Perfect shadows

All the bickering about the Royals is beside the point-what matters is the office, not the suitability of the office holder. Roger Scruton says this is better understood in former communist states than in old democracies
January 20, 1996

Monarchy has been so much in the news, and so much the subject of irreverent chatter, that it is not surprising that people seem no longer to understand its meaning. The Princess of Wales is described as an "ambassador for Britain"; the Prince of Wales as an "unsuitable head of state"; the Royal quarrel as "bringing the monarchy into disrepute"-as though we had some choice in the matter. The point of monarchy is that there is no choice. The crown owes its power, longevity and stabilising force to the fact that it passes by law to the person destined to inherit it. The question of who is to be head of state is removed from the arena of political choice, and handed to providence. Given the incapacity of human kind to make wise choices in the matter, this can only be an advantage.

Moreover, monarchy is the only system for appointing a head of state which gives a fair chance to the ordinary, the unambitious, the eccentric and the mildly insane-surely a welcome feature in an age when just about every republic in the world is headed by some hyperactive megalomaniac, determined to leave his mark on history. I can hardly believe that it is an accident that the most destructive episodes in European history have followed the collapse of the monarchical idea, or that the European nation that has enjoyed the greatest share of domestic peace-England-has seen civil turmoil only during the brief period when the institution of monarchy was put in question. The purpose of monarchy is to impress on people the fact that the head of state is an office, not a human being, and it is an office that endures as long as the state itself. The person who occupies that office is not, as a rule, the kind of person you would choose-a fact which vividly reminds you that you did not choose to be born as one of his subjects, or indeed to be born at all. Monarchy is the symbol of the most important of all political facts-namely, that our fundamental loyalty, presupposed in every democratic choice, is a loyalty that we did not choose.

I was brooding over this matter in Warsaw, when I happened to pick up a monarchist publication, on the cover of which was displayed a fat slug of a schoolboy. I was surprised at first-for Polish youth has retained some of its aristocratic bearing. I discovered, however, that the Polish journal was promoting monarchy in Russia, and that this repugnant creature was none other than its candidate for Tsar-one of those true or false Dimitrys who wander hopelessly through the annals of Russian history. The burden of the publication was simple: Russian domination is inevitable; so let it be domination by a crown, rather than a politburo, a president, or a military high command. A crowned head can be entrusted with the levers of power by those who have taken care to disconnect them. And the spectacle of this chuckling schoolboy pulling now on this lever, now on that, while the outside world proceeds about its daily business entirely unaffected, has enormous appeal. When people inherit power, they do not really possess it: all that they have is the glamour of office. And, given time, the office does indeed become a symbol of the nation-a representation of its will to live that is all the more impressive in that the will belongs to no one in particular.

These principles seem to be generally understood in the former communist countries. None of them is likely to turn itself into a monarchy-for institutions are easier to destroy than to create, and the Spanish example, moving though it is, is too remote from their experience. But each of them has adopted the symbols of monarchy, as the clearest way of affirming its right to exist. The Polish banknotes abound in royal icons, with the crowned Polish eagle, and portraits of the great Polish kings. The Hungarian banknotes are emblazoned with the crown of St Stephen, while even the secular and cynical Czechs have produced notes that trumpet the throne of Bohemia as proof of reliability.

The point is obvious. A banknote must retain its value, whatever the government in power; it must invite the trust of the people, and reassure its users that it is not an instrument for their enslavement or a device to transfer their savings into the pockets of those in power. No better symbol has occurred to mankind, of this trustworthiness above the polluted world of politics, than the crown. And that is why, in their hearts, all people who have suffered under communism know the meaning and worth of monarchy-and recreate it through public symbols, so as to enjoy vicariously what we are lucky enough to enjoy in fact. It is a sad comment on our times that so few British subjects appreciate their luck. I suppose that is why they accept without demur the extraordinary and illegal description of themselves which is now stamped on their EU passports-as citizens of the United Kingdom, and not subjects of the Queen. n