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The political benefits of royalty

by
13 September 2013

Monarchy brings a distinctive and Christian contribution to the state, argues Nigel Biggar

THE British monarchy has had a good year. The 60th anniversary of the Queen's coronation has reassured our sense of continuity with the past, while the birth of a new heir promises stability down several generations into the future.

These are among the reasons why, a poll carried out for The Sunday Telegraph suggests, three-quarters of those questioned believe that Prince George will one day become king, and only nine per cent think that he will not, as Britain will have become a republic (Telegraph, 28 July).

No monarchy is popular. But popularity in a media-led culture that delights in making and breaking celebrity is a fickle thing. And when the pendulum swings again - as it surely will - republican critics stand ready to stiffen popular disaffection with political principle.

As the subtitle to a scathing Guardian article by the left-wing columnist Seumas Milne put it: "Britain's monarchy embodies inequality and fosters conservatism. An elected head of state is embarrassingly overdue" (24 July).

 

IF THE monarchy is to survive in the long term, it needs to rest on more than the shifting sands of popular sentimentality. It needs firm foundations in political well-being. I believe that these are available.

Monarchy as we now have it - with its executive powers entirely transferred to elected Members of Parliament (except in case of constitutional crisis) - makes important contributions to political health. For sure, most of these are symbolic; but symbols can serve important functions.

First, by embodying continuity and stability, monarchy enables society to cope with change. Thus, pace the Guardian, far from fostering conservatism during her 60-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has actually presided over huge cultural, social, and political change.

Second, the distinction between the monarchical head of state and the prime-ministerial head of government makes it easier to tell criticism of government policy from a lack of patriotic loyalty - easier than in a US presidential system, where the symbolic head of the nation and the head of government are the same.

Next, it is good to have a head of state who can transcend party politics, and use patronage to support civil society, reminding us (and politicians) that there is more to public life than elections, parliamentary debates, and legislation.

 

THERE is a further benefit, which is more principled, more Christian, and more fundamentally important than any of the others. A good political constitution certainly needs a part where rulers are made sensitive to those whom they rule - an elected legislature that can hold government to account, and stop it in its tracks.

A good constitution needs a democratic element. After all, according to a biblical and Christian view, rulers exist to serve the ruled: kings are expected to be shepherds of their people.

Nevertheless, a Christian view is not naïve about the people. It does not suppose that the popular will, as expressed in majority vote, is always right and just. After all, it was the people (the laos, as in "laity") who bayed for Jesus's blood in the Gospels, and it was the people (the demos, as in "democracy") who, according to Acts, responded to Herod, a persecutor of Christians, by lauding him as a god (Acts 12.21). If kings can be sinners, then so can the people. Hitler, remember, was elected by due democratic process.

What this means is that a healthy political constitution should not - with due respect to Milne - be entirely democratic. In addition to an elected House of Commons, it needs other parts, too, to balance it. It needs to be mixed. For example, it needs a House of Lords composed of a wide range of experts and leaders of civil society (including the Church of England). It needs an aristocracy of wisdom, not of land, which can be secured only by appointment, not by popular election.

It also needs a monarch, who symbolises the accountability of the whole nation, rulers and ruled, kings and people, to the given principles of justice. At base, these principles are not human inventions. They are not the passing creatures of popular whim or majority vote. They are given in and with the created nature of things. This is exactly what the coronation ritual says, when the monarch kneels before receiving the crown - the symbol of authority - not from below, but from above; not from the fickle people, but from the constant God.

 

CONTRARY to what now passes for democratic common sense, the moral legitimacy of government does not lie in popular consent. It cannot, since the will of the people can be corrupt.

Rather, moral legitimacy lies in the conformity of law and policy to the given principles of justice and prudence - to which the people might or might not adhere.

Popular consent is vital, if law and government policy is to have effective social authority, but it does not establish its moral legitimacy. This is a fundamental political truth, which is rarely spoken nowadays, but which the coronation ritual speaks. And, in a culture that tends toward populism and moral relativism, what the coronation says is, ironically, radically prophetic.

I think that there are good reasons - some of them directly Christian - to support the kind of monarchy that we now have. Nevertheless, on the more pragmatic questions how much public money should be used to support it, or how many members of the royal family should be supported, I am agnostic.

I do not suppose that a monarchical republic is the only decent kind of republic. None the less, I believe that monarchy can confer some important and distinctive political benefits; and if we are to continue to enjoy them - if Prince George is to find a throne - then we had better bring to mind what they are.

 

The Revd Dr Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford, a Canon of Christ Church, and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life.

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