The passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who assumed the British throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952, and served with dedication and distinction for 70 years, is an event as epochal as it is sad.
Elizabeth’s reign was exceeded in duration only by that of King Louis XIV of France, whose tenure of 72 years ended in 1715. But unlike the “Sun King,” Elizabeth never claimed that “L’etat, c’est moi.” Elizabeth, for the most part, was a symbolic sovereign, albeit a very good one.
The passing of Elizabeth raises questions as to whether the institution of monarchy should be maintained. Should the head of state of a modern and prosperous democracy continue to be chosen by hereditary right?
Certainly, the monarchy and its trappings can seem silly or anachronistic, what with such peculiar officials as Black Rod, Gold Stick and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant.
Not to mention the Royal Bargemaster, who hasn’t had much to do since the Royal Barge was scrapped in 1919.
But no one is truly satisfied with a mundane life, an existence ruled entirely by logic and statistics rather than by the heart, a prospect barren of grand ambition or noble cause. At its very best, republican government can create a compelling vision: “We choose to go to the Moon — not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” So, too, can monarchy, as the affection for Elizabeth so clearly attests.
Whatever his or her flaws, the sovereign can represent ideals of chivalry and honor that never should be forgotten, the “magic” of which the historian Walter Bagehot wrote in the 19th century.
Also, there is the splendor of ceremony that captivates the entire world. With a republic, most of this would vanish.
One must consider that a Britain without a figurehead monarch would be a Britain with a figurehead president, likely a dull, constricted bureaucrat, a rubber stamp. Germany and Italy have such presidents, yet I doubt there is a person in this county who can name either one of them.
At a coronation luncheon for Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Prime Minister Winston Churchill advised a young American student: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”
An entirely logical line of thought may conclude that the British monarchy should be abolished. But athwart this line lies a thousand years of precedent.