In Defence of Monarchy

LP Hartley famously wrote in Cider with Rosie, with a palpable sense of longing and regret, that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. Hartley spoke of this ‘foreignness’ in terms which were personal rather than collective yet this same sentiment is certainly more widely applicable than initially intended, even to the level of a nation’s history. For if perhaps we do not now live in times where our collective past is totally alien to us, we certainly live in an age increasingly dismissive of that past; of the morals, people and customs to be found in that ‘foreign country’ beyond living memory. This is almost certainly a phenomena directly related to the Enlightenment. It is a truism to say that we are all children of the Enlightenment. And this same Enlightenment was nothing if not an expression of the cult of progress and a rejection of all former modes of ‘being’ which have sustained human societies for millennia. Yet it is a bitter irony that this very rejection of the old order in the name of the goodness of the new has produced nothing so novel as the great slaughters of the Twentieth Century. Every nation which has rejected its monarch has gnawed itself half to death in civil war and mass purges. The very movement which promised absolute freedom, the movement which promised to make every peasant a king, instead made him a slave. Yet the tide appears to be turning. The old certainties of the Enlightenment begin to lose their grip on the popular imagination, even as they are reaching their post-modernist apogee in the university. In the light of this epochal shift, this article aims to offer a viable third way between populist nationalism and authoritarian internationalism:  monarchism. It is the central point of this article that by returning to noble traditions we may so arm ourselves to face the uncertainties of the future. By looking backward, we may find a path forward.

 

Modernity and Monarchy

All the forms of government considered by the masses and the intellectual establishment to be ‘modern’ (that is, acceptable, commonsensical and eminently moral) are mere extensions of the Enlightenment, and though it is not our purpose here to write the biography of the Enlightenment it may be our incidental purpose to write its obituary. This great endeavour which went so awry; this temper which seized Europe for two hundred years, which began in high ideals and ended in the lowest barbarism – is now dead. The spirit which gave it life – the spirit that indulged in the worship of man – strangled it. Of course, we know the year it perished: 1968. For it was on the barricades of Paris, to the exultant animalistic wailing of the soixante-huitards, that Monarchism arose from its age-old slumber to claim its place as the most natural form of government. The 68’ers had no cause but disorder, no aim beyond rebellion. They did not reject a system, they rejected all systems; all attempts to define, explain or categorise reality within a meaningful (and thus usable) framework. By implication, however, they rejected their own system of rejection. They rebelled against all the old institutions and yet sowed the seeds for a revival – one might even say a resurrection – of the most primal institution known to man. This post-modern pessimistic antagonism, based on a profoundly atheistic and adolescent rejection of order in every sphere, actually created the narrative space for a return to Tradition. We see this across the world in the rejection of Enlightenment thinking and its destructive children: Marxism, Fascism and Liberalism. It is obvious that the great mass of the people, despite the vain urging of their respective elites, desire a return to the certainty and continuity that was the birthright of their forebears. It is demonstrably true that modern solutions to collective problems fail to satisfy the nature of man; they starve when they ought to feed, they feast when they ought to fast. Slowly, a significant minority of citizens in countries which were once monarchical are realising, perhaps reluctantly, that a system once dismissed as outdated may in fact hold the key to true civic order. There are even a number of countries in which the clamour for a return to a monarchical system is growing louder: in Brazil, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, and Romania. When polled, two-thirds of Brazilians would like to see an end to the current presidential system and a return to the monarchy of the past. Or let us put it another way: some of the most successful nations in the world (especially when this success is measured in terms of social solidarity) are monarchies. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Liechtenstien, Luxembourg and of course the United Kingdom.

From Europe to South America, the clamour for the return of the king rings out, echoing loudly among the hollow platitudes of our post-Enlightenment age. This revival could not come at a more important or interesting time. For, one by one, the old ideologies and the structures built on them are crumbling and the question every thinking man ought to ask is ‘what shall replace them?’ This is the great debate of our times; for it is certain that we stand at a crossroads, with a stark and uncomfortable choice before us. We might return to the ideological warfare of the Twentieth Century – at the time of writing this is not so far-fetched since on campuses across the West a new authoritarianism grows like a cancer, as ‘tyrannical mothers’ (in the guise of lecturers and other so-called public servants) hell-bent on enforcing a labyrinthine code of ‘niceness’. These priests and priestesses of the New Religion increasingly serve only a narrow ideology which by its very nature seeks the destruction of western culture and learning. These same heavy-handed ‘intellectuals’ seek to destroy the freedom of speech that should be their watch word and impose a new censorship based on a morality devoid of any metaphysical underpinning. In Britain and America this has even spread beyond the campuses and into the mainstream of politics. Simultaneously, the ageing liberal democracies, like so many tired old women, fall to the populist-nationalist tide and ape the demagoguery of the third-world countries they once so loudly condemned. A people tired of politics, and politicking in general, increasingly turns to men and women with easy answers, easy smiles and easy morals. So, we might on the one hand turn to an authoritarianism of the left – of censorship and the Mother-state – or we might turn to the populist nationalism of (predominantly) the right. The sort of nationalism that can envision only difference and conflict and has no appeal to universality; a secular nationalism devoid of spiritual nourishment – a sort of golden calf demanding the sacrifice of whole nations as burnt offerings. Given the results of such a poor choice in the previous century, results which were counted in hundreds of millions of corpses, this choice is not an attractive one.

