Visiting some friends in Washington DC last November, for thanksgiving, I was struck once again by the democratic monuments at the heart of America’s capital: the White House and the Capitol, of course, but also the Lincoln Memorial and its twinned inscriptions of the Gettysburg address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
These, I thought, are surely more dignified things to have at the symbolic heart of a nation than the unbeautiful heap of Buckingham Palace. One the one hand, we have—in the case of Lincoln’s memorial—a place open for free and to all, for 24 hours a day, that is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and the hope “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” On the other, we have a gated monument to 1,000 years of inherited privilege—a residence with 828,818 square feet of floorspace, 600 rooms and 20 hectares of gardens, parts of which can be visited at a cost of £15 between July and September.
The comparison is unfair in many ways, but it highlights an important difference between a state whose most central symbol is inherited privilege and one whose is the struggle for liberty and equality. Recently, however, I’ve encountered one of the most eloquent defences I’ve yet read for the value of the monarchy—in pragmatic as well as simply aesthetic or sentimental terms:
I am always baffled by British republicans who seem to assume that getting rid of the Crown will automatically make us more free. They should pay more attention. It is not just that all American politicians are tainted by sordid scrambles for money… worse is the fact that there isn’t all that much freedom to be against the government. America has no Leader of the Opposition, no President’s Question Time in Congress. Critics of the Iraq War have had a much harder time in the US than they did in Britain—because the President is an elected king, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the human symbol of the nation. To argue that he is wrong about a war, or to laugh at him, is actually quite dangerous in certain places. This is not because people agree with George W Bush but because they see him through a haze of loyalty…
The original can be found in full here, at Peter Hitchens’s blog for the Mail on Sunday. I don’t actually agree that Americans’ reverence for the presidency illustrates a general principle (plenty of countries, such as Germany and France, manage both a president, a prime minister and a healthy amount of democratic dissent without the aid of an unelected head of state) but Hitchens does offer a muscular defence of the importance of being able to be loyal to one’s nation while despising one’s government. Will our monarchy continue indefinitely? I certainly don’t expect to see the end of it in my lifetime.