LONDON — The British are currently in one of those moods of self-congratulation and self-esteem that seizes them from time to time.
This is not because all is well within Britain. In fact it is far from perfect and the overall state of society could be described as thoroughly unsettled. But the cause of the British people’s momentary contentment lies not within themselves but in the fact that their extraordinarily popular and much loved monarch, Queen Elizabeth the Second, has reached the age of 80 in excellent health amid general rejoicing.
The main credit for this happy state must go to the queen herself, who over the years has proved to a cynical and shallow-thinking world that an institution that many in the 20th century were ready to condemn as out of date and belonging to the past can in fact be crafted into an invaluable part of the future, a rock of continuity in a universe changing much too fast for many people and knocking away the props of security and certainty that most human beings crave.
This is a factor that most futurologists and analysts, scientists and other experts leave completely out of account when they try to describe or plan the future of modern societies. They overlook the fact that people cannot live by logic and reason alone. They need a calming area of faith or belief in something that is not so rational, cannot be torn to pieces by an over-excited media or crushed by the information overload that oppresses and depresses us daily.
So in the British case, when it comes to royalty and the monarchy, there is a merciful suspension of this usual clamor. For example, while the hereditary principle is now dismissed as an anachronism in government — hereditary lords have been mostly swept away — no one (except a few fanatics) questions the right of the queen to be in her place, which is of course solely an outcome of heredity and history.
Similarly, while the cult of youth has seized most of public life and most of the popular press, itself written largely by young and clever but hopelessly inexperienced people, when it comes to the queen, suddenly everybody remembers the value of age and long experience. Venerable age, seen as a handicap in most careers, in the British monarchy is welcomed as an element of continuity and reassurance.
Can one generalize about the virtues and advantages of monarchy over republican or other systems? Obviously not, since there can be bad monarchs and good ones and not every country’s history or psychology is suited to such an arrangement. Poor little Nepal is currently in the grip of a monarchy going badly wrong; Iran, one of the world’s most ancient monarchies, was dragged down by an incompetent shah and has been in misery ever since. History is littered with examples of dreadful monarchs, of which the British over the last thousand years have had their share.
But the modern world does seem to need its oases of stability amid the desert of political mistrust. The information revolution has stripped most elected politicians of any mystery and dignity they may have possessed and vastly weakened their authority. Monarchy can often fill a real gap.
By contrast, it could be argued that countries where the presidential head of state remains too involved in daily politics and government are nowadays the weaker for it and not the stronger.
Two such countries immediately spring to mind — France and the United States, both republics born in history out of rejection of their monarchical rulers. France is full of crisis and uncertainty, with the French yet again taking to the streets to express their anger with their rulers and with the modern world generally. The Americans are stuck with an unpopular president who clearly has too much power and not enough wisdom.
As a result both countries are weak, the U.S. perhaps the most seriously weakened of all since it lives in a bubble of delusion, fed by its president, that it is the lead nation among the democracies and that democracy, almost alone, is the universal cure-all for the world’s ills.
This makes it all the more to the credit of certain great Americans of the past, in the aftermath of World War II, that they understood the value of monarchy and continuity in defeated Japan and kept the emperor in place, vastly to the benefit of the Japanese people ever since.
Today’s lesser Americans have fallen back on one-dimensional thinking. They seem incapable of grasping that democracy — which is a vastly deep and complex concept going far beyond mere voting and political parties and election — can go hand in hand with monarchical rulers and may even be strengthened by them.
Democracy, as one wise ruler in the Middle East observed the other day, is not, as some Americans seem to think, a stick-on patch, miraculously transforming the body to which it is attached. Continuity and wisdom at the top are also needed, together with personal restraint, respect for the law and for precedent and history.
Asking the Americans, living in their 200-year-old republic, to go back to monarchy is perhaps too much. But at least they should understand better that monarchy in one form or another works alongside and reinforces democratic structures elsewhere in the world.
Had they understood this earlier, the world might now be a better place. In the meantime, despite all the global turbulence, the British on their little island are feeling quite pleased.
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