The British monarchy is an antique institution, peopled by eccentrics and governed by arcane rules and customs. But it works—and we would struggle to find a better alternativeby Simon Jenkins / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Queen opens parliament in 2010. As a constitutional form, the monarchy has proved astonishingly robust, argues Simon Jenkins
Best not to think about it. Best to block the mind, sink back in a chair and enjoy a ceremony well-staged, a dress well-chosen, and the heart-warming spectacle of Prince William and Kate Middleton in their matrimonial bliss. The British do national ritual with panache. Revel in that. Otherwise you will start asking why the classiest internship in the land, second in line to the throne, should go to the elder son of the elder son of the elder daughter of a man who got the job because his elder brother married the wrong woman. These entitlements, as Bentham said of all such rights, must be “nonsense on stilts.”
On the other hand, monarchy is an institution of state. Democracy expects such institutions to put in an appearance at the bar of common sense and public opinion. When one of them, based on heredity, offends what democracy supposedly holds dear—equality of opportunity—it has a case to answer. And so, as the future head of state prepares to wed, it’s worth asking why we have a monarchy, and what we want from it—if indeed we want one at all.
The hereditable principle has always vexed philosophers. It is an offence against fair play: vesting office, property and preferment in blood, when they should be vested in merit. Yet heredity is rife in every society. While most people exclude it as a basis for public office, in other respects they behave as if all strictures do not apply to themselves. There is hardly a parent in the land for whom heredity (albeit not primogeniture) is not the touchstone of family management and concern. Nor is this just personal. In Britain, “parental rights” permeate schools policy, housing allocation, property and probate law, and—unfair as it may be—access to internships and thus jobs. To fight for one’s child is a human instinct, as prevalent as ever.
For rulers things should be different. The days are past when a king needed a strong sword-arm and a succession based on inheritance to avert anarchy on his death and maintain the stability of the state. A childless ruler no longer bequeaths his realm to his sister’s son, as medieval rulers did, on the grounds that this son is the only person he can be sure is of his own bloodline. Even in those days, a king’s death tended to be open season for bastards, pretenders and frauds. The hundred years war was triggered by the question of whether a woman, Edward III’s mother, could inherit the crown of France. Other random justifications for heredity are similarly archaic. It is said that heredity used to be more certain in its succession and thus more stable than electors, doges, consuls, presidents and other republican forms. To Burke it ensured a “permanent and competent ruling class, united by bonds of family across generations.” The French chopped off their king’s head in 1793 and spent two centuries and 16 constitutions trying to do better. Today, of course, such arguments are dead. Who cares, or knows, that Spain is a monarchy and Portugal not, or Sweden but not Finland?