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.