Yet happily, another way is open to us, a way of stability, of natural hierarchies that retain flexibility yet do not bend with the whims of the age, the choice of an order which engages the affections and emotions of the people without whipping them into a frenzy of nationalist hysteria. This is the way of the constitutional monarchies. It’s important to note that I’m not arguing here for a fruitless return to the absolute monarchies of the past, nor for some blasphemous notion of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’; I am arguing for limited constitutional monarchy, for a monarch unconstrained by politics yet restrained by law. The constitutional monarch transcends power through authority. HM Queen Elizabeth II has plenty of authority, but very little real power. Thus, no matter the scandals that engulf her governments, no matter the cynicism towards politicians which is typical of the average subject in her kingdom, her authority remains unsullied. The modern monarch survives by powerlessness, in the case of the British system a powerlessness more or less cultivated by succeeding generations of royals since the time of the Glorious Revolution.

 

Nationalism and Monarchy

The monarch moderates and limits nationalism, purifying it of its Enlightenment poison. By occupying the chief position of the state, by romanticising a hierarchical structure fundamentally at odds with any notion of ‘equality’, the monarch generally offers a defence against rampant nationalism. You might say that a single king prevents a thousand tyrants. Indeed, so long as the parliament restrains the monarch and the monarch restrains the parliament, their can be no descent into the terror of authoritarianism of previous centuries. So, it is that an institution, the institution of the constitutional monarch, which came about by pure accident, constitutes the main hope of happiness and stability in the civil order. As the nation is an ‘imagined community’ so the monarch is the representative embodiment of this emotional and intellectual invention. At his best the monarch personifies not the will of the people, as does the State, but rather he represents the twin hopes of civil order and civil authority, the former deriving from the latter. National assemblies and all the various organs of the modern democratic state embody the ‘will’ of the people (or, more accurately, some of the people, some of the time) but nothing therefore remains superior to this will, no institution exists to temper and restrain it. The State unleashes the fervent passions of the people but does not contain within its own assumed metaphysical reality the means to control it. This stately embodiment of the collective will quickly and repeatedly magnifies into the most outrageous violence, as any person with even a passing acquaintance with modern history should know.

Similarly, a democratically elected head of state must be one of two things: partisan or impartial. If partisan, then the head of state has politicised what ought to be a source of unity, they have made a focus of communal strength a wellspring of division. For if the head of state – the highest representative of the nation and its values – stands firmly in one political square, then all those in the country who do not share their political persuasion are made traitors in spirit. If, on the other hand, the head of state is an elected politician who is nevertheless bound to be impartial, then they are denied their motive power, for a politician is person who thrives on controversy. A monarch suffers no such loss of vitality, since they are not in the first instance motivated or fed by politics and personal ambition. Whereas a politician, once elevated or elected to the position of head of state would be effectively castrated by their impartiality, a monarch is empowered by it. From impartiality the monarch gains the virtue of public dignity, a dignity which ennobles the sphere of politics and has a tendency to limit the bounds of political discourse, so that non-political institutions remain relatively free of political wrangling.

 

Monarchy and the Family

A monarch does not stand alone. No, a monarch always has a family of one size or another and this is yet another great advantage accorded to the monarchies. Since the sovereign’s position is hereditary, the increase of life is absolutely ingrained in the institution itself. A monarch has always relied on his or her ability to produce an heir to guarantee their succession, the stability of their kingdom and even, to a certain extent, their own legitimacy while they are still living. In certain ages this has been a weakness, yet now, amidst catastrophic population collapse across Europe, this may provide a model for wider society. Amidst a growing ‘carpe diem’ culture that worships death, this sign of contradiction provided in the most personal and emotive way possible – a family whose privacy is public, whose every birth and death is a subject of national affection and comment, shows clearly the importance of family as a public good. For even as a family makes possible the only real liberty possible in our hyper-organised societies, so it is right that all these little republics should be headed and represented by a chief family that enshrines the foundational principle of existence – namely, the protection and increase of life.

