The Economist, May 13th, 2007, Published in the Issue Web Edition
Lexington (The Royalty Trap, this week’s issue) seems as confused about monarchy as are Americans, and even perhaps the great Bagehot. Interpreting the significance of the monarchy only in terms of reprehensible ‘idolatry’, ‘servility to aristocratic pride’ and ‘forelock–tugging’, misses its key political significance. This is that a constitutional monarchy, particularly a longstanding hereditary monarchy, is overwhelmingly the most effective and satisfactory solution to the need to separate, in a healthy democracy, the political roles of Head of State and Prime Minister.
A nation’s Head of State is the temporary embodiment of its identity, history, and achievements and in this role serves as the natural focus for the affection, pride and loyalty its citizens feel for their country. This role is greatly reinforced if the monarchy is hereditary and long-established. A hereditary monarchy provides continuity, stability, and above all an impartial detachment from day-to-day politics.
A nation’s Prime Minister is elected, for a limited period, to undertake the political job of running the country in the best interests of its citizens. With this responsibility comes great power and the interests of a country are best served if the Prime Minister and Government are held accountable through severe, continuous, freely-expressed criticism from its citizens.
Constitutional monarchy makes clear the separation of these two roles and thereby makes it clear that, in a democracy, politicians are simply servants of a country elected on a temporary basis to do a particular job and liable to summary dismissal if they fail. They are put in their proper, accountable place. The ambition of many politicians to acquire as much power as possible and act as tyrants is thereby checked. This is why would-be Presidents like Tony Blair and tribunes of the people like Tony Benn (or indeed Lenin and many others before them) favour republics; they hate any psychological or
structural obstacle to their exercising power.
Merging the roles of Head of State and Prime Minister, as in a republican Presidency (the USA, France etc.), or diminishing the status of the Head of State, e.g. by selecting to fill the role retired party hacks (Germany, Italy etc.), has the malign effect of confusing and diminishing these two reactions and creates a direct conflict of reactions. If a country’s chief political executive is also its Head of State its citizens will be emotionally and psychologically unwilling to take a strongly critical approach to failures of competence or behaviour because in doing so they are effectively criticising their country. In the USA,
for example, the moves to impeach a President, such as Nixon over Watergate, produce a painful schizophrenic dilemma for the American public. The unhealthy consequences of merging the political and ceremonial roles were also shown in France when Jacques Chirac, as President, pardoned the misdemeanours committed by Jacques Chirac, as Mayor of Paris and Prime Minister.
But the much more serious democratic consequence of merging the two roles is the unhealthy political apathy which it engenders. In the USA, where I have lived for most of the last ten years, I am still appalled by the steadily uncritical servility routinely accorded to the President (and by extension, to his political appointees). What is needed, here and elsewhere, is less ‘Hail to the Chief’ grovelling and more heckling and rotten tomatoes. Your comments on the monarchical behavior of George W. Bush and the US political elite are perfectly valid but the solution, alas obviously impossible in the USA , is a stable UKstyle monarchy. Indeed, it is not too much to say that a republic, so far from representing an advanced form of human political arrangement, is, by comparison with a stable constitutional monarchy, an essentially immature
form of democracy.