di­tion and def­er­ence to hierarchy—these have erod­ed the old props and demys­ti­fied the monar­chy, with the roy­al fam­i­ly also mak­ing its own con­tri­bu­tions to the spec­ta­cle of “roy­al soap opera.” The “fairy tale” aspects of Churchill’s con­cep­tion of the monar­chy may have gone for good, but the case he made for the impor­tant and pos­i­tive role it plays in a demo­c­ra­t­ic con­sti­tu­tion­al order remains a strong one.

Churchill praised “the wis­dom which places the supreme lead­er­ship of the State beyond the reach of pri­vate ambition.”As long as roy­als remem­ber that they are cer­e­mo­ni­al fig­ures not nation­al nan­nies, the monar­chy will sur­vive. That’s the job. If one doesn’t like it, one may drop out and live in qui­et obscu­ri­ty, as many have before.

The British monar­chy, Churchill con­tin­ued, “has no inter­ests diver­gent from those of the British people.”That is a prin­ci­ple Her Majesty The Queen has splen­did­ly main­tained through all the trau­ma and heart­break, the highs and lows of her long reign. Churchill admired that. We should, too.

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