The monarchy is an old institution. There is no escaping that obvious fact, especially in a society that regards anything that preceded the 1960’s with, at best. a sense of ambivalence and at worst, outright hostility bordering on pathological hatred. Yet old though it may be, tradition is the repository of collective wisdom and though it requires constant pruning lest it become a tyrannical master rather than a helpful guide, it still offers the best defence against mere forgetfulness and anarchy. A society without tradition is the same as a man without memories; a child easily misled into any new foolishness. Certain practices and institutions may indeed merit total abandonment, but monarchy is no such institution. Monarchy may offer us a viable solution to our modern malaise, to this quagmire of hopelessness that has one by one swallowed all the institutions that the Enlightenment created. We may go backward and we may find it surprisingly amenable, for we may find that by going backward we were really going forward.Facebooktwitter



'In Defence of Monarchy' have 2 comments

  1. 03/05/2018 @ 9:18 pm sevensec

    I agree generally with your points, except for the insistence that a monarch need not have actual power, only “authority”. In the existing constitutional monarchies, most saliently the UK, we see how a monarchy without power essentially has no effect on the corrosion of cultural foundations by nihilistic market and pseudo-Enlightenment forces–instead such a monarchy merely tends to become an aliment or accelerant for the ersatz celebrity culture. No, a figurehead will not do the trick–as the word suggests, it is a head without any body, which is something more like to inspire amusement than memory or solemnity or unity.

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  2. 11/05/2018 @ 9:28 pm Chris

    ‘By looking backward, we may find a path forward.’ – you condemn progress, but still use its language.

    ‘Enlightenment was nothing if not…a rejection of all former modes of ‘being’’ – it wasn’t a rejection of ‘all’ former modes of being. For example, it drew heavily and deliberately from the rationalism of the Greeks

    ‘Every nation which has rejected its monarch has gnawed itself half to death in civil war and mass purges’ – even if this is true, which it isn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rejection of monarchy caused this violence, nor that it therefore wasn’t worth it. One could easily offer counter-examples of monarchies which ‘gnawed themselves half to death’ during dynastic successional disputes.

    ‘The very movement which promised absolute freedom, the movement which promised to make every peasant a king, instead made him a slave’ – more of a slave than the literal feudalism which monarchy rested upon? One doesn’t have to be an unapologetic adherent of the Enlightenment to recognise the enormous benefits that the championing of science has given ordinary people. In 1840, the average global life expectancy was 25 years. It’s now over 60 years. This has been during the ‘rule’ of the Enlightenment.

    ‘It is obvious that the great mass of the people, despite the vain urging of their respective elites, desire a return to the certainty and continuity that was the birthright of their forebears’ – it’s not obvious to me at all that people are clamorous for a return to monarchism.

    ‘When polled, two-thirds of Brazilians would like to see an end to the current presidential system and a return to the monarchy of the past’ – in and of itself, this doesn’t mean very much. That modern Brazilian politics is corrupt is certain; that people also romanticise the past is also certain. What’s uncertain is how monarchism would solve any of the complex social problems with which Brazil is encumbered. Just because a ‘significant minority’ clamour for something, doesn’t mean it’s the correct solution. If you polled the public on May ‘68, a majority would have demanded a revolutionary government, which would have horrified you; so if these revolutionaries in ‘68 could be wrong, why can’t the ‘significant minority’ of Brazilian monarchists?

    ‘Some of the most successful nations in the world….are monarchies.’ – yes, but that doesn’t mean that their success necessarily derives from monarchism. The fact that they are still monarchies is down to their economic success; had they had more tumult, the monarchies probably wouldn’t have lasted. Many other stable, rich countries lack monarchies, yet this shouldn’t be enough to dismiss monarchism. By the same token, the fact that a handful of rich and stable countries are monarchies isn’t enough to prove that it is the best system.

    ‘the clamour for the return of the king rings out, echoing loudly among the hollow platitudes of our post-Enlightenment age’ – nice poetry but surely an exaggeration. The largest demonstrations are not for the return of kings but for healthcare, the right to abortion, and well-paying jobs.

    ‘serve only a narrow ideology which by its very nature seeks the destruction of western culture and learning.’ – possibly, but the church and monarchy are two other institutions which sought the destruction of learning when it did not suit them: the church when science threatened its simplistic dogmas and superstitions, and the monarchy when men of letters used their powers of reason to speculate that perhaps better ways of choosing a ruler existed that the lottery of birth.

