How Britain Withdrew To A Democratic Monarchy – And How We Withdrew From It | opinion
Queen Elizabeth II presided over the apotheosis of the British monarchy as the cornerstone of British democracy for 70 years. As a figure completely above politics, she could stand for the whole nation, as a grandmother for everyone, regardless of their political position. It will be difficult for her son, now Charles III, to achieve a similar standing.
The English (the largest nation in the UK) invented the modern constitutional monarchy, but they did it for centuries without ever really thinking it through. In Elizabeth I’s time, the monarch was a supremely political leader who had to manage shifting alliances in Parliament and the country. Her role was similar to that of an American president: she represented the whole country in a ceremonial, symbolic way, leading her political supporters in the struggle for power against their opponents. Their supporters tended to be Anglicans, their opponents Catholics.
Elizabeth’s successors, the kings of the Stuart line (descendants of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who kept Elizabeth imprisoned until her death) attempted to rule in the same way, but met increasing opposition from a House of Commons dominated by Puritan dissident Anglicans. So you had kings who were genuinely Catholics presiding over the Anglican Church and were at odds with Puritans who were genuinely Anglicans but wanted a more Calvinistic Church of England – and certainly not papism.
This conflict led to a civil war, the beheading of Charles I and a revolutionary Puritan dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell died in 1660, the monarchy was restored under Charles II, son of Charles I and equally crypto-Catholic. Charles II managed to reign until his death in 1685, when he was succeeded by his brother, the openly Catholic James II. James managed to provoke another crisis with Parliament, removing him from the throne in 1688 and replacing him with his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, the monarchs of the Netherlands. This coup was described by the victors as a glorious revolution.
From William and Mary onwards, the supremacy of Parliament was established, and monarchs were to rule (not rule) within that structure. The government still acted on behalf of the monarch, bills became law with the consent of the monarch, but the monarch actually had little political weight.
The American founding fathers had an antiquated image of the British monarchy when they wrote George III in the Declaration of Independence. responsible for all their wrongs. And when they drafted a constitution with an elected monarch named President, they enacted an analogue of the Elizabethan constitution, not the one under which George III ruled.
British and American democracy developed in parallel during the 19th and 20th centuries, the first with a ceremonial monarch as head of state and a prime minister as head of government answerable to Parliament rather than the monarch. Following the American example, the roles of head of state and head of government continue to merge in the presidency. The British model of parliamentary democracy was generally followed in Europe, whether with a constitutional monarch or an elected president. The great exception was France, which endowed De Gaulle with a strong presidency in 1958. American presidential democracy was followed by the independence of Latin American countries in the 19th century.
Both the UK and the US are now deeply divided politically. The British have their monarch as a symbol of their unity despite their differences. Americans have nothing of the kind that holds them together. We sing “America” to the same tune as “God Save the King,” but its emotional weight just doesn’t compare. It is true that there are many Britons who are not monarchists (who are now respectfully silent), but after Elizabeth’s long and prosperous reign, the British are not likely to relinquish the monarchy anytime soon.
Could the US have adopted a constitutional monarchy like Britain? The prospect seems unlikely, but it’s a worthwhile thought experiment.
John Peeler is a retired Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Bucknell University.