A constitutional monarchy is a peculiar thing. It is both an aristocratic relic and a modern democratic institution. And with King Charles III deciding to film and broadcast the Accession Council for the first time, the veil was further pulled back on the idiosyncratic elements that underpin our system of government.
Couple this broadcast with the televising of the royal proclamations from Exeter to Edinburgh, which saw heralds adorned in the gold and scarlet tabards of the House of Windsor announce the ascendancy of Charles III to the throne, and there was a risk that the proceedings could have gone too far. Watching our former prime ministers and senior ministers line up to watch a 73 year old man claim his birthright on a golden throne risked becoming a spectacle of the absurd – a farce impossible for any modern liberal democracy to sustain.
So far, the right balance has been struck. Enough gilt and lace is on show to sate the public’s curiosity while maintaining the majesty and splendour of the monarchy. The Crown is fulfilling its purpose of ‘excit[ing] and preserv[ing] the reverence of the population’ as Walter Bagehot, the constitutional thinker, wrote in the 19th century. Then, Bagehot described the British constitution as comprising two parts – the dignified and the efficient. The monarchy’s role is to embody the dignified elements, in part helping ensure that people respect and obey the decisions made by efficient elements – the ministers, civil servants, and politicians who actually run the country.
Maintaining the balance between these two elements is no easy thing. Most countries have seen the dignified elements stripped away, with the efficient elements of modern governments exposed to scrutiny. As societies have become less hierarchal, less formal, and (most crucially) less devout, so they have become less willing to accept hereditary rule. The notion of a ruler who is anointed rather than elected is nonsensical to modern sensibilities.
Much of this is because of the world’s waning faith in God. The UK, to all intents and purposes, is a secular state. At best, most people are unsure about the existence of God, if they don’t reject the idea entirely. And a country that doesn’t believe in a god is going to have little time for the idea that a monarch is chosen by one. When the Queen was crowned, over half of her subjects believed that she was chosen by God. Few are likely to share that faith when her son is crowned at at Westminster Abbey next year, regardless of the religious ephemera that accompanies it. Instead, royal birth is seen as a quirk of fate, like being born with the talent to be a premier league footballer, or being born British.
Rather than the monarchy resting upon faith in the divine will of God, it rests upon the people’s consent. Ever since the Restoration, the consent of Parliament and the governed has been fundamental to royal rule. It was Parliament who invited Charles II to return to the throne in 1660, proclaiming that he had been king ever since his father was executed eleven years before, and it was Parliament who led the Glorious Revolution. The Protestant House of Commons preferred to invite William of Orange to seize the throne rather than see it remain in the Catholic hands of James II and his would-be heir.
If concern about the faith of their monarch was enough for the House of Commons to bring the Stuart dynasty to an end, concern about the institution of the monarchy itself would be the modern day equivalent. As James Butler said on the LRB Podcast, people today can reasonably be expected to have more respect for themselves than to accept hereditary rule, and status as a subject, not a citizen.
Up until now, royal rule has been sustained by the Queen’s irreproachable conduct. Even if people had their doubts about the institution, the Queen transcended them. She became an institution in her own right, monarch during almost every major event of the twentieth century. She was a constant in a world which did nothing but change.
With her death, the monarchy is thrown into flux. Her ancestors knew all to well that the transition between monarchs was when the heir’s grip on the Crown was weakest. This is why little time is wasted between announcing the death of the monarch and gathering the Council to proclaim their successor. So far, Charles III has risen to the occasion with aplomb. He has found the right balance, showing grief for his deceased mother while donning the raiment of king. The support of the British public, which has long doubted his suitability for the Crown, has surged – over 60% now believe that he will be a ‘good King’.
Last night was a victory for freedom of speech & the right to express dissenting opinions about the monarchy & the accession of Charles as king, as a whole group of protesters gathered outside Parliament holding placards with their views on them. Short? pic.twitter.com/FjZ9pgHg0R
— Paul Powlesland (@paulpowlesland) September 14, 2022
What may tip public sentiment in the wrong direction (as far as monarchists are concerned) may be the heavy-handed policing that we have seen at royal events. In Oxford, a protester who yelled out ‘who elected you?’ was escorted from the square and arrested. Further north, a protester in Edinburgh was arrested for brandishing a placard that read ‘F*** Imperialism, Abolish Monarchy’, and another man was arrested and charged with breach of the peace for yelling ‘you’re a sick old man’ at Prince Andrew.
There is no little irony in the fact that the police, in trying to protect the monarchy and maintain the peace, are undermining it with their heavy-handed actions. So long as the people believe that monarchs rule at their behest, the monarchy is likely to remain secure. No obvious alternative battering at the door. An elected head of state would upset our constitutional order, putting them in conflict with parliament, while an appointed head of state introduces even more political wrangling and division into the mix. Provided the monarch’s rule continues to be de minimis and impartial, major constitutional reform looks like more trouble than it is worth.
There is also no little irony in the fact that the police are only able to act with such impunity because of the actions of the last government. In Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the police have the authority to break up protests that merely pose a risk of causing ‘serious distress, annoyance, inconvenience or loss of amenity’. Almost any protests worth their salt will cause at least one of these, giving a police officer the de facto authority to single-handedly decide if a protest can continue or not. The fact that this power is not being exercised at the request of the Crown, and that it only exists because of the actions of the previous elected authoritarian-minded government is unlikely, however, to be a distinction most people appreciate.
This is why the police’s actions are so dangerous. They strip away the fantasy that the monarch sits at the behest of the people, and put the Crown in a position of apparent impunity. No longer is the Crown protecting the people’s rights and liberties in the throne last resort, but actively curtailing them, placing themselves above the law and above reproach. If Charles III and the courtiers advising him have any sense, they will ask the Metropolitan Police to step back and let protesters voice their dissent. Otherwise, they may find that people start asking why they can’t criticise the King – which is a rabbit hole the monarchy should prefer the nation stays firmly away from.