    ‘a way of stability, of natural hierarchies’ – out of interest, have you studied the psychology of hierarchy? There are two kinds of natural hierarchy; one based on strength, the other on prestige. The strength paradigm favours whoever has the might to rule, regardless of their fitness to rule (attributes such as intelligence, wisdom, empathy). This paradigm is active in the older, reptilian parts of the human brain. The prestige paradigm favours those who have earned the right to rule, by showing aptitude for leadership. This could be via intelligent decision making, reasoning or some other ability. This type of leadership stimulates, and appeals to, the neocortex, the newest part of the human brain and the part associated with morality. So when you speak of a ‘natural hierarchy’, I’m entirely unsure of what you mean, because monarchies clearly fall in the ‘strength’ paradigm, as monarchs are chosen not for their aptitude for leadership but because they happen to be born into a strong and powerful family.

    ‘The monarch moderates and limits nationalism’ – history shows us that this is by no means always the case; I could provide you with many examples which show that the opposite is often true.

    ‘the monarch generally offers a defence against rampant nationalism’ – highly spurious argument. Many monarchs attempted to make themselves entirely synonymous with their country, usurping the fervour of nationalism for themselves. Far from defending against nationalism, monarchs attempted to wield it for their own ends. Not by accident did the popular secular catechism ‘For king and country’ blend monarchy and nationalism.

    ‘You might say that a single king prevents a thousand tyrants’ – you might, were you inclined to ignore the many kings who were themselves tyrants.

    ‘The State unleashes the fervent passions of the people but does not contain within its own assumed metaphysical reality the means to control it’ – interesting point. However, I think the answer may lie in democracy itself. In a republic, the will of the people is ‘controlled’ by the separation of powers; democratic will is kept in check by liberalism, which enshrines individual (and sometimes communal) rights against the unrestrained ‘will of the people’. Democracy doesn’t lack what you claim it lacks.

    ‘all those in the country who do not share their political persuasion are made traitors in spirit’ – no they’re not; that’s the beauty of a democracy. You can disagree without being a traitor. The whole point of representative liberal democracy is to find a method of allowing differences to coexist; that’s one of the reasons why they’re so highly regarded. Liberalism allows people with different and competing visions of the good life to work together, on the common basis that liberalism protects them all. For a liberal democracy to function successfully, individuals must put their faith in democracy above their personal convictions; that way, if their ‘side’ loses in the election, they still abide by the decision because they believe in the justice of the democratic system. In return, liberalism promises that the democratic will won’t destroy them, because their fundamental rights are enshrined in law. It doesn’t always work, but as The Economist says, liberalism is the best idea of the last four hundred years.

    ‘for a politician is person who thrives on controversy’ – a partial and normative claim. I can think of dozens of important politicians who laboured to build consensus and unity, rather than exploiting divisions through controversy.

    ‘A monarch suffers no such loss of vitality, since they are not in the first instance motivated or fed by politics and personal ambition’ – so Henry VIII wasn’t motivated by politics or personal ambition? You’re comparing a corrupted vision of democracy with a saintly conception of monarchy as if it’s a fair comparison. If you want to present an idealised monarchical utopia, make it a fair race and compare it to an idealised liberal democracy.

    ‘amidst catastrophic population collapse across Europe’ – one of the reasons the monarchies you lauded earlier for being stable are so successful is because of their low birth rates, which you suddenly label a ‘catastrophe’.

    ‘Amidst a growing ‘carpe diem’ culture that worships death’ – I think I know what you mean, but in many ways contemporary Western culture has never been so silent about death. In the past, death was something which was spoken about, eulogised, philosophised, characterised in art and literature and music. Nowadays it is a taboo, partially because Western medicine – powered by science – has been so successful that death wrongly seems like an aberration rather than an inevitability.

    ‘For even as a family makes possible the only real liberty possible in our hyper-organised societies, so it is right that all these little republics should be headed and represented by a chief family that enshrines the foundational principle of existence – the protection and increase of life’ – it simply isn’t self-evident that the foundational principle of existence is the ‘increase of life’, Secondly, just because we value families doesn’t mean the head of state must be a family. I could replace the word ‘family’ with ‘scientist’ in that statement and arrive at the conclusion that the head of state should be a scientist, because ‘it makes possible the only real liberty in our hyper-organised society’. But that would be a fallacy. The criteria for choosing a system of rule is not simply a process of pedestalizing what we value.

    ‘a society that regards anything that preceded the 1960’s with, at best. a sense of ambivalence and at worst, outright hostility bordering on pathological hatred’ – if you look beneath the surface, our society shows a great deal of reverence for the past. The National Trust, whose stated mission is to protect our heritage, has over 4 million members, more than all the major political parties combined. They recruit more volunteers than any organisation in Europe. No organisation like that existed in the distant past. We are able to be better custodians of history because we’re wealthier and better educated – two improvements we owe at least in part to the Enlightenment